After the first week in August, in which our nation experienced three mass shootings, I realized something. That since the moment I began coming of age – let’s call it age 13 – I have been watching our nation die. Not the nation itself, as a governmental institution. But our nation of Americans – the lives that make up our country.
I saw a tweet last week by a contributor to The Onion, Dan Sheehan, that said: “Why do millennials complain all the time? idk man, we watched 2,000 people die on live tv when we were ten and then literally nothing ever got better.” And I don’t think I’ve ever read such an eloquently succinct summation of what I had been feeling for years.
Columbine is often regarded as the first mass school shooting, but it wasn’t. There were quite a few that preceded it in the ’90s – not that I knew that at the time. I was too little to watch news coverage like that. But I was apparently not too little for lockdown drills: breathless exercises in which my class of fellow eight-year-olds was told to stay impossibly quiet as our teacher turned off the lights, closed the blinds, and locked the doors. I would try to turn my head to the side – we had to keep them flat on our desks so our silhouettes would not be seen – to peer at the incoming rays of sunlight, imagining dark figures passing by, wondering why we needed to hide from them, and who would ever want to hurt us.
In middle school, a year after Columbine, the class clown in my Algebra class drew a picture of himself shooting up the school and passed it around the room. Our teacher marched him out with the authority of a drill sergeant. I never saw him again, until one day, years later, he delivered pizza to my house.
A year later, I was kept home from school, where I sat on the carpet in my bedroom, watching the Pentagon and Twin Towers burn, and thousands of people running, falling, and engulfed in the ashes of their neighbors.
It seemed to accelerate after that, didn’t it? The terrorist attacks, the school shootings, the hate crimes. The domestic terror that has been ongoing for the entirety of my generation’s lives seems to be escalating. There have been more mass shootings so far in 2019 than there have been days of the year.
According to data compiled by the website Statista, 64 out of 114 mass shootings since 1982 have been committed by white individuals – most of them men. To illustrate why that is significant, as a basis of comparison, the next largest group of perpetrators are black individuals, who committed 19 out of those 114 attacks.
If you’re ready to blame the religion of Islam every time a Muslim commits a terrorist act, what are you going to start blaming every time another white male commits one?
Is there one answer? I doubt it, but there are many common factors that appear in these cases over and over again: toxic masculinity, white supremacy, isolation. An immersion in online forums espousing hate speech and/or violence. In some instances, mental health issues – although not as often as some politicians would have you believe. And, of course, access to guns – in particular, to assault weapons.
I once shot an assault rifle. In my early twenties I briefly dated a cop. On our fourth date he took me to a firing range, because on our third I’d told him I’d never shot a weapon.
To my surprise, in the duffel bag he brought along was not one, but four guns. He taught me how to use a small pistol and a revolver. They were loud. My aim wasn’t terrible. All in all, it was an OK experience. The only thing that bothered me was being confined in a room with several other people firing weapons that could kill me.
But then he pulled out an assault rifle. It was easily the length of my torso. He asked if I would shoot it, and I said no. No one needs to shoot that, I said. An overeager attendant (apparently firing range folks are big fans of cops, or at least so said my date) came up and said, “Excuse me miss, you will shoot that weapon.” They exchanged a look that was the equivalent of a high-five. In a room surrounded by men with weapons, and already uncomfortable, I decided, as I have often done as a woman, not to “make a scene” at the sacrifice of my own comfort, a decision borne mostly out a desire to get it over with so I could leave.
When I pulled the trigger, shock waves rippled across my vision, surprising me almost as much as when the weapon kicked back, punching my collar bone.
In the car on the way home, I told my date that that weapon only had one purpose, and that was to tear a person in half. He nodded, appropriately grim. Maybe not in half, he said, but it wasn’t made for people to survive.
You would think the Millennial generation, one that has grown up in an era where mass shootings are so frequent that they now outnumber the days in the year, would favor some kind of action to deter gun violence. But try researching the issue, and opposing data sets come up – some say we support gun control. Others say we don’t. I can only hope that, as we age and more of us are in positions to do something about it, that we will be wise enough to understand the difference between what is reasonable and unreasonable. It is unreasonable to fear going to a public place for worry of death by mass shooter. But here we are.
You know what they say: the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Even my cat knows this. After I adopted her, she systematically knocked over every item on my dresser each morning in a bid to get me out of bed to feed her. When I realized that complying was positive reinforcement, I gritted my teeth and bared disrupted sleep for a couple weeks until she got the hint. You know how she wakes me up now? Polite meows and licks on my nose. She knows intimidation will not get her anywhere, other than locked out of my room.
What my cat understands, Congress cannot seem to grasp. Maybe we should lock them out of the room, too.