Elementary school children are not supposed to die in school.
What happened in Newtown, Conn., should not happen anywhere. Yet in America, it keeps happening. Only the wound of Newtown is worse, because the victims – shot one by one, multiple times, at close range – were mainly children, aged 6 and 7. They are children who will never have another birthday cupcake, play T-ball, learn to ride a bicycle, or grow up.
They must have been so scared. We can only imagine what they experienced and, even then, we would fall far short of really understanding their final moments.
Death is not pleasant; a sudden death even less so. A rampage killing that targets elementary school students is so heinous, however, that we are all left grasping for explanations that will never be satisfying, reaching for reasons that simply are not there.
As we learned in real time, as the tragedy unfolded on our never-ending stream of constantly updating media, Adam Lanza, only 20 himself, killed 26 people, including 20 children before turning his weapon on himself. He was armed with Sig Sauer and Glock handguns, both small and concealable, and able to shoot five bullets per second, and a .223 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle modified from military use and law enforcement, but still able to hold a 30-round magazine and to fire its payload with great rapidity.
The weapons were all registered in his mother’s name. She is reported to have had a cache of weapons in her home.
They were all legal, because there is so little regulation. And while gun control laws may not have prevented Lanza from storming the peaceful 600-student New England schoolhouse, they could have prevented the scope of the carnage. The most callous reactions to this crime have insisted that we would be better off arming our schoolteachers and officials, an action akin to pouring kerosene on a fire.
This is the second-worst school shooting in U.S. history, after Virginia Tech, in 2007, where 32 people died. The Columbine High School shooting, in which two students planned a rampage through their Littleton, Colo. school, left 13 dead. There have been others, however: There was the school prayer group in Kentucky, an Amish school in Pennsylvania, a sniper at the University of Texas in the 1960s, all frightening because they turn ordinary places that we expect to be safe and welcoming into turfs of random horror.
And those are just the school-related shootings. Only three days before Newtown, a man opened fire in a busy mall in Portland, Ore.
We are a gun-loving people. I come from Texas, a state that worships firearms. I learned to shoot a rifle in overnight camp and I was once able to riddle a bull’s eye with a .44 magnum – Dirty Harry’s weapon of choice – in target practice with friends. The United States has more guns per capita than any other country, with 45 percent of American households reporting they own a gun, according to an October 2011 Gallup survey.
We do not have to make it so easy for madmen – and they are mostly men –
. to take action. Why does protecting the Second Amendment trump the rights of all citizens to live safely? Do we honestly believe that the founding fathers envisioned rapid-fire assault rifles and handguns when they wrote about a “well-regulated militia.” Note that the word “regulated” sits prominently in that sentence, before the words about the “right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
The words “unfettered access” do not appear anywhere in our Constitution.
These shootings do not, on the whole, happen elsewhere. The reason I can name Dunblane, Scotland, where a lone shooter killed 16 five- and six-year-olds along with one teacher, is because it is a singular, standout event in Great Britain. The shooting in .March, at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, had political undertones, as the shooter had ties to Al Qaeda.
Evil lurks in many hearts. Timothy McVeigh, arguably our most notorious homegrown terrorist, killed 19 children under the age of six with a car bomb. They were collateral damage in a vendetta against the U.S. government, when he blew up the Alfred R. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
We can focus on better security. Do our institutions need video camera monitors, swipe cards and turnstile entrances? Lanza stormed the entrance of Sandy Hook Elementary School before embarking his killing spree.
All the turnstiles in the world will not prevent someone hell bent on harm, however. In the 2006 fatal shooting at the Jewish Federation in Seattle, the assailant held a gun to the back of an employee’s 14-year-old niece and was buzzed into the building when she was recognized on the intercom.
Right now, we are hearing cries that it is not the guns, but failed mental health care that allows disturbed men like Lanza to go untreated and unchecked that caused this. Without getting into the healthcare debate, let’s just say that our mental health care choices are probably as limited these days as our access to weaponry is abundant. And I am willing to bet that there’s quite an overlap between those in Congress who support the National Rifle Association’s position and those who are opposed to universal healthcare.
That access to weaponry, though, is what makes all the difference. The assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Of the 11 mass shootings with the highest death tolls in this country, five took place since then. Many of these weapons were purchased legally. What we lack is an ability to control the types of guns available, and more importantly, who can purchase them. No one should be able to walk into a gun show and walk out with an assault weapon, background unchecked.
When I think about the Newtown kindergarteners and the brave teachers who died trying to save them, I picture my teenage children when they were that little, running to the school bus each morning. Then I imagine that I would never see them again.
Keep that thought in your mind the next time someone says, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” And then think about what you would say to those parents in Newtown who will never hold their children again.