Sometimes, the story lies in what the photograph doesn’t show
This innocuous photograph could tell any of a thousand stories. A young woman seems to be alive with joy, moving to the beat of silent music emanating from the stage to which her upraised left hand gestures. It’s an ordinary moment, memorialized in a photo.
But what you don’t see in the photograph is the true story. It’s an ugly contrast to the simple image of a girl dancing — the rest of the story is bloody and tragic.
It is a story repeated so often we should be ashamed.
The girl in the photograph is my niece, Hannah. Her left hand points to a banner hung over a music stage in Las Vegas — the Route 91 Harvest Festival. The photograph was made October 1, 2017.
In a small but disturbing coincidence, my niece’s upraised right hand points to an area of the Mandalay Bay hotel where, moments after the photo was shot, the glass was broken out and 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd below with a veritable armory of assault rifles.
From his 32nd-floor suite in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Paddock unleashed more than 1,000 rounds, killing 60 people and wounding over 400. The ensuing panic brought the total injured to 867. Paddock’s motive has never been determined.
The incident remains the deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in U.S. history.
Is this our destiny? Our culture has decayed to the point mass murder is commonplace and we accept it? We take no action to correct or mitigate?
We would never accept daily arsons or daily bombings, but we can excuse daily mass shootings because rejecting them might hinder our own easy access to guns? And yes, that’s daily. We’re about 150 days into the year and we’ve already experienced 214 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2022 — that’s roughly 10 per week.
I have a cynical urge to ask Americans what they would prefer: eliminating most mass shootings or providing guns for (almost) everyone? I already know the answer. We choose mass shootings over any attempt to restrict gun ownership and we do so faithfully every time: Springfield, Columbine, Santee, El Cajon, Blacksburg, Newtown, Roseburg, Parkland, Uvalde — those are just a few notable mass shootings at schools, never mind the mass shootings at other locations. We’ll take the shootings, thank you very much. Every single time.
The Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday, May 24 killed 21 people, most of them grade-school children. I do not care what your politics are or how much you love the Second Amendment, you should be revolted that this event was at least the 30th shooting at a U.S. K-12 school this year.
Mass shootings occur with such mind-numbing frequency that it’s difficult to keep track of them. When I write yet another essay addressing yet another shooting, I always go back and review what I’ve previously said. But just like we endure shooting after shooting, I find myself repeating my remarks over and over — really, there’s only so much a sane person can articulate.
What we’re doing simply isn’t working.
I support the Second Amendment but I do not support blind stupidity. With its many firearms enthusiasts and a Constitutionally-enshrined right to bear arms, our society would never permit any attempt to ban or eradicate firearms. Even if we somehow managed to survive the civil war that would erupt if the government came for citizens’ guns, we wouldn’t see the last gun leave for at least three generations — there are simply too many.
A firearm is a tool designed to quickly and efficiently kill. We should be treating guns with the respect they deserve, not as a mis-named God-given right. This doesn’t mean making arms unavailable, it simply means requiring those who wish to bear them to first demonstrate competency, maturity, stability and accountability. Yes, a maniac can simply pick another tool like a knife, a hammer or even a panel truck. But comparing these objects with guns creates clear false equivalencies.
We like saying we’re a free country — I like saying it, too. But we’re not a free country if we send our kids off to school with a constant fear they’ll be shot. We are not a free country if we cannot go out without worrying a heavily-armed madman will mow down a crowd of children, students, shoppers, worshipers or concertgoers.
Let’s establish some things we can all agree on.
First, we can all agree that mass shootings are unacceptable. This is a pretty big point of common ground. We should detest mass shootings enough to work together to develop solutions.
Second, I know my 2A-supporting friends love their children as much as I love mine. I know they love their children more than they love their guns.
Third, the status quo isn’t working. What we’re doing now isn’t quelling mass shootings. The 214 mass shootings we’ve already seen this year translate to about 1.4 mass shootings per day.
Fourth, guns are here to stay. The natural instinct to seek eradication each time we see a bunch of dead children is understandable but not realistic. The Second Amendment isn’t going anywhere and the so-called gun culture is embedded in the American psyche, whether anyone likes it or not.
Fifth, we must do something. While the Second Amendment guarantees certain freedoms, it was never intended to be a free-for-all. Minimizing mass shootings will take an earnest and honest dialogue coupled with earnest and honest effort from those on both sides of this divisive issue.
Before we talk about solutions, let’s examine several proposals currently being suggested.
With straight faces, people tell me we should flood our schools with guns — that arming teachers is the solution to this problem. Aghast, I cannot imagine converting the places where we teach our children into fortified citadels. The solution for mass shootings is more guns?
The N.E.A. has already weighed in, labeling the idea of arming teachers ludicrous. If educators, themselves won’t agree to being armed, what then?
Even if the unions could be convinced, arming teachers is preposterous for other reasons. It’s not just a good-guy-with-a-gun who’s going to drop a shooter. No, if we’re honest, it’s a good-guy-with-training-and-a-gun — teachers would need to be trained tactically. Sure, a few outlier educators would agree to the training and probably make useful security guards but beyond this minority, it’ll never happen.
