After Parkland, I told my oldest son I thought something different was in the air. The Parkland students were demanding change. The idea was thrilling. Somehow out of their passion in the truest sense of the word, we might realize progress on gun violence and school shootings. The arc of history was bending.
Yet, here we are again and I am pondering what encouragement to offer my 17-year-old. How must it feel to be a teenager right now? Take your AP exams. Write the college essay. Wonder if your school is going to be safe tomorrow? They must believe they are on their own when adults do nothing to keep them safe. When I was growing up, we routinely had bomb scares at my school. The assumption was that someone wanted to get out of an English test. We’d be relocated to a lower part of the school campus; someone would turn on a car radio, and we’d dance in the parking lot or eat donuts until we got the all clear. No one ever thought there might really be a bomb or a shooter… even in south Texas where gun culture is strong, true violence at school never entered our minds.
For my kids and yours, times are different. They have active shooter drills that are so realistic, at first I worried that the drills would be as traumatizing as an actual event. But what’s the alternative? Being prepared saved lives in Parkland and perhaps in Santa Fe too. Schools drill for all sorts of situations, yes? Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, acts of God, unusual events over which we have no control. Drills for active shooters are drills for acts of men, acts we might prevent, if we so chose.
After the last shooting, I asked my son to tell me about the conversations were like in school. He told me something like, “Not much. What is there to say? These shootings just happen over and over, like lynchings at the beginning of the 20thcentury. Just random. Everyone knew about it. Everyone knew it was wrong. But no one would do anything about it. So people had to live walking around knowing this could happen to them. It’s the same.” I was stunned as much by the parallel as his matter-of-fact tone. But I knew his stance was a mask. His statements weren’t practicality, nonchalance, or realism. They were the voice of trauma: the collective numbing, powerlessness, hopelessness that we are inflicting on our young people because we will not demand that our representatives act. Soon he and others his age will be able to use their franchise to make change but it almost certainly will not be soon enough to avoid the next shooting or the one after that.
As a culture we will wade through the grueling, yet predictable days ahead. We will learn the names of the treasured young people shot in their art class. We will learn about a shooter, a troubled young man, like troubled young men the world over, except that he had access to weapons. We will learn about a town that never believed it could happen there. We will try to believe that it will never happen to us. Like me, you may trick yourself by thinking things like, “He just has one more year. Then, he’ll be safe,” as I try to forget Orlando or Las Vegas or Virginia Tech…the list goes on.
So here is what I can offer my son and others of his generation. We can never be safe from everything. But we are now safe from Polio because we used our knowledge to find a vaccine and created laws to require that most people get it. Many fewer people die from drunk driving because Mothers Against Drunk Driving stood up for tougher laws in the 1980’s. Traffic fatalities are down because we have laws requiring people to wear seat belts. Indeed, most safety measures that we now take for granted were initially described as “impossible, impractical, meaningless, too intrusive, unconstitutional, or unenforceable.” Research, advocacy, loud voices, and some compromise brought us laws that make our society safer. Not always quickly, not easily, and not soon enough for many. Still those arcs of history bent because people bent them. Think of how many problems we have solved when we collectively put our minds and hearts in it. Stand up. Vote for people who are not hamstrung by the NRA or any other organization. Your representatives should work for you and not anyone else. They should be willing to compromise with others to get things done. When you find those candidates, work for their campaigns. Talk with neighbors who worry about limiting gun restrictions. Find common ground, points of agreement that allow for progress and compromise. Advocate to fund research on gun violence so that we have strong science to help us know what works and what doesn’t. But in dark hours let leaders of another era echo in your mind. Don’t give up. Never, never, never give up.