Speaking out Against Gun Violence (Again): How Long until Enough Is Enough?
Attention! Attention! Attention! This Is Security. We Are Now on Lock down until Further Notice.
One of the most terrifying phrases a student or school employee can hear coming out of a loudspeaker. In recent years, gun violence in schools seems to have increased tenfold, especially in the United States. Canadians have been lulled into a sense of security, smugly saying “that never happens in Canada!”
On Friday May 9th, 2014 at approximately 2pm, the staff and students of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology lost a bit of this prescribed Canadian smugness when they themselves gained a new appreciation for the fear our neighbours to the South experience on a more frequent basis. As Security relayed the message that the campus was entering a lock down, you could see the furrowed brows of the dubious as they made their way to their offices, the exasperated sighs of those who had too much work to do to deal with a lock down drill in the middle of a Friday afternoon. The reaction to the announcement sent us scrambling, but it was feeble, an efficient yet lackadaisical carrying out of policy. Then the whispers began. As more and more people wandered in from outside, you heard snippets of conversations; “Ya there is police everywhere! I had to show my ID before they let me come inside!” “The police were interviewing people at the gas station down the road, and they aren’t letting cars enter or leave the campus.” Finally, the phrase we all were hoping against hope would not be uttered “They are saying there is someone on campus with a gun.”
There is something inherently unsettling about the prospect of a loaded gun in a public space
The atmosphere began to change, you could feel the ripple of fear that began to move with more force, expanding outwards, as gossip dropped like pebbles into the once calm and indifferent pool of the university. We continued covering our windows with file folders and shutting off our computers, but it was with a renewed sense of urgency. Instead of just shutting the door and continuing to work until the all clear was sounded, you could see staff double and then triple checking that their doors were locked. Lights were extinguished, shuffling could be heard from the offices next door as people actually moved things so that they could conceal themselves under their desks. For the next hour, we sat in total darkness, the sound of footsteps, of raised voices, causing us to freeze, hold our breath, pin the lighted screens of our phones against our chests, dimming the soft glow from when, just moments before, we had been obsessively refreshing our twitter feeds and scouring local news sites, desperately trying to find out what was happening. Even when the all clear was sounded, people were shaken. This had been real, and all too close to home. Although no one was hurt, the experience was something that none of us had ever gone through before, and something that we never wanted to happen again.
As Canadians, there is no denying we are lucky that among the myriad of anxieties a school day can bring forth, the fear of being in trapped in a building where someone has a gun, does not rank high on the list – but that also makes these instances a thousand times more terrifying when they do occur.
Sitting in the office I share with my co-worker, neither of us could deny the fear we were feeling. Unlike in the United States, it is very difficult for a Canadian to obtain a gun. It takes dedication; a time consuming application for permits, and registration in order to get our hands on a firearm. More often than not if an armed person is entering school property, they are entering with a weapon that has been obtained illegally. They have taken the time to get their hands on a weapon, to avoid the rigors of applying for a permit, registering their fire-arm, creating a paper trail. They cannot just walk into their fathers study, remove the semi-automatic kept in the left hand drawer of the roll top desk and then be on their way. The majority of instances of gun violence in Canadian schools have been meticulously premeditated, and that can make them all the more horrifying.
There is a staggering difference in the statistics of gun violence in schools between the United States and Canada. Since 1884, Canada has had 16 instances of gun violence in schools. As the stunned face of the Canadian sits before you, they barely have time to think “well that seems like a lot” before they are rendered completely incapable of thought when they are faced with this seemingly unfathomable statistic; The United States has seen approximately one to two instances of gun violence within their school communities almost EVERY YEAR since 1850. To even begin to comprehend how many lives have been affected by such violence is enough to take your breath away.
Watching Richard Martinez’s heart wrenching emotional attack on the NRA and the US government, his son Christopher one of the victims of the recent mass shooting in Santa Barbara, I am filled with a sickening shame. Not because I am embarrassed for him, but because his pain is so alike all the other families in the past years who have lost loved ones due to gun violence within their child’s school. It is hard, sitting there, watching this father falling apart, knowing that soon, the news coverage of this will die off, that focus will soon turn to more pressing matters; a celebrity wedding, another dog on a skateboard, and the victims of the Santa Barbara shooting will pushed to the backs of our minds, lumped in with all the other victims of all the other school shootings. It is getting to the point where, turning on the news, you hear reports of someone who has shot students or faculty, and you just just shake your head, murmur about how horrible it is, then change the channel and carry on with your day.
