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Tragedy in Texas
A shooting at an elementary school leaves at least 19 dead. What can be done?
On May 18, 2018, a 17-year-old gunman walked into Santa Fe High School only a few miles from where I grew up. Within minutes, 10 people were dead and more than a dozen were injured.
Today, an 18-year-old gunman walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and killed at least 19 people, including 18 children.
Two mass casualty shootings in Texas schools just four years and six days apart. And what has been the response of state leaders?
According to the Texas State Law Library, lawmakers in Austin passed nine gun-related laws in the last legislative session, several of which loosened restrictions on carrying the weapons in public. Today, in an interview with the conservative channel Newsmax, the state's attorney general again suggested that teachers carry weapons to protect themselves.
Ironically, the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting starts Friday in Houston. Speakers scheduled include former President Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, an advocate of conceal and carry laws.
As a journalist, I have long been fascinated by how school officials deal with crisis, trauma, and disasters, whether natural or man-made. In September 2018, I went to Santa Fe to work on a story in the wake of the school shooting, which occurred just months after Hurricane Harvey left many of the district’s families displaced.
During my reporting, I spoke with David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California, about the long-term effect of this type of trauma.
“When a crisis occurs, the individuals involved in that feel out of control and powerless because they are unable to change what happened, so they try to exert a lot more control afterward,” Schoenfeld told me. “People become very passionate about their beliefs and what is important, and the views are often divergent. The one thing you can predict is that everyone will have strong opinions, and none will be the same.”
I know this: My palms are sore from burying my face in them.
The Uvalde shooting, which comes 10 days after 10 people were killed by another 18-year-old male in Buffalo, is the deadliest mass shooting so far this year in the United States. It is the 11th shooting so far this year to involve four or more fatalities, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.
It also is the deadliest shooting at an elementary school since 20 students and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., 10 years ago.
Education Week, which has tracked school shootings since 2018, notes that 27 such incidents have taken place during the 2021-22 year. In the 26 school shootings prior to today, 40 people were injured and six were killed. Of those, five were students and one was a staff member.
Last week, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives released a report that shows the number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. annually has almost tripled since 2000. This comes as legislatures, Congress, and the Supreme Court have made it easier to purchase guns by loosening restrictions.
From 2019 through 2021, the demand for semiautomatic handguns increased at the fastest rate on record, according to the report. Pistol production increased from 3 million to 5.5 million annually.
Mental Health and Guns
In 2015, just after a gunman killed nine people in a mass shooting at an Oregon community college, I walked into a local gas station. A TV was tuned into CNN, which was running non-stop coverage. I shook my head and said to the clerk, “This is sad.”
The clerk, who was either in her late teens or early 20s, put her fingers up in air quotes and said, “Yeah, and I’m sure they’re going to call it a mental health issue.”
Yes, the majority of mass shootings occur because someone who is mentally ill — and usually untreated — gains access to a firearm. But it terrifies me that mental health issues and gun violence have become inextricably tied.
This is a fact: Most people with mental health issues are not violent, but the potential exists. What does it say about this country’s attitude toward difficult issues that we can talk about mental health awareness and services only when faced with a pandemic or record gun violence? I think it says a lot.
I have my own opinions about gun control, ones that have been influenced by individual and familial circumstances. I’m not, despite what you may think, against responsible gun ownership.
Jill and I know people who collect guns for their historical value. They are responsible, good citizens on this planet. They take safety seriously, make sure all the rules are followed, and are firm believers in the 2nd Amendment. They feel just as horrible as anyone when something like this happens, and they're working to do everything they can to encourage responsible ownership.
What people don't seem to get in this debate is there’s no either/or solution. I would never own a gun, but that's due to my personal beliefs and situation. I don't see how anyone with a child/friend/loved one who is lacking in stability would even consider owning a gun, especially if child/friend/loved one could gain access to it in some way.
The key here is that we’ve got to put our polarized views aside long enough to find some reasoned, thoughtful solutions. We've got to do something, sooner rather than later.
Gun control has been a debate in this country for generations. There should be no debate about preventing gun violence.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I wrote earlier this month about the struggles many students have faced as they navigate pandemic-related challenges.
Here are two of my freelance magazine articles related to school shootings:
When the Unthinkable Occurs (August 2019): A series of mass shootings over the past two years has left parents feeling unsettled about the safety of our schools, despite federal data that shows violent crime, theft, physical fights, and bullying have declined since 2001. If that’s not a communications conundrum, I don’t know what is.
After It All Falls Apart (December 2018): Helping students and staff deal with trauma and grief, whether it is caused by a single event or a series of less dramatic incidents that build up over time, is critical for school districts because of the potential long-term impact on teaching and learning. The story focuses on Santa Fe, Texas, which endured two significant tragedies (Hurricane Harvey and a school shooting that killed 10 people and wounded 13) within nine months.