Wednesday marks the tenth anniversary of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This blogger lived in Newtown, CT, for years before and after. Experiencing the event as a resident of that small town, I find the national discourse around it callous toward the real people involved, and off base regarding America’s deepest priorities.
To be clear, much that I will say is based on word of mouth. I can’t prove many things I know about the event, but I know them. It’s small town life.
We knew people who lost children – not well, but knew them. We knew other parents of students at the school. We knew people who knew the murderer’s family. We knew people who involved themselves in variegated efforts afterwards. We knew people in community nexus points, restaurants and local newspaper and hair salons and town government. We knew neighbors, friends, and associates from local activities. It’s small town life.
So I know things.
The killer’s mother would tell babysitters “don’t turn your back on that one” when he was younger. She owned assault rifles because they made her ‘feel strong.’
The sight of a tumble round’s impact on a child destroys mature adults’ equilibrium.
Having a child at the school, even one who was able to escape without seeing the shooter, leaves a permanent primal fear. It also means you might have to walk through the day a full year later, to recover memory of the actual sequence of who you spoke to, where you went.
For those further from direct harm, the awkwardness combined with pain is stifling. A week-long church youth retreat elicited an “I guess it’s ok to talk about this” only as the kids were going home. A stranger handed my wife a flower outside the supermarket, saying “I just want to do something for someone in this town.”
Of course Newtown lives in the nation and world. All of us live in those spaces too, even as our daily routines reside in small familiar circles. When big news hits small town, our little lives suddenly look very big for a while. Microphones get pushed in your face. You get a handle on worldwide attention. People you know show up on screen.
Rough edges come out. A reporter is overheard in a now-jammed local coffeeshop … ”I can get a person who knows the family of a victim … I know, it’s not the best but they’ll talk …”. A waitress hears one too many remarks about Americans and throws some foreign media workers out of a restaurant. “Tragedy tourists” flood the little hamlet and pose for pictures.
For those further away, and for that part of us that lives in the globosphere, gun control became the instant focus. I didn’t know – I don’t think many did – that a shooting sports group was headquartered in Newtown, but I was asked if that contributed to the shooting. (I suspect it had less effect than the fact that Newtown was where a murderer put his victim through a woodchipper, reputedly inspiring a scene in the movie ‘Fargo.’) Outsiders say how terrible it is, and in the next breath, “we have to do something about guns.” Others who oppose gun control – or the political subculture that demands it – insist the event came from a conspiracy. And a New York Times story notes, ten years later, how Sandy Hook galvanized new movement in gun safety legislation.
So, gun control. Yes, access to automatic weapons makes murder too easy. No, triggers don’t pull themselves. Video games featuring lifelike gun sighting makes mass murder feel feasible. Sick people are sick – several months later I was told of a woman who reported to authorities that her foster child said he would get a gun and take them all to heaven – and got a string of referrals to the ‘right place’ to call. Whatever the merits of the gun control dispute, media and policy makers use real people for ends that are bureaucratic at best, political (or fame-chasing – how different are they?) at worst.
Gun control is not the underlying issue. America’s discourse should start with our founding premise. America exists for people in their rights. How does gun control affect those rights? What else leads to mass murder and how should we address those concerns? Does our political handling of such questions show free society as sustainable? Does our creed, of individual rights and government dedicated to them, work in practice?
In Newtown, the best of us do what they can. One parent founded a wildlife sanctuary to celebrate her child’s love of nature. Another group mounts programs to build up a context of friendship and kindness in children’s lives. Many, victims’ relatives and others, have embarked on new reflections and ways of life. These and other efforts can nudge society to support real people, rather than using their lives as props for argument.
No national discourse can engage the real lives on the ground directly. But the right baseline for national discourse is that rights are best preserved if we use them to build our best selves.