By Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.
We are short-memoried people. We move quickly from one tragedy to the next, and despite our best intentions, it has become much harder to focus on and try to fix one thing because there is just too much happening. There is too much grief. There is too much sorrow. It is exhausting because there have been too many bodies, bullets, marches, vigils, candles, and hashtags to mourn appropriately.
We have learned how to bury our pain and build monuments over our ruins. I do not believe that the human spirit is equipped to handle the amount of collective pain we are dealing with at this moment.
In the last month, we have marked one million people who have died from COVID-19; there has been a marked uptick in violent crime across the country; a white supremacist domestic terrorist targeted and killed 10 Black people at a grocery store; and, now Robb Elementary School, where a mass shooter killed 19 children and two teachers.
“To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep,” James Baldwin once wrote. Even with all of this pain, school shootings should hit differently and should lead to change. Children are our future, and they are the most vulnerable part of our society.
In the Maasai culture, their traditional greeting is “Casserian Energi,” which means “How are the children?” They believe that the best determinant for their community’s future health and prosperity is the mental, emotional, and psychological well-being of their children. As I have asked countless times before, I ask, “America, how are our children doing?” I believe that our children are not doing well because we are failing them.
There is a cycle of emotions from fear to sorrow to anger every time there is a school shooting in this country. We demand change, and for a few days, before we look away, we believe that change is coming.
And then nothing happens.
I remember Columbine and the fear and anger that everyone expressed in 1999. This was before social media, when we sent emails and made phone calls or marched to get our elected officials to do something. And nothing happened.
I remember Sandy Hook in 2012 and how I believed that after the senseless murder of 20 children and six teachers, America would do what the United Kingdom did in 1996 after the Dunblane Massacre. On March 13, 1996 a gunman went into Dunblane Primary School and shot and killed 16 children and one teacher. In response to the outrage and petitions from the people, two firearms acts were passed, one which outlawed the private ownership of most handguns within the U.K. The Dunblane Massacre was the deadliest school shooting in the U.K. — and the last.
Here in America, after Sandy Hook, the cycle of emotions started, and when we finally looked away, nothing had changed. I am not convinced that gun laws will change in this country, even less than a month after America had one mass shooting per day for an entire week that ended with a mass shooting in Buffalo.
There comes a moment when you must accept the truth and what it says about you despite what you have been led to believe. We are not the greatest country in the world. This is not what greatness looks like, and it is not how greatness chooses to respond amid a troubling and overwhelming moment. If we were great and if we really loved our children, then attacks against them would not only lead to prayers, thoughts, vigils but change. We would move mountains to ensure that our children were safe.
We live in a country that has more guns than people. There are 258.3 million adults in America, and there are estimated to be over 400 million guns between the police, the military, and civilians, with civilians owning 393 million. According to the Pew Research Center, only 30 percent of Americans own a legally registered gun, so 98 percent of the registered guns in this country are in the hands of approximately 77 million people.
The U.S. has just 4 percent of the world’s population but owns about 40 percent of civilian-owned guns globally. In this country, we are more likely to die from gun violence than from many leading causes of death combined. So far this year, there have been 212 mass shootings and 27 school shootings with injuries or deaths. In comparison, there were 693 in 2021, another 611 in 2020, and 417 in 2019.
In 2019, after someone pointed a rifle at my youngest son and me, I reached out to a therapist friend who told me that when I feel most afraid, I should say to myself things like, “I am safe. My son is safe. We are safe.” I have come back to this moment and said those words countless times, and every time I do, the realist in me whispers, “for now.” I know that things will not change until Congress changes them.
According to the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, they can start by passing both the Keep Americans Safe Act (H.R.2510 / S.1108), which would prohibit the sale and transfer of high-capacity magazines, and the Assault Weapons Ban of 2021, which would ban the sale, transfer, manufacture, and importation of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. We also need to get rid of our obsession with guns because until we do that, we will never be safe. More importantly, our children will never be safe.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the Founding Executive Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland and the 2021 Edward R. Murrow Regional Award- winning radio host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She is the mother of two sons and a bonus daughter.
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