Two weeks after the publication of this issue will mark the 10-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. It was a day that forever changed my hometown and forever changed me.
I was 11-years-old when it happened. Too old to still be in elementary school. I was about three miles away at Reed Intermediate School. The lockdown announcement came at the start of my gym class. We thought it was a drill; for the first 10 minutes or so there was no reason to believe that it wasn’t.
I still remember the exact moment I realized something was wrong. At the time, the door that led from the gym to the back hallway had a lock that used to stick. One of our gym teachers came out of the office with an aluminum baseball bat and sat in front of that door. I didn’t know we even had aluminum baseball bats. I still wonder sometimes what he knew at that point, and what he was mentally preparing himself to have to do with that bat.
The parents were receiving just bits of information as the story unfolded. My mom said the first phone call they got just said that there had been a shooting at one of the Newtown schools. My brother and I were in two different schools, so she had no idea if it was one of ours. She was with one of my friends’ moms when she got the second call, confirming that it was Sandy Hook. She described feeling a split second of pure relief at the discovery that it wasn’t her own kids, instantly followed by the horrifying realization that that meant it was someone else’s.
And what they don’t tell you about communities affected by gun violence is that it doesn’t end for us when the national conversation moves on. There are some things you never get to truly heal from. This is one of them. Every waking moment offers new aftershocks.
Sometimes the lasting effects are outright horrifying. On his infamous show InfoWars, Alex Jones peddled the unhinged and inhumane conspiracy theory that the worst day of our lives was a hoax, staged with crisis actors. His lies drew out followers that represent the absolute worst of humanity. Our teachers received death threats. More years than not we’ve had bomb threats to the schools on the anniversary. One just a few years ago forced the evacuation of the school. It got so bad that we simply gave up; there is no longer school on Dec. 14.
Sometimes it’s the smallest little details that hit the hardest. I volunteer with the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary, one of the many charities that emerged to honor a victim. Every year they host an animal adoption event called Catherine’s Butterfly Party, on the weekend of her birthday. This year there was a special theme: Sweet Sixteen. This would have been her sixteenth birthday.
In a better world, she would be in high school right now. She would have been begging her parents to take her to the DMV to get her learner’s permit. She’d be warding off everyone’s questions about where she wanted to go to college. She would be going with her friends to pick out her prom dress. In this world, she’s never going to get any of those things.
Mass shootings have only gotten more common in the years since Sandy Hook. Even just in the last two weeks that I’ve been working on this article, there have been two: the Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo. and Walmart in Chesapeake, Va. Education Week publishes a School Shootings Tracker. In this year alone there have been 46 incidents, with a total of 36 people killed and another 95 injured. The fact that a School Shootings Tracker even exists should be a sign that something is horrifically wrong with the gun laws in this country.
And every time there is a new tragedy, I’m 11 years old again, sitting in the dark gym, staring at that bat. Every time I get a text in the group chat with my home friends that says some version of “I love you, stay safe, maybe don’t watch the news today.” Every time I wait for the politicians to make statements, hoping against hope for policy change that never comes.
We should have been the last mass shooting in this country. The outrage over 20 dead children should have been all that it took to change the laws. In other countries, that’s how it works. Following a mass shooting at Dunblane Primary School in 1996, the UK banned semi-automatic weapons and private ownership of almost all handguns. That should have been our reaction. In the time since, the UK has seen roughly 30 gun deaths per year, compared to 19,384 in the United States in 2020 alone. That’s what justice looks like.
Sandy Hook could have been the last school shooting in America. We should have been the last. But we weren’t, because the National Rifle Association has too firm a grip on the Republican party, and some voters have such a strong enough affinity for their weapons of mass destruction that they no longer have a heart.
All I can think about, every time, is how now there are hundreds more people that have to feel the way I feel. More kids that will never get to see their hometown the way they did before. More parents who have to take a few deep breaths before waving goodbye to the school bus in the morning. More teachers that have to build up the courage to go back to their workplace. More people that have to relieve the worst day of their lives over and over again, each time watching the same thing happen to someone new.
For the past decade, there has been a cyclical reaction to gun violence in America. A mass shooting occurs, there is a week or two of 24-hours news coverage, victims and political pundits call for reform, cowardly opponents offer thoughts and prayers, no reform comes and everyone moves on. Except for the people who live and work in those communities who never get to be the same again.
So what can we do?
Firstly, it is imperative that we hold politicians accountable, and check the power of certain interest groups. Call your congressperson. Call your state representatives. Call your local representatives. Demand gun safety reforms from all those in power capable of enacting them.
The National Rifle Association issues grades and endorsements for politicians in current elections. Check the grades of your preferred candidate. If the NRA endorses your candidate, take a good hard look at every classmate, coworker and kid in your life, and ask yourself if you can really stomach voting for someone who refuses to protect them.
Secondly, find organizations working to prevent gun violence, and support them in any way possible. If you can, give them your money. If you can’t, give them your time. Some of my personal recommendations are Everytown For Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action and Sandy Hook Promise, but there are many other amazing organizations doing important gun violence prevention work all across the country that deserve recognition.
And lastly, keep paying attention. We cannot only show up to fight against gun violence after a new community has faced the worst. Show up today. Show up tomorrow. And keep showing up until something changes.
I wish I could tell you that things have gotten better in the last 10 years. I wish I could tell you that there is no way that something like this could ever happen in a place that you love. I wish I could, but I can’t. But if we work hard, if we defend each other, and if we demand justice, maybe in the next ten years we can make things better.