At an Earth Day celebration in 1992, I volunteered to hand out information about the upcoming Brady Bill, which would mandate federal background checks on firearm purchasers in the United States, and impose a five-day waiting period on purchases. It was named after Jim Brady, who was shot in the head during an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1991. He spent the rest of his life paralyzed from the waist down.
In the Spring of 1996, I was sightseeing in London and my cab driver, a red-faced man with a sweet Irish brogue, told me about the Dunblane school massacre, in which a former scout leader entered an elementary school, shooting 32 students and teachers, 16 of whom died. It had happened two months earlier, and he still couldn’t talk about it without crying.
Still angry and frustrated, he asked me, “Has the whole world gone MOD, de ya thank?” I tried to assure him this sort of thing was a fluke, a tragic event carried out by a lone madman– but it was not something that would happen regularly. I remember thinking, even as I spoke “…and I’m so glad it doesn’t happen in the United States.”
When we were still singing Jesus Christ Is Risen Today, three weeks after Easter in 1999, the Columbine shootings in Colorado took the lives of 14 students and 1 teacher, and left 21 more injured. I wrote an editorial about the tragedy as I watched my own sons, ages 5 and 10, run freely through the yard. It was the first story I ever had published.
Two years later, while I was in seminary, I attended the funeral of our babysitter’s teenage brother. Against every precaution his father had taken and taught his son, the boy had been showing off his father’s gun when the accident happened.
In September 2004, the Beslan School Siege took place over a period of three days, when a group of armed Islamic terrorists took 1100 people hostage in a Russian school cafeteria, 777 of them children. By the time the military took control complete with tanks, 385 children were dead. In June 2006, I read the detailed story in Esquire, and wrote a letter to the editor in which I predicted the writer, C.J. Chivers, an American journalist of Irish descent and retired Marine, would receive a Pullitzer for his incredible account. Esquire published my letter in August, and Chivers went on to receive a Pullitzer the following year.
Nowadays, people in the land of the free can recall shootings as easily as their ABC’s — Aurora, Baltimore, Chardon, DeKalb, Edinboro…Newtown, Ocala, Portland … Virginia Tech. Instead of listening to a lone cabbie cry two months after a shooting, I listen as civil servants call ordinary folks to take up arms and take a gun class, and I see comments post by the thousands, most of them with a hearty Here Here! as if THIS will stop the madness.
Recently I listened to a woman who was directly affected by one of the shootings rage: “people don’t understand, it doesn’t stop after the tragedy, the PTSD, the fallout goes on for years!” The year after the shooting that scarred her family, fourteen high school students in a town of 5000 committed suicide. Prior to that, there had been only three.
Tonight a friend texted me that we should meet to walk and have a drink, adding: “I’m curious to see why the world events seem particulary anxiety-producing for you now.”
That’s when I realized, it isn’t just now. This anxiety has been a long time coming. It’s just that in the beginning, I could more easily contain it because I really believed what I told that tender Irish cabbie: “surely it’s not something that will ever happen regularly.”