Opinion: Columbine survivor asks, ‘What does it have to take?’
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today
They yelled and laughed that they wanted to “kill the world.” As two young gunmen ran by the closet that 33 of my peers, my biology teacher and I were hiding in, the world that we knew quickly and loudly collapsed.
In the months that followed the shooting at Columbine High School, the tragedy had a rippling effect on the entire community. For months, sometimes years, those of us at the school the day of the shooting jumped and cried at loud noises, created a neurotic vigilance of our environment and quite often just could not seem to finish sentences.
Many do not know that our community lost young people to suicide in the year that followed. Teachers left the profession. Families did what they could, but there wasn’t federal funding available for those who lost loved ones and whose children were hiding or who ran from the building.
I’m not sure words suffice to describe the anguish and horror on the face of my own father as I saw him from within a bus. He ran beside all the buses coming into the parking lot of a nearby elementary school after we had finally been rescued from the school and questioned by the FBI. Still today, I wonder if my family is OK.
Why do I share these details about Columbine on this 20th anniversary of the shooting? I worry we have become desensitized by violence and forget the real effect that it has. I write wanting to show that shootings are not singular events but rather, result in sometimes thousands of individual traumas and communities that take years to heal.
Many also do not seem to believe gun violence is their issue because their children have not directly experienced it. I wonder what it is going to take for each of us to see that the children daily affected by gun violence, whether it be at a school, in neighborhoods or in places of armed conflict, are our children.
What will it take for us to connect our own experiences with hardship and tragedy with those of others, so that we might also begin to see our shared work? Does it help hearing the raw and dirty details of what really happens when gun violence rips through communities?
This past week a young woman “infatuated” by the shooting at Columbine was able to fly from Florida to Colorado and quickly buy guns to shoot up a school. Thankfully, this did not happen.
What did happen was schools across the state closed. Parents, taking off work, tried their best to calm their children when they themselves were terrified and on alert. Our children are already practicing active shooter drills, which they call “shush drills” for the babies not yet old enough to understand.
In contrast, it took less than a month for the country of New Zealand to draft comprehensive gun legislation to prevent another atrocity after the shooting at Christchurch left 49 dead, many others wounded and a community that will take years to heal. New Zealand is actively addressing racism in new ways and has chosen not to popularize the shooter in the media to prevent future “infatuation” by individuals. This has happened in months.
We, here in the states, have chosen to accept “shush” drills rather than passing legislation that limits gun ownership. We also choose jails and prisons to hide our mental health and substance abuse epidemics, making drug addiction more criminal than buying a semi-automatic machine gun.
Today, we allow politicians and media to foment our own fear and pain to scapegoat along racial lines. Violence surrounds us, and we allow for it every time issues are believed to not be our issues.
We choose violence and suffering when brown babies and families being locked up on the border is not our issue; when legislation stripping away environmental protection is not our issue; when police shoot young black children in hoodies mistaking them for “thugs”; and, yes, when yet another school and community is turned upside down after another young white man or woman comes to “kill the world.”
I have to ask what our priorities are. I understand that many people want guns for both hunting and recreation. I ask these individuals, however, to please suspend your fear that someone is threatening you by taking away guns and consider that the real threat already surrounds us today.
Perhaps, it is about seeing the hard truth with wide eyes — the truth that there is a mass shooting nine out of 10 days in the United States and our children are already suffering the consequences of this. We have tried weaponizing ourselves as if the guns in our closets will protect our children when the school bell rings.
We are deciding what sort of world our young people will grow up in through our actions and inactions. Today, we have chosen guns over the health and safety of our communities.
Those of us from the Columbine community have learned deep compassion and developed hearty resiliency and strong purpose in the wake of tragedy. We learned that our community’s tragedy is connected to that of others and that there is something we all can do to change it.
On this 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School, I write to honor the experience of our own specific tragedy and the many others suffering today unnecessarily from gun violence. I ask that each of us look at each other with softer and more tender eyes recognizing each of us is experiencing a struggle. I implore that we all start to more actively decide that the world we want our children to live in is not one of chaotic violence.
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