In 1992, my son was killed in a school shooting in Massachusetts, a random victim of a disturbed fellow college student who’d purchased a semiautomatic rifle at a local gun shop and smuggled it onto campus. College officials had been warned that this student had a gun, but they didn’t know how to respond; school shootings were still too new.
How could we have imagined then the cellphone videos of the carnage in Las Vegas? Or Thousand Oaks, Calif. trending on social media because a dozen people, including college students, were slaughtered in a country music bar?
America’s response to our gun problem has taken some strange turns since 1992. We no longer ask, “How could this have happened?” Gun violence has become reliable content in the 24-hour news cycle.
Survivor activists work toward the cultural change we’ll need to eradicate the virus that’s grown bone-deep in us. Lucy McBath, a black woman whose 17-year-old son was shot and killed by a white man for playing loud music, got angry enough to run for Congress in Georgia — and last week she won the seat. Manuel Oliver, whose son was killed in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, makes public art related to gun violence, including a 3-D printed model of his son.
Other responses seem strange in darker ways. One of the strangest is the idea, recently endorsed by Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, that putting guns in schools will reduce school shootings. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, President Trump seconded the motion: “If they had some kind of protection inside the temple, maybe it could have been a very much different situation.”
I think of the crowded school library in which my son died. I try to imagine a librarian drawing her Glock and returning fire.
This scenario resonates for me. A few years ago, tired of being told by gun rights people that I knew nothing about firearms, I bought a handgun and learned to carry and use it. I found the transgressive nature of the exercise stimulating. Survivors of gun violence are not supposed to walk around with guns. I also discovered, to my surprise, that shooting was therapeutic. I was mastering the instrument of my suffering. Now I reckon I’m at just the level of casual knowledge that a gun-owning janitor or history teacher might be expected to have attained. What if I’d been in that library in 1992, charged with keeping my son safe?
I put the question to a man I know, a retired Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who specializes in training people to use guns defensively — the kind of training that this administration might want to give teachers, the kind that the National Rifle Association imagines could stop the killer in a mass shooting.
This man spoke with me about the low proficiency of the average gun owner: “Imagine shooting hoops in your driveway and thinking you can play in the N.B.A.” He spoke of the hundreds of hours necessary to achieve the Zen-like level of expertise in which, in the midst of chaos, responses are instantaneous and instinctive. He spoke of the continual training necessary to maintain those skills, and he generously agreed to take me through an abbreviated version of that curriculum, training intended to turn an average shooter into, well, what exactly? I wasn’t sure.
He took me to an indoor range — a wide, low hall separated into shooting lanes, reminiscent of a bowling alley, tucked in the woods behind an ice skating arena.
For my introductory lesson, he had me practice keeping my finger on the trigger as it came forward after a shot and firing again the instant it reset, putting more rounds into the target in less time. Hypothetically, anyway. It was a hot day. The gun wriggled in my hands like a slippery metal fish as I pulled the trigger, got back on target, felt the trigger catch and fired again.
If I did it over and over, from every conceivable position, in every possible situation, at some hypothetical time in the distant future I would be transformed into a — let’s be honest about it — trained killer. A highly trained killer, perpetually in a state of lethal hypervigilance, in a college library trying to kill a less trained killer.
This thinking, of course, was the sort of distraction that would get me killed in the scenario for which I was training. I steadied my grip on the gun.
I know. This is my weird trip. Part of my survivor’s journey. Twenty-six years and counting. I thought of the anguished parents of the people who died in Thousand Oaks, of all the parents of any child who is fatally shot. I wondered where their journeys would take them.
Betsy DeVos will eventually leave her job. But where will we be by then? What becomes of us when civilians need guns to keep them safe from civilians with guns?
We might succeed in training the rare history teacher or rabbi to shoot like a special forces operative. But that’s no guarantee our children will be any safer 26 years from now.