Yesterday was a weird day in Colorado. Because a woman flew here from Florida seemingly intent on commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting with a killing spree of her own, most schools were closed in and around the Denver metro area. Usually when schools close suddenly here, it’s because of snow and many students celebrate a snow day. No one was celebrating yesterday. Parents scrambled to find last minute child care. Lots of parents took the day off, losing pay or a vacation day and falling behind at work. These parents tried to explain to their young children why they were out of school in the middle of the week while the sun was shining. Most of the parents I encountered said they struggled with how much to say and how to say it.
The children currently enrolled in school weren’t yet born during the Columbine shooting. Some of the students are the children of those original Columbine survivors. These students have grown up in an age where lockdowns and active shooter drills are as much a part of the school day as art classes and math quizzes. But the sudden shuttering of school on a random Wednesday? There’s nothing ordinary about that.
When the Columbine shooting took place 20 years ago this week, I was brand new to Colorado. I lived in an apartment near Columbine High School. I often ran in the park where the students from Columbine congregated in the afternoons. On the day of the shooting, I couldn’t go home until police opened the road leading to my apartment complex. So I watched the television reports with my new coworkers at the PBS station in Denver and felt mostly a sense of deja vu. It hadn’t been two years since I’d watched the Pearl High School shooting news with coworkers at a PBS station in Austin, Texas. Now people barely remember that shooting in Pearl, Mississippi. Because only (only?!) two students were killed, it doesn’t even meet our current definition of a mass shooting. But it looms large for me, because I grew up in Mississippi. I had cousins in Pearl. I’d spent time there.
Twenty years ago, I remember thinking it was nuts to have two high school shootings in such quick succession. I was naive. We now live in a time when school shootings happen so often that we don’t wonder if there will be another one; we only wonder if there will be another one today.
And yet, in 20 years we’ve done nothing meaningful to stop school shootings. Sure, police and school officials now respond more quickly when a threat emerges. They take threats more seriously than they used to. But we still live in a world where it’s possible for an 18-year-old woman to hop on a plane and buy a gun within hours of landing. This woman was too young to rent a car, but she legally purchased a pump-action shotgun and a sack full of ammunition from a local gun shop near Columbine. It was easy. Out-of-state license? No problem. Too young to buy a drink at a bar? Who cares. And because of this, thousands of kids were kept home yesterday and their parents were tasked with answering a bunch of difficult questions. And a young woman, clearly troubled, killed herself at the base of a popular Colorado hiking trail.
I’ve ranted on about our gun laws in this space before. It seems silly to do it again. No one cares. But why do we have to make buying a gun so damned easy? Most states in America require a months-long waiting period before a couple can divorce. Before we issue a driver’s license, we require drivers to obtain a permit that restricts their time behind the wheel and calls for supervision from an adult licensed driver. For good or for ill, we have no problem making people wait to do all sorts of things in America. We’ve clearly said that just because you have the right to do something, it doesn’t mean we’re going to let you do it right now
So why don’t we require some sort of waiting period to obtain a gun? It’s the smallest of small steps, but it might have made a difference in this case. If this woman had been forced to wait even a day before walking away with a gun, most of this mess could have been averted. By that time, her parents would have reported her missing and police would have found the evidence of what she was planning. They could have alerted gun sellers and stopped her from purchasing the weapon. And I know you’re thinking that it wouldn’t do anything to stop her from buying a gun on the street. You may be right, but this woman didn’t seem to know anyone in Colorado. It’s hard to imagine she would have tracked down an illegal gun dealer within hours of landing.
If she’d been made to wait even just a little bit, students in Denver wouldn’t have missed a day in school. Parents wouldn’t have missed work and spent the day trying to explain this whole stupid mess to their sons and daughters. And that woman from Florida, also someone’s daughter, might still be alive. She might have had a chance to get help, to conquer her demons, and to live an ordinary life.
But this is America. And America has decided that the right to buy a gun on demand is more important than the safety and well-being of schoolchildren. We’ve pledged allegiance to corrupt politicians and to the money grubbing, duplicitous lobbyists at the NRA. We’ve made a choice and these are the consequences. We created this mess and we’re unwilling to fix it. We probably deserve every bad thing that happens because of our bad decisions. But the kids? They didn’t ask for this and they deserve better.
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