by Joshua Espitia
I’m tired. Jaded, really. On Valentine’s Day, I sat in my classroom – I teach high school English – and watched live with my students as another shooter rampaged through an American school. This time it was in Florida. That was the third major mass shooting I’ve ended up discussing with them since the school year began (The church just outside San Antonio and the Las Vegas concert are the other two – 103 people died between the three incidents. Among the dead were multiple children. Let that sink in.) and the 107th mass shooting of any kind since the school year began[footnote]Feel free to check my numbers at gunviolence.org.[/footnote].
Enough is enough.
I shouldn’t need to have these discussions with my students. Or my own children. No parent or teacher should. And yet as long as we live in a culture that values the right to kill over the right to life I will continue to have to have them. And so will you. And your children will talk about it among themselves, too. I know. I’ve watched it happen in my classroom.
Two days removed from the Florida shooting I did my best to moderate a heated debate between several of my students. It was impassioned on both sides, full of the hard and fast opinions of youth, not tempered by experience. Or so I first thought. But as I listened, I heard some clarity. They had witnessed all the tragic events unfold thanks to the instant information of the modern news cycle and social media, and they had heard and processed, for better or worse, the opinions of their parents and relatives. Yes, there was the cloud of a lack of research (which affects many adults reading this), but they all made sound arguments with what they knew – which was far more than any kid should have to know.
When kids – teenagers and even younger – need to spend time discussing what they would need to do in a school shooting situation, what the firearm policy for the country should be, or if the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, we have failed as leaders. When a lockdown drill is as common as a fire drill, we screwed up. We can point at no one but ourselves when our future must dedicate their time to the realities of how to survive getting gunned down before many of them have even been kissed. How, then, do we take charge and change this reality? That path starts with understanding recent history.
Over the past few weeks I’ve listened to politicians make promises – you know what? Scratch that. I’ve listened to politicians make promises about this since Columbine. But the promises they’ve made have been promises to talk about gun violence. To discuss what we can do. That’s it. And what have we (yes, we – this is not just on them) done? Talked. And then forgotten that we were having a discussion until the next time a group of people was gunned down so long as those people were in a group at a school. Or an office building. Or a church. Or a nightclub in Orlando. Or another school[footnote] We don’t talk if it was a group of young black men in Chicago; or four people on a corner in Atlanta; or two bystanders hit by stray rounds in Houston. Those people had it coming, I suppose. That I am just now writing this piece means I too have been both complacent toward and complicit in the culture of gun violence. I’m trying to come to terms with that.[/footnote]. The cycle never seems to end. With Vegas, I thought we were about to see change. Bump stocks – never mentioned as a problem before a madman[footnote]This is not intended to be a slight against those with mental health issues; I have several. I’ll delve into how mental health plays into the gun debate in this article. I think, though, this man was of the ilk mad describes without any uncertainty.[/footnote] gunned down a crowd at a concert – became the first promise of any real movement on the issue of gun violence. And then, after a few articles in the always-hungry-for-something-new 24-hour news outlets, silence.
A month later, another madman[footnote]See above caveat.[/footnote] broke into the news cycle when he murdered 26 people, including a toddler and an 8-months-pregnant mother of three, at a church in Texas[footnote] This case is unique, too, in that it happened in Texas – a place where people often joke that such a thing couldn’t happen because everybody has a gun. And a good guy with a gun did show up. A former NRA firearms instructor, in fact. He used his own AR-15 to put two rounds into the shooter – as he was leaving the church. The good guy stopped nothing but a clean getaway. Here’s the rub, though. He did the right thing. Had he arrived any sooner or decided to go in guns blazing (I don’t know if he was there during the active shooting), he might’ve made the situation worse.
Firing into a crowd of people is risky. One, you have no idea what a mass of people is going to do. Two, while it may seem easy to identify the shooter, adrenaline does funny things to capability. Soldiers sometimes shoot wild and sometimes freeze on the firing line, and they’re trained for the task. Three, any person in that room now becomes a human shield if the shooter wills it. Four, the typical “good guy with a gun” isn’t an NRA firearms instructor with a precision rifle; he’s a guy that has an 8 hour CHL and a Glock 19 that’s accurate up to about 25 yards on a good day at a shooting range. The potential for carnage amplifies when another gun is introduced. I bring this up because I hear a lot of people discuss what they’d do as if real life was a session of Call of Duty multiplayer. What I find interesting is that people who play Call of Duty should know better than anyone that people have no clue how to coordinate their actions when firearms are involved.[/footnote]. Except even his actions couldn’t get the issue of gun control back on the table. The news covered the story but the politicians didn’t bring up the issue of bump stocks again. In fact, they didn’t bring up gun control at all outside of the standard lip service. See, that shooter[footnote]If you want these people’s names, look them up. I’m not giving them any notoriety.[/footnote]didn’t use a bump stock. He just used a good, old-fashioned AR-15[footnote]Technically a Ruger AR-556, which is an AR-15 built by Ruger and chambered in .556.[/footnote]. No modifications or sexy accessories. Just a gun that an estimated 8 million Americans have right now. A gun a high school senior could walk into Academy and buy off the shelf. No, no gun control. But something else entered the discussion.