And ponder this: arming teachers would place tens of thousands of guns right there in classrooms. Knowing human nature, do we really believe armed teachers would manage to effectively secure their weapons from curious or malignant students? Did we consider that busy teachers might be careless or distracted and end up accidentally providing a gun to a student who wouldn’t otherwise have had one? Maybe a sidearm left in a handbag or backpack? Or a forgotten handgun left in a desk drawer?
Arming teachers would be ridiculously complicated, prohibitively expensive, enormously time-consuming and fraught with risk — all with results that would almost certainly be dubious at best.
While we’re on the subject of absurd suggestions, let’s tackle the myth of the good-guy-with-a-gun. American films and television have convinced a huge number of 2A supporters that they are ready to step up when confronted with a mass shooter. All they’ll have to do is stand firm, draw their legal sidearm, aim and — bang! — no more bad guy.
It’s not that simple, not by a long shot.
While well-meaning people see the Lone Ranger saving the day, reality would far likelier resemble Barney Fife or Roscoe P. Coltrane, panicking, fumbling, fatally hesitating, firing blindly. Without military or law enforcement tactical training, the odds of a civilian good guy taking out a mass shooter are slim. In recent mass shooting episodes, more than one professional cop has lost his life as he went up against a body-armored maniac toting semi-automatic rifles and handguns.
To those people who don’t believe training is necessary, I ask this: do you have the psychological strength and discipline to perform properly in a situation calling for instant life-or-death decisions and lightning-fast reflexes? As earnest as you may be, overestimating your true abilities will result in you worsening an already awful situation and increase chances of you or others dying.
There is no single solution. As I said, it’s going to take a willingness to work together to craft solutions.
Currently, we are discussing increasing the age at which a person may purchase a gun. We are talking about background checks on every sale. We are talking about red-flag alerts. I keep hearing an assault weapons ban mentioned but this stands no chance of clearing Congress in the current climate.
While some of these proposals may collectively do some good, I believe the real solution lies elsewhere.
I believe we need to establish robust minimum national training standards. Training standards would change the way many people view firearms, elevating them from a mere sporting good to a specialized tool, requiring specialized handling skills. Training standards would ensure firearms owners could demonstrate competency, maturity, stability and accountability before they took possession of a tool designed to quickly and efficiently kill — a respect currently lacking. As applicants are receiving training, background checks and psychological assessments could be completed.
Training standards of various levels could be developed for classes of firearms, tailoring necessary training to maximize effect and minimize time requirements.
I know such standards would inconvenience or even anger many firearms enthusiasts but we should be able to hash out the details, streamlining the process. I know many firearms enthusiasts already take gun ownership seriously but many more do not. By implementing training standards, we will increase public competency and weed out most of the people who shouldn’t be allowed to own guns.
Training standards would prevent totally unqualified teenage boys from buying semiautomatic rifles.
Reexamining the way we treat — or don’t treat — mental illness should make a difference, too.
Is this idea perfect? Of course not, but it should dramatically reduce these daily mass shootings unique to this nation — no other country comes close to experiencing this problem like we do. Training standards would benefit us all.
A national concealed-carry is a big-ticket item greatly sought by many Second Amendment supporters — I’d trade that for establishing meaningful minimal training standards.
Whatever solutions are implemented will be interpreted as a violation of someone’s rights, somewhere. In order to keep guns out of the hands of people we all agree shouldn’t have them, it’s going to become a bit more difficult for everyone to get them.
In the meantime, one proposal being discussed could help — I hate this proposal and I hate myself for saying that it might work. If we had professional security personnel — with body armor, tactical training and armed with the same assault weapons they’re likely to face — stationed throughout schools, this should act as a deterrent in both thought and deed. I am not suggesting a single guard per school — to be effective, we’d need squad-sized details assigned to every school. Expensive? You bet, but this proposal could be implemented, unlike the armed teachers suggestion.
I think it’s awful that we are seriously proposing turning our schools into fortresses but I’m willing to try it if we also attack the sickness at its root, in addition to treating the symptom. We never should’ve let it get to the point we need to station soldiers in grade schools.
Ultimately, we have a problem and we need to do something about it.
Even free societies must have baselines and guidelines. But common-sense rules established to avert a very real crisis should not be confused with weighty terms like tyranny. Freedom isn’t a free-for-all. Without reasonable rules, we get chaos — or endless school shootings.
My niece was physically unhurt in the Las Vegas shooting but emotionally she’s scarred for life. Sweet Hannah had to witness sights, sounds and smells a normal human should never have to experience.
As things currently stand, our young children risk experiencing scenes of horror like Hannah did. No child should endure the gruesome sights, sounds and smells associated with mass shootings. No child should die of gunshot wounds at school.
Absolutely none of us should be okay with this.
Photograph top © 1 Oct. 2017 Chelsea Clay