When horror hit the headlines of the nation’s newspapers on April 21, 1999, nobody could have predicted
the incredible impact it would have on the collective soul of a country. The day before, on
April 20, two students opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 13 and
wounding 21 others before taking their own lives.
It was the deadliest school massacre in history.
More importantly, it opened American eyes to the possibilities of copycat shootings at our nation’s schools and college campuses. Parents and students alike became hyper-aware of the
reality that what they had considered a safe place was in fact a dormant battleground that could
awaken at any moment. The terror of Columbine was a shock, and ripped from American minds
the trust they had instilled in the education system.
Since Columbine, there have been 168 school shootings of varying degrees, including last week’s catastrophe at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.
One school shooting is too many, but 168? That is outrageous. The 1970s, debatably the most volatile
domestic arena America has ever seen, witnessed merely 24 school shootings comparatively. Where
does this increase come from? It is cultural, to be sure, but can we blame the entirety of this incredible
increase completely on legislation, or the lack thereof?
When I was young, perhaps middle school-aged, my mother had me watch the 2003 Gus Van Sant
film “Elephant”. Given a perfect rating by the late film critic of great renown Roger Ebert, the
film, based in part off the events at Columbine, details the planning and carrying out of the massacre
through the eyes of the perpetrators.
“Elephant” introduced to my preteen mind the idea that something reminiscent of what I was viewing on the screen could happen in my own school.
I am not here to plea for increased gun control—I believe that there are many sides to that debate, and an unending amount of convincing evidence on both sides.
Instead, I must lament the mental state in which our generation has been left following such a staggering
amount of loss at the hands of our peers.
Partly because of “Elephant” and partly because of the 10 school shootings a year clip at which our
country has found itself, I find myself casing every classroom I am assigned — developing a plan
in case of such an event. I know I am not alone in this—in fact, in discussion I have heard many of
my classmates comment on their own worries.
Whereas the Baby Boomers worried about Russia, and the generation before worried about continuous world wars, my generation worries every time we exit the safety of our homes.
This is a state of mind unique to those who have lived through Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and the multitude of other shootings spread across the decade and our collective consciousness.
No other time in history has had such a worry—save perhaps the race riots of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s or the Vietnam protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yet even then, the principle was different—those rioting were aware of the repercussions of their actions, whereas nobody expects a school shooting will ever happen to them.
After viewing President Obama’s gut-wrenching plea for peace following the Umpqua shooting, I realized I had heard certain keywords in his speech before.
If we break down the timeline, President Bill Clinton endured two major shootings during his tenure, President George W. Bush experienced just one and Obama has endured six. After looking up the transcripts of the speeches, I realized the common trend—the approximate sentence “those of us who are lucky enough to hug our children closer tonight.” President Obama has said the same mantra many times in his presidency, all the while urging for stricter gun control laws.
I’m sure many remember the tragic commercial that appeared on airwaves three years ago, including such celebrities as Chris Rock, John Hamm, Chris Paul, Ellen Degeneres and countless others. In it, they pled for stricter gun control laws, asking for the government to finally take action before such an event occurred again.
President Obama echoed the sentiment in his speech following the Umpqua shooting, saying, “this is not something I can do by myself. I’ve got to have a Congress […] who are willing to work with me on this. I hope and pray that I don’t have to come out again during my tenure as president to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances. But […] I can’t guarantee that.”
Following the Umpqua disaster, celebrities once again took to social media to express their sorrow. Cole Sprouse, Maroon 5 and Katie Couric among countless others struggled to express their grief and frustration through 140 character limits, often resorting to pleas for stricter laws—anything to prevent another such tragedy.
As I mentioned before, I am not here to say we need stricter gun control laws. I am not a politician, I am a journalist. And as a journalist, it is my job to hear the cries of the people, to assess the state of society and to commit these emotions to ink. Through my daily interactions with friends and colleagues, I have noticed a state of subdued panic. Though my personal anxiety arose early in life through cinema, many students and faculty are just now coming to terms with the very real possibility of an active shooter on campus.
While not everyone may recognize it, there is a latent fear every time a person steps on a college campus, in a high school, even in an elementary school.
This needs to change. Through whatever means necessary, there needs to be change.