A Gun Person

While getting ready this morning, I saw my 6-year-old son—we’ll call him little J—walking awkwardly around the house. He was shuffling sideways, with his knees bent and his hands in small fists in front of his face. I recognized the pose from J’s karate classes, though they usually don’t try to walk while at the ready.

“What in the world are you doing?” I asked jokingly.

“I’m karate walking!” he declared.

“That’s a silly walk! Do you walk around school like that?”

He laughed at my absurd suggestion. “No! It would be silly to walk around school like this.” But then he paused, as his cheeks just slightly narrowed from what had been a full grin. His voice, however, remained perfectly level as he continued, “Unless there’s a gun person in the school. Then maybe I would.” My heart stopped, but he kept following his terrible line of thought, “If a gun person killed my teacher then I would be mad. We would all jump on him and punch him and kick him until he dropped the gun.”

What stole my breath was that his voice didn’t change. As he contemplated a scene of horrific brutality unfolding in his classroom, he spoke in the same voice he would use to tell me what he wanted for breakfast, or in which he might recount what happened on the playground yesterday. It was so matter-of-fact, recounting something he thought about a lot and considered at least as probable as anything else we might discuss over the course of a morning.

It was his casualness that knocked the air from my lungs. Sometimes in music class we get to play the drums. Sometimes when it rains we have indoor recess. Sometimes a gun person comes to school and kills teachers and kids.

I needed to say something, though I could barely think. I wanted to scream, not at him but at America: at our feckless leaders and complacent citizens. I wanted to tell him that he shouldn’t have to imagine things like this. I wanted to reassure him. But I also want him to live. And so, instead, I tried to speak clearly, “That probably won’t ever happen, J, but if it does you should run away or hide.”

“No. I would be too mad and I think I could stop him.”

I knelt down and looked directly into his eyes. I made my voice as level and firm as I could. “Buddy. J. You’re probably never going to have to do this. But if a gun person ever comes to your school I want you to run away, or I want you to hide. That’s all I want you to do. Please.”

“Okay, daddy.”

Minutes later, I walked him out to the bus and sent him off to school.

Since that conversation I have thought a lot of Paige Curry, the Santa Fe High School student who, when asked if she was surprised when a shooting happened in her school, responded with flat resignation, “It’s been happening everywhere…I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.” As in my interaction with J, Curry’s matter-of-factness disturbed viewers. Her words and their delivery alike testified to how fully our social contract has been broken.

How is this the world we have given to our kids? As we debate the virtues of helicopter parents versus free-range kids, are we somehow content with our children living in constant fear? We are so obsessed with doing right by our kids that we spend enormous amounts of time and money—probably too much in many cases—trying to ensure the best possible outcomes for them. We advocate for safer playgrounds, safer minivans, and safer toys, but when twenty first-graders are slaughtered by an automatic rifle in Connecticut we shrug because, after all, “what can be done?” Having lived abroad for a year with my family, and I can attest that parents in other countries are mystified by our collective lethargy on this subject, as if a pandemic was rampaging through our schools and we refused to even fund research into its causes or potential cures. I was one of those who mistakenly thought Newtown would be a turning point. The only human response to twenty murdered children would be, surely, first tears and then swift action. Yet somehow the President of the United States was mocked for crying on television as he mourned their loss. After every school shooting since—and somehow, unconscionably, there have been many—the political lines have been drawn before the event itself even ends.

The children who survived mass shootings and the parents who lost children have suffered more than I or anyone not in their place can imagine. After Sandy Hook all I could think about each morning with my kids was what those twenty other mornings, which likely seemed completely normal, now meant to grieving parents and friends. J was a baby then, and he’s now the same age those kids were. We need to hear the stories of the kids we’ve lost and their parents, to sustain our attention to their stories beyond a single news cycle. I sincerely hope that the movement started by the Parkland survivors can break the cycle of despair and inaction—that the children affected by gun violence will, as adults, make the changes older generations have been too complacent, cowardly, or craven to enact. But we could do so much more right now if parents (and grandparents, and aunts, and uncles, and cousins, and neighbors) could muster some outrage at the NRA and their leige politicans.

But we also aren’t talking enough about the persistent mental damage gun violence is doing to all of our children, chipping slowly but relentlessly at their sense of security. Our kids live in a world where a “gun person” could appear at any moment. Though it’s still statistically unlikely that any particular kid will face that horror, it seems increasingly likely that many of them will suffer psychologically from this new reality of active shooter drills. Why are we willing to sacrifice the security our children should feel at school, or that we all should feel in public spaces, in order to prop up the security some adults believe they can only have by owning semi-automatic rifles? This isn’t a new question, but it bears repeating again and again. No one’s right to own any thing trumps our kids’ right to live, and to live freely.

Little J: you deserve better things to imagine. I’ll do my best to help.