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I logged onto the Internet between classes on Friday, December 14 in Troy, New York. Since the classes I teach would take the second part of their final exam, I quickly passed by the New York Times breaking news item that stated a shooting had taken place at a school in Connecticut. Was it the fact that the semester was coming to an end, or that as a society we have become so hardened to news of terror that made me move on to the issue of the final exam? Walking across campus in the bright light of the early afternoon I noticed two jet trails, one from the north and the other from the east, appearing to cross in the crystalline sky of the unusually mild and calm day in mid December. It was a pristine day and not much could seem to go wrong.
Following class, I drove west on Interstate 90 and turned on the radio to National Public Radio. The announcement that the station would go to a national news broadcast was unusual because NPR was usually filled with interviews or book reviews at this time on Fridays. I passed the Catskill Mountain range off to the west, dark against distant clouds touching the highest points of the 3, 000 foot peaks. And then the numbing news came in specific details!
Many had been killed at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. Both children and school personnel were dead. The gunman was dead along with a relative of his at a home in the same community as where the school was located. The report stated that several guns had been brought to the school by the now dead gunman, including a semiautomatic, military-style rifle. A nation that numbers about 89 guns for every 100 people, or 270 million guns, had witnessed the most shocking carnage in its history!
Once home, I told my wife what I had heard while driving home and turned the television to CNN. Facts about the mass shooting, many that would ultimately prove wrong, flooded the airwaves. Scenes of police rushing the school building taken from the air filled the screen. The feeling of numbness that had set in on the ride home became all-pervasive. I had taught first graders for the three decades when I had worked in public schools. How could it be? Kids that age are the epitome of innocence. They are open, fun loving, and ready to learn. Teaching children to read and write at that age is always full of wonder. First graders have twists and turns of personality that an adult can hardly anticipate. Their love of children’s literature and simple writing about children’s literature is always full of wonder!
On Friday, December 14, 2012, mental illness and the love and availability of guns in the U.S. met in a way that has not been seen in any of the other outrageous massacres where semi-automatic military rifles have been used. The villains are almost always young men, as was true on that Friday, who feel disaffected by society and dress for their lethal forays as if coming out of the most violent of video games or movies to visit havoc and death upon the innocent. And on Friday, December 14, teachers and a school administrator in Newtown, Connecticut attempted to save as many children as they could in the face of overwhelming violence. Never have so many innocent children and adults been forced to pay with their lives for a gun culture so out of control, and a mental health system so shoddy, that so many are ready to use violence who slip through this society’s cavernous openings!
And nowhere has the lethal mix at the intersection of international and national gun sales and so-called gun rights met in such diabolical outrage! On August 26, 2012, the New York Times reported that U.S. arms sales totaled $66.3 billion in 2011, or three-quarters of the global market (“U.S. Arms Sales Make Up Most of Global Market”). So, there’s fabulous wealth that can be made in the U.S. and overseas by the sale of guns and other weaponry. Is it any wonder why the National Rifle Association opposes any international treaty that would limit arms sales? There’s lots and lots of money to be made supporting so-called gun rights and the U.S. and gun manufacturers are the biggest players in that death-dealing market both at home and abroad!
The shock of December 14 brought me back to the 1999-2000 school year. The Columbine High School massacre had taken place only a few months before. Schools were justifiably anxious about the issues of gun violence and mental health issues among the student population. A student had recently transferred to the high school where I was a counselor. He allegedly threatened to kill students during a conversation at lunch in the school cafeteria. What followed was a year of mayhem (including the discovery of several black trench coats in lockers belonging to friends of the student) ending with the intervention of a federal court that admonished the school system for impinging on the student’s right to self-expression in a free writing assignment in an English class. I think that the student’s behavior, all of these years later, was an attempt to gain notoriety, but in the post-Columbine environment, taking a chance on a hunch was out of the question in a school setting!
Now, upon entering a community college classroom at the beginning of each semester, I instinctively look for a likely emergency exit and determine whether or not the classroom door can lock from the inside. Such discretion would have seemed insane just decades ago!
The national outrage at the carnage in Newtown, Connecticut was palpable. What’s needed now is a huge march on Washington and sit-ins at the offices of congressmen and women and senators who remain recalcitrant to strict gun control in the face of such horror. Not only must military-style rifles and large ammunition clips be banned in the United States, but all of the weapons like those used in Newtown, Connecticut need to be turned in to the government. The Second Amendment must be changed in such a way as to force those who buy handguns to go through a rigorous background check. Mental health services and educational initiatives must be fully funded to stop the plague of guns in this nation and offer services to those who feel disaffected in society and abandoned by it! A national system of recognizing, reporting, and treating aberrant behavior needs to be part of public schooling in the U.S., where professional personnel are best equipped to identify such behavior in an attempt to get help for those in need. More guns in schools, as the National Rifle Association recommends, is the absolute last thing that public schools need!
The grief suffered by the people of Newtown, Connecticut and of all of those of goodwill in this nation must be turned into a powerful force to stop this insanity and the senseless loss of innocent lives!
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer who teaches at a community college. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.