I’ve never been scared of cemeteries. I could, if so inclined, stroll through the largest or the smallest, the most metropolitan or far flung, in the dead of night without greater concern than where to put my feet in the dark. To be sure, I find sadness in these places – the history of harsh times and the frailty of our lives carved in granite and marble – but I don’t fear them.
As a boy on long trips with my parents, after the alphabet game had worn thin, past the time when counting and cataloguing the different birds I saw entertained me, we would sometimes stop near a cemetery for me to indulge in much-needed exercise. I could run full-tilt, leaping the small stones, scurrying around the larger monuments, sprinting down the cracked-tar paths between memorials, and my parents knew that my world therein was bounded by a wrought iron fence. For a few minutes, they weren’t worried about me darting into traffic or deciding to hurl myself into some body of water.
I don’t behave the same way in cemeteries today. I have no illusion that the dead buried there much care if someone hurtles their headstones, and I suppose I’m not too old to vault at least the smaller ones, but I’m more respectful. More aware that the stones represent entire lives of people who once walked and spoke, hoped and dreamed, loved and grieved, and for a few ephemeral moments were exactly like myself. I look at the dates and the names and the epitaphs of complete strangers, committing some to memory, pausing long enough to say that today you are, in some small way, not forgotten.
As a society, we forget too quickly, especially the tragedies that do not touch our little circle of family and friends. We see our flag at half mast when we pass a post office, listen to a grim newscast with one ear, slow our eyes over an article detailing the misfortune of others, then, like a pinball, bounce back around inside days which never seem to have enough hours in them. Time is tight, and often with little more than an acknowledgement that it “sucks to be them,” we forget.
Less than two months into our new year, our nation has seen an average of more than one school shooting per week. Seven weeks, eight shootings. It is a statistic that to me, growing up in an era when half the boys in my high school class had deer rifles in their cars in our school parking lot during November, is truly unfathomable. It is unconscionable that in 21st Century America, when we can operate on someone’s heart by accessing it through a vein in their leg, stream movies to cellular phones, sample the soil of Mars, and 3D print nearly everything under the sun, that our children face the possibility of being killed in the classroom.
These atrocities, a disgrace unique to our country, bear the stamp Made in America as surely as Pittsburgh steel or Vermont maple syrup. And they are perpetuated in part by our propensity to forget. To lead such insular lives that until tragedy comes calling our very own names we choose inaction over action every single time. We condemn with raised fists, and yet we condone with lack of change. We have every right, as a First World, civilized country, to be deeply ashamed.
But it is easy to point out what, in the opinion of one, is wrong with the world. Simple to sit back and, over dinner with friends and the libations that loosen our tongues, bash our subjective evils. I am as guilty of that as anyone, but I am also proposing change.
I am a proud, lifelong gun owner. I am a dedicated hunter, long-range marksman, fascinated with the science of ballistics, and enjoy a day in the field or at the range as much as anyone in America. I will never surrender my guns. Nor will I ever believe that in the awful event of a showdown with our government they afford me a millionth of an ounce of protection.
When our founding fathers wrote the Second Amendment to our constitution, the playing field was even. It was muskets versus muskets. It was not bolt-action rifles, or even semi-automatic “assault-style” rifles versus Vulcan canons on Apache helicopters or Hellfire missiles launched from drones. It is a frightening realization to me, but it is an inarguable fact that if our government were to somehow mobilize its armed forces against its citizens we would stand no chance. Some of us would no doubt go out in a blaze of glory, but go out we would nonetheless.
What I propose is not to make one single type of rifle or handgun currently available illegal to own. Or illegal to buy. Or illegal to manufacture. But I would happily submit, without feeling it the least violation to either my constitutional right or personal affinity for my guns, to the regulation of rapid-fire, high-capacity guns as Class III weapons.
What is a Class III designation? It is essentially the definition given to destructive weapons deemed available to the public but not without careful, additional processing by the ATF. Suppressors and fully-automatic machine guns currently fall into this category. Yes, if you’re a felony-free citizen who’s gone through the proper application process, you can own one, but it takes time – up to six months. What would be wrong I ask if the eighteen-year old boy or girl who wants a semi-automatic weapon capable of holding a 30-round clip had to go through that same process? What would be wrong if the 50-year-old man who decides a bump stock enabling nearly automatic fire from his AR-15 needing the same vetting?
