American Violence: Fear and Hope in Recent Shootings

American Violence: Fear and Hope in Recent Shootings (Chase Castor via Getty Images)

An American life is, increasingly, a violent life.

Within the last week upwards of five separate shootings in the United States have made international news: three teenagers and one young man were shot and killed at a 16th birthday party in Alabama; a 16-year-old boy was shot and wounded after ringing a stranger’s doorbell in Missouri; one young woman was mistakenly shot and killed in a stranger’s driveway in New York State; a 6-year-old girl was shot by her neighbor in North Carolina; and two high-school cheerleaders were shot after one accidentally tried to get in the wrong car in a Texas parking lot. 

These shootings should be shocking. They are shocking, to a degree. They are undoubtedly horrifying. They are heartbreaking. And they are normal.

Like the vast majority of American youth, I write from the experience of growing up in a world that is post Sandy Hook. My elementary school in the early aughts had laminated cards to post in classroom windows if and when an active shooter entered school grounds, so that school security and police would know the status of those inside: green, if all kids were accounted for; yellow, if one or more was missing; and red if one was injured. Each year from K-12 we sat in at least one active shooter drill, all of us huddled and whispering, semi-glad for an excuse to stop whatever classwork we were working on and sit in the quiet dark for fifteen minutes. We would study beneath our desks by the slanting light of our classroom’s closed blinds, and clamber up when the all-clear sounded from the loudspeaker. Twice in my high school career my school came under active threat, and the day after each, myself and my peers went almost seamlessly back to business as usual.

News coverage of shootings often focuses on the intractable nature of such public violence. It will profile the victims or the shooters, dissect how and why each party was where they were, how the shooter got their gun and what the victim might have done to deserve being shot. Think pieces come out from the left and right, lamentations on the poor state of our mental healthcare, condemnations of gun laws and the National Rifle Association, impassioned pleas for change from victims (if they are still alive) and their families. For a glorious week and a half, our national attention is fixed, glued to the news and to the soap-opera of these people’s lives. Have they died yet? Are they still in the hospital? Is the shooter in custody? They have our attention for a week and a half, until a shiny new toy–often a different pistol–comes along to steal it away. 

To quote British columnist Dan Hodges’ widely-circulated 2015 tweet, “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” The shooting victims of the past week were not shot at school, but they were all young children or young adults, all shot and some killed for existing in the path of someone with a gun. In a parking lot, in a driveway, on a lawn, on a front porch, and at a private event.

No one wants to be on the news speaking about their child’s death. Everyone wants to believe–and everyone does, until they can’t–that the tragedies we so often read about cannot happen to them or to the people they love. It is a wonderful salve to that pain, the pain of knowing you could be shot at any moment in this country, to believe in your own exemption.

I was in highschool in California when the 2018 Parkland shooting happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. I walked out of classes to protest gun violence in schools with my peers, and marched on the State capitol with family and friends. We thought there might be change, and when we marched there were people generations older than us who would stop to shake our hands, and say, “Your generation is going to save the world someday.”

Saturday’s shooting at a 16th birthday party in Dadeville, Alabama, brought the total number of mass shootings in 2023 in the United States to 160, as reported by the Gun Violence Archive. As a kid you believe that you can enact change. As a teenager you look around and wonder why no one has. As an adult you begin to lose hope, and you begin to understand why.

Gun control, for the majority of its opponents, represents an issue much larger than the number of deaths on the table. For many individuals, the idea of gun control presents an intrinsic threat to their livelihoods and to their ideas of patriotism. Gun reform is often portrayed by far-right pundits and populist legislators as a slippery-slope, a piece of gateway-legislation that would bring the nation one step closer to totalitarianism. It is much easier to accept gun violence if you are afraid, if you believe your only other option is a complete loss of individual autonomy. But legislation is malleable at its core, and there are far more options available to us than we are often led to believe.

Change is not something that happens accidentally. It will never happen if we continue to wait for some imaginary catalyst too egregious to ignore; Sandy Hook has already happened. 

Individual voices matter. Individual lives matter. I have to believe that that is true, because I would like to live in a world where individual autonomy is not reliant upon a quiet, nation-wide acquiescence to a life ruled by fear.

It’s difficult to advocate for change in any meaningful way because I am well aware of the barriers to action for all of us. Looming large among them is the common belief that nothing we do matters. That we, the citizens of this country and of this world, are already doomed to a life haunted by gun violence, climate change, authoritarianism, and other specters. This is the largest barrier. 

Without hope, inaction is easy. But hope — intentional hope, chosen over and over again — is the only place where change begins.

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