“If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were alive today, they’d be my age,” is what I say because using terms like “gun violence prevention” and “activist” just elicit drawn out ohhhhhs and wows from people stumbling through some awkward variation of “thank you for working on that really important issue.” But wow isn’t in reference to importance; it’s in recognition of danger. Then there’s a turn, a distinct switch to gossipy whispers as they ask why I became an activist for gun violence prevention. What happened to me? I see a series of images in mind, each a reason why, each either too private to tell or not mine to tell. So I pick a story that makes me seem like the vapid white suburban lady who knows nothing of gun violence aside from what she sees on the news. I pick a story that belongs to us all.
A year before Columbine, there was Jonesboro. Two boys attacked their middle school, one pulling the fire alarm, the other a sniper on the perimeter picking off kids as they filed outside. I was in 10th grade. The next time the fire alarm was pulled at my school, I walked outside with two friends. One led us to the center of the crowd. “Better get in the middle in case one of us turned psycho overnight and is across the street with a deer rifle,” my friend said. We laughed. I added, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true,” and we laughed even harder.
The day after Columbine, things changed. The mood, most of all, changed in our school. Our spring-time tradition of Color Week, filled with pranks and intra-class water gun warfare, was suddenly not so innocent. We lost freedoms we didn’t even know we enjoyed. We were locked up, but in no less danger.
Have I mentioned I went to high school in Amish country, where a man would massacre a school full of girls a few short years later? Or that I was on the college campus where I worked, listening to the eerie tests of a new emergency
broadcast system blaring from campus-wide speakers, when news of Virginia Tech broke? Or that I was 8 months pregnant with my first child when Sandy Hook happened? Or that my son came home from daycare the Monday after the Pulse nightclub shooting, told me how safe his school was, and I couldn’t agree with him?
It wasn’t any one of those that made me finally join the movement. It was all of them, and more.
Can I tell you about the unfathomable shame I felt the first time I attended a memorial for gun violence victims in a black neighborhood? The first speaker looked at my friends and I and said, “Oh good, white people care. Maybe now something will happen.” It was a punch in the gut, and I deserved it.
Communities of color have long endured an epidemic fueled by illegal guns, obtained through shitty laws and loopholes kept in place because there’s profit in their death. I feel the awesome weight of responsibilities white people have shirked for so long, in so many ways, on this subject and others. But we also applied this violent indifference to our own communities, endangering ourselves too. In our wake, no one is immune.
I am not solely responsible for this, but neither am I innocent. I have long felt an internal rage for being so foolish for so long. I feel this rage for others too, for the people desperate to get involved after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I welcome them, joyously, at meetings and rallies and online forums, because we need them. But I’m still pissed. Do they think Parkland’s teens are the first ones to feel this way? I hear that the outspokenness of high schoolers has woken people up, headlines read “now there’s no more excuses.” I wonder what were the excuses when I was afraid of being shot in my high school? These aren’t the first students to live with this fear. If I give voice to this resentment, will it turn people’s anger inward when it should stay focused on the gun lobby?
If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were alive today they would be 36.
When my son enters kindergarten in the fall he’ll practice ALICE drills, hide in the closet of his classroom and be scolded silent because everyone’s pretending an active shooter is on campus. He’s sure to come home and talk about it. He’s sure to notice that once again his mother can’t assure him he’s safe. He’ll be the second generation of his family to live with this fear. The second generation to go to school with the understanding that evil can walk in, armed with military-style weaponry, and massacre him along with his friends. The second generation to know that the leaders of his country can’t be bothered to value his life.
Is this the time to tell you I’m a gun owner? That’s really why I joined the movement. As a white, suburban mom I know the gun lobby pretends they speak for me, and most people assume they do. But the gun lobby speaks for gun manufacturers, so I bear the responsibility to make it known otherwise.
When I tell people I work on gun violence prevention because I’m a gun owner, they are always surprised. I want to look at them and say, “I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. My family hunted to fill our freezer each winter. Of course I own guns.” So many Americans do own guns. Pretending this is a “gun owner vs. anti-gun” argument is to prolong it, to play into the hands of those who profit from our fear and our deaths. We are part of the problem when we are unable to imagine anything other than this typical “us vs. them” debate that turns Americans into extremists. So sometimes I short-hand it and say, “I’m a gun owner, not a monster.”
My activism is comfortably occupying all my conflicting identities while educating and organizing people to lobby their elected officials for effective and sustainable legislation. I wield the privileges my race, income, and zip code afford me. I recognize I’m armed with this power by an oppressive and unjust system, so I must use it for the good of those in more danger than I am.
There is evil in this world. While we’re squabbling among ourselves, unable to imagine a society with more than a dichotomy of parameters, that evil has access to high-powered firearms. When I want to know about evil, I turn to my church. When I want to keep evil from obtaining lethal weapons, I turn to my government. I hound my government. I badger my government. I nag, pester, and bother. It’s not glamorous or sexy. It’s often tedious. It never feels like enough, but it works. Slowly than it needs to, but it does work.
Let this be our call to action. All of us. Disarm our rhetoric, our keyboards, our agreements to disagree. Disarm our violent resentment towards communities that look different from our own. Demand our government, our elected officials, our leaders protect us from evil. Show up, again and again. Evil will always be among us, but our government can keep it from waging war so efficiently, so effortlessly, for so long. Believe it. Commit to it. Now.