The arguments against are myriad, but they are not made by the mothers and fathers who have had their children slaughtered at the rate of more than sixty rounds per minute. I’m sick of hearing that murder is as efficient and as easily achieved with your typical bolt action rifle as it is an AK-47. That if “assault rifles” were harder to get these kids would simply use something else to equal effect. It’s a lie, one perpetuated by someone who has never burned through a high-capacity clip as fast as they can pull the trigger and then fired three to seven rounds from a bolt gun. Both kill dead as hell, but one – by design – enables the killing at a much, much faster pace.
Would a Class III designation automatically mean no child would ever come into a school with an assault rifle? No. There are tens of thousands in existence right now, fairly readily available second-hand. And it’s certainly possible that someone bent on causing mass casualties might even slip through the application process for a Class III weapon and carry out a horrific crime. But we must start somewhere. We cannot resign ourselves to a future where these tragedies continue commonplace simply because we believe them unavoidable. To do so places an unacceptably low value on our own children. And we must, as a nation, address the gun end of these crimes. We must shout down the organizations that categorically denounce the slightest control of weapons. We must label that lobbying, against all common-sense measures, as a direct and dangerous threat to our young people.
At least as important as tackling the gun end of these shootings, is the need for a concerted effort aimed at continued reform in our schools. Beginning in the primary grades, the identification of marginalized and at-risk students is critical. More than just identification, there must be a genuine willingness to advocate for them.
It is increasingly frequent, as our “middle class” struggles more and parents spend longer hours both working, for the primary interaction our students have with adults to be with their teachers and not at home. I certainly wish it wasn’t so, but as fact we have a responsibility to these kids, not only to provide them with the best education but also with teachers who are invested in the overall welfare of their lives.
Headstart programs, after-school activities, and alternative schools with a focus on careers should be as much a part of our education system as AR-15s are a part of our sporting good stores.
We need to insure adequate numbers of guidance counselors so that our students find them accessible, and, beginning in the early grades, we must work to remove the stigma that sometimes follows a child who seeks their help. I am a proponent of scheduling that includes guaranteed time for every single child to speak with a counselor during school on as often a basis as needed. The conversation can be as simple as who the Red Sox are going to play Saturday night or as deep as living with an alcoholic parent. The message is that you are cared about because you are important, and it must be offered by adults who believe.
Throughout my education, I certainly had my share of wretched teachers. Some resented their intelligent students. Others had burned out in their profession a decade before I walked into their classroom. Still more believed the extent of their student interaction should be inundating them with worksheets or drawing a sad face next to their handwriting assignment. Looking back, it’s easy to see how a child could fall through the cracks, and especially in today’s world, when that child may contemplate what was once unthinkable, we have an obligation to do better. We have an obligation to accept reality rather than lament what that reality is. Part of this involves educators who understand the importance of the portion of their job not spent directly at the whiteboard.
The child considering a school shooting is unlikely to announce it. But years earlier, he may well confide to the right educator who takes an interest in him – who notices him in class and deliberately makes a point of talking with him – that there are times when life stinks. When he, as a child, cannot control an environment at home that may be hellish. That, though he won’t likely admit it, he desperately needs the support and approval and a shred of friendship from one single adult in his life. It’s this type of interaction, with consistent follow-up, that I firmly believe is necessary.
It is also impossible to quantify its benefits, but again, an argument against on those grounds is a sorry statement of how cheaply we hold the lives of kids.
We have seen a shift in culture that has produced these shootings, and it will take a shift in culture to combat them. We have no reason to expect different results if we don’t change the system. That’s logic we should all understand.
We own this problem, and also the onus of correcting it. Doing nothing is not an option. Forgetting is not acceptable. Offering condolences without proposing change we are dedicated to achieve is deplorable. And prioritizing anything at all above the children of this country is, in a word, if I may make such a judgment, sinful.I said earlier that I’m not afraid of cemeteries, and that’s true. But I am terrified at the rate we are sending our children to them.