Monday, 19 February 2018

On Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas & Righteous Anger

I remember, when I was 19, being new to San Francisco and talking about guns with a friend who was slightly older but vastly more worldly. I was straight from Colorado, having been transplanted there not many years before from rural Missouri. 

I trotted out the “guns are just a tool” line, and this friend offered her argument against guns, especially in urban environments: They simply escalate conflict and violence. Having a gun in a confrontation instantly increases the lethality of the encounter.

That idea percolated through me for years. In my Midwestern upbringing, I shot guns on our acreage and nailed clay pigeons at the range. It was an exciting, powerful thing to do. I experimented with holding a weapon just right in my skinny little arms so that the recoil didn’t bruise me up or make me too sore, because the rifles were too big for my childish frame. I was a kid playing with the most adult thing imaginable, supervised by my dad, in the name of education and safety. 

But, what if knowing the basics wasn’t enough to transform gun ownership into a safe pursuit? What if simply having a gun raised the risk of someone being killed?


When I was 17, I was in school just a few miles away from Columbine High School on the day of the famous massacre. At Bear Creek High School, we watched as the news shifted from a mysterious thing going on over there to an active shooter situation rumored to be heading our way. 

For several hours, I was on lockdown with my classmates in a temporary classroom, the walls of which were certainly thin enough to be pierced by bullets. I remember feeling like a fish in a barrel. Our building was right alongside the back entrance to the campus, and the likeliest place for shooters on the move to come in. 

Our afternoon class became a hideously long waiting game, with no updates and no idea what was actually going on. We all had to go to the bathroom, with no facilities in our little trailer. We were not allowed to leave for any reason. We waited.

Once the lockdown was lifted, and we were sent home with no more clarity about what was happening at Columbine, I called my workplace. 

I had an after-school job at a daycare center even closer to the scene, and I wanted to know if they needed me to come in. They did—the chaos of the day had left them very short-staffed, and they were still on lockdown because of their proximity to the shooting.

So, 17 years old, I got on a bus and headed to work, late after being locked in a trailer because our teachers and administrators feared we would be shot.

When I got into my classroom, I was the only teacher in a room that usually had two. It was peaceful, full of 3- to 4-year-old children that looked to me for care and guidance. 

I remember looking out of the windows of my classroom, and knowing enough about guns to be sure that if the gunmen came our way, I could not prevent those children from being slaughtered. I imagined what I would do to buy them time. 

Yet again, I waited down the clock for word about what was happening and what we would do next.


After a few years in the Bay Area, I moved to the UK. For most of my 20s, I watched America from abroad. I had the gun conversation many more times, and struggled to feel so certain that firearms were a tool like any other. 

I felt myself relax into London, which was certainly full of peril when I first arrived, though the dangers tended to be slower moving than a semi-automatic shootout. I didn’t find anything to fear in the police, who were more likely to talk through disturbances than use their batons. 

I arrived into the city the day of the 7/7 bombings. I saw London at its most shaken and armed, and it felt unusual, but not actually as paranoid or trigger-happy as lots of moments I’ve had on a typical day in the USA. Within a couple of days, people were riding the Tube again and getting back to the business of living.

For a handful of years, I lived totally without the fear of gun violence. I didn’t really notice the calm that lent me until I moved back to California. I stopped making arguments about the value of guns to society.


I got settled back in San Francisco just in time for Sandy Hook. I watched our president, Barack Obama, plead again and again to deaf ears that we needed common-sense gun reform. I watched nothing happen.

I’ve cried a lot of times since then. I sobbed over loops of the Pulse shooting terrorizing the radio, good-byes to mothers and the recorded horror of waiting in a bathroom for a shooter to come for you.

I’ve never had to make that call, but I’ve been close enough that hearing them splits my heart open every time. 


Now I have a baby of my own. Before he was even born, I shed tears of fear about him being arriving into a country of escalating tensions. As he grew within me, I watched idiot arguments about arming ourselves against the government and panic-buying guns. The specter of toxic, broken masculinity loomed over my son’s future.

Every day, he gets closer to preschool, and closer to a time when he looks like one of the children from Sandy Hook. And those kids today would have been about the same age as these high schoolers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are now. And they remind me of myself, teenaged and waiting to find out if I would make it home that day.


Something I didn’t remember, until my mother mentioned it recently, was going out to the park in Littleton where crosses and memorials sat out in the mercurial Colorado spring elements, commemorating Columbine’s casualties. I remember it was chilly. I remember feeling so tired, spent of tears. My mother held me, and we thought of those kids and their terror within the walls of their school. 

I hadn’t thought of that day in a long time. Watching these kids in Parkland now, raw with fury and disgust at the generations before them that made stupid arguments about guns—stupid arguments that I myself made when I was younger—watching them rip this idiocy to shreds makes me feel hope that this can finally change. 

It’s been most of 20 years since I was locked in that trailer. That should have been the last of this. That should have been our Dunblane, but it wasn’t. Sandy Hook should never have happened, but it did, and somehow that wasn’t enough, either. 

I’ll tell you, though—there’s now a whole generation of young adults coming to the fore who know just how senseless it is to huddle in fear for our lives to protect a misapplied Constitutional amendment, and there is no more patience for it. 

May the fire of this righteous anger burn away the prospect of future tears.

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