What did get mentioned was the issue of mental health – people control. While mental health had been part of the conversation informally since Columbine, it was addressed after Sandy Hook and came back into the public eye after a kid killed nine people at a church in Charleston. The Las Vegas and Texas church shootings put the issue in the spotlight. President Trump made comments at a press conference in Tokyo concerning the need to look at mental issues and guns – which we’ll touch on later. And it was a justifiable reaction. The Texas church shooter had a well-documented history of mental health-related offenses, including waterboarding his wife and beating his infant stepson until he fractured the child’s skull. The problem, though, is that the means already existed to stop this gunman from legally buying guns, and they didn’t. Those in charge of policing the system didn’t input the information they should have which included the aforementioned family violence as well as multiple behavioral incarcerations. This man slipped through all the protections in place through the pure ineptitude of those tasked with keeping us safe[footnote] Quite literally. The shooter was former Air Force and committed his illegal acts while in the service. The Army and Air Force both bear responsibility for failing to update the proper databases.[/footnote]. Still, the call went out to stiffen rules for those with mental health issues. And on the surface, that seems fine. Dig a little deeper, though, and you start to find problems.
There is a tendency to demonize mental illness. Look at what I’ve done in this article by using the term mad man. No matter what my intent was or how I explain it away, people equate mad man with mental illness. The same goes for crazy, nuts, insane, psycho, and any number of terms we’ve decided are what mental illness is. And all of those terms are associated with an element of danger. To be sure, some people with mental illness are dangerous and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a firearm. Also protections were put in place after the Sandy Hook shooting because that shooter had multiple issues with mental illnesses – protections Donald Trump rolled back. Whether or not they would’ve prevented the church or Florida shooting is debatable, but they were there. The whether or not qualifier in that previous sentence is important because we don’t know if the dangerous part of the illnesses would’ve been caught or what even constitutes the predetermination of danger. The law that was repealed allowed for one agency to transfer data to another about mental health (and other) disqualifiers for purchasing a gun, which would’ve allowed for information about approximately 75,000 individuals to go from one agency to another unfettered, but did nothing to define what mental illness issues would disqualify a potential gun buyer. Does someone with a diagnosis of autism get to buy a gun? Depression? PTSD? How about anxiety or ADHD? The spectrum of mental illness is wide and the ultimate consequences are impossible to see. And that brings us back to Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day.
The young man that shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida legally purchased the AR-15 he used to do it although his history of mental illness and violent outbursts was well-documented. People had complained about him to the FBI; they did not investigate. The local sheriff’s department logged 46 calls involving him. The shooter himself called for emotional support in a time of crisis. Every red flag that could be raised was. And still, he was able to buy a gun legally, walk into a school, and gun down 17 people. He did not use a bump stock. That’s important.
After the shooting, politicians were quick to speak out. Maybe it is because the nation watched the event live on television. Maybe it’s because the students who survived spoke out quickly and demanded change. But their demands were met with refusals and red herrings. Marco Rubio, who for his part did show up at a town hall and engage questions and concerns from victims, their families, and community members, said gun control wouldn’t have stopped the shooting. The call to ban bump stocks came again – remember, the shooter didn’t use one – and as of this writing is maintaining a presence in the media. If that proposed ban goes through remains to be seen, but what does it change? Of the shootings I’ve discussed, only the shooter in Las Vegas used one. Banning bump stocks is a feel-good move, a red herring of appeasement.
I would say at least it’s something, but that would put me firmly in the camp that is fooled by ploys like this. And make no mistake, the bump stock ban is a ploy. I’m tired of inaction but I am angered by games. So are the hundreds of thousands of students that face the possibility of a shooting in their school every day. They deserve better. The countless men, women, boys, and girls that live with the reality of daily gun violence in their communities that doesn’t make national news deserve better, too. And I have seen some promise in places I wouldn’t have expected. President Trump called out Republican senators, chiding them for being “afraid of the NRA”. This was in response to resistance to a proposal to raise the age limit to buy a rifle from 18 to 21. If that passes, it’s a bit of positive headway. Any positive is good, but it’s only a start.
I mentioned the roughly 8 million AR-15s Americans owned. The vast majority of those will never be used in a shooting. I understand that. I understand that responsible gun ownership is the norm. I was a responsible gun owner for years. But you know what? I sold my guns when my kids were born. They were my priority, and as a responsible gun owner, I knew that my guns – my hobby – posed a risk to my children. I made a conscious decision to get rid of them. And I don’t miss them. At all. I took personal responsibility, which so many gun owners are big on touting, and changed my personal gun culture in favor of my children. Other gun owners need to do the same. Stop buying into the culture. Make the decision to stop purchasing and accessorizing toys like you’re in a G.I. Joe cartoon. End the demand for a battlefield weapon; you don’t need one. We can wait on the government for years to change laws to protect us, but at the end of the day it’s on us. This epidemic of violence is our fault. It is up to us to end it so no one else has to talk to a classroom full of students about what to do is a shooting situation occurs. Or worse, a school full of students after 17 of their friends and teachers are dead.