How has the United States government allowed such tragedies to become commonplace? How was the first time this happened not enough to make the government make changes? How was the second time, the third, the fourth, the fifth? How have the deaths of all these innocent young, not been enough to implement policy changes around gun control? In other countries where horrendous acts of mass violence have occurred, changes to their gun control policies have been implemented practically overnight. Australia would be the best example of this. On April 28, 1996, 28 year old Martin Bryant opened fire at the historic Port Arthur Prison Colony. At the end of his 8 minute killing spree, he had killed 35 people and wounded 23 more, the worst mass shooting in Australian history. 12 days later Prime Minister John Howard managed to completely overhaul Australia’s gun control measures. The result? There has not been another mass shooting in Australia since.
How is it, that with countries such as Australia, such a shining example of how many lives could be saved if steps were taken to enact a wider, stricter net around gun ownership in the United States, that the idea of stricter gun control laws is still met with unbelievable outrage? Why would the people of the United States want to continue to allow young people like Elliot Rodger and Adam Lanza to have the power to take away the lives of so many of their young? Why isn’t more being done to educate people on the effects of such violence?
How can we deal with this problem when people turn a blind eye to the projectile implements at the centre of the debate?
On May 8th, 2014, just one day before the lock down occurred at UOIT and almost exactly two weeks to the day before the mass shooting in Santa Barbara, The Guardian posted an article about William Baer, a father in Gilford New Hampshire who was arrested after protesting Jodi Picoult’s book, 19 Minutes. For those of you have not read the novel, the plot is focused around the events of a school shooting, and take the points of view of the victims, as well as the perpetrator. The result is a powerful, and very eye opening look at what takes place in the minds of all those involved in such an incident, and has the potential to spark some very important discussions in the classrooms of American high schools. At first glance, I assumed that I was about to read an article about how this father, Mr. Baer, would be taking issue with the fact that the book’s main story line revolves around such a sensitive issue as a school shooting. Just another example of how one should never assume in any given situation. In fact, Mr. Baer took issue with a one page sex scene that he felt was too inappropriate for his 14 year old daughter.
While everyone has a right to decide how they want to raise their children, literature gives both the students and teachers a way to discuss contentious issues, and help students discuss their fears, and ways to prevent situations such as what has happened at UC Santa Barbara and Sandy Hook, from happening in their own environments. If we allow our youth to grow up sheltered, completely unprepared and unaware of what is happening in the world around them, how is this giving them their best chance at success? While Mr. Baer may have been uncomfortable with having his 14 year old daughter read one of the scenes in the novel, he has completely overlooked the main themes of the book – bullying and gun violence within the school system.
It is important that in an age where bullying has become a tragic epidemic, where young men who feel they have not gotten all the attention they deserve in life, decide to take out their anger and frustration on a group of innocent people. There have been too any news reports in recent years of young men and women ending their lives too soon as a result of bullying, or deciding the best revenge is to take down as many innocent people with them as they can.
Jodi Picoult offered some eloquent insight on the matter, “The works of fiction included in school curricula are meant to encourage and develop critical thinking skills in adolescents. I would encourage any parent to read whatever books are assigned, and to use them as springboards for discussion with their children.” I could not agree with her statement more. It is unfathomable to me, that any parent could sit and watch Richard Martinez. or the parents who lost children in the Sandy Hook shooting in their grief and see that something is going very wrong in the United States. As these broken people make a plea for change, how could you not feel moved to do something? Parents need to begin looking past specific occurrences in literature and understand the bigger picture. What lessons will my child learn from this? Too often, parents protest novels that they do not understand, haven’t read, or judge them singularly on content that does not relate to the main themes of the novel. 19 Minutes bring to the blackboard a discussion on an issue that is prevalent and uncomfortable, a discussion that could not be any more important.
Parents can only shelter their children for so long, and when it comes to situations such as gun violence in schools. It is important that students understand the consequences of their actions and the actions of others, and are able to form their own opinions and beliefs on certain subject matters rather than just accept the ones given to them by their parents. The hope is, that one day, through an awareness brought forth in the schools and at home through literature and discussion, that one less student population will be forced to sit in darkness under their desks, hearts pounding and ears straining, praying to hear the all clear.
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