There’s a cadence to the aftermath of school shootings. Everyone plays their role, including journalists both near and far from the scene.
When news from Santa Clarita, Calif., began breaking, and #schoolshooting started trending on Twitter, it was rote to set aside the work that had consumed the first hours of my day: studies of the U.S-Mexico border.
Reflexively, I began a perverse calculation that in itself was a striking admission of how routine thinking can become to such horrific violence.
I sought the death count. I wanted it to estimate how long this shooting might remain in the national spotlight. Long enough to carry interest in a column? It’s a morbid but honest assessment, which includes scouting for credible reports of the wounded to gauge the likelihood that the number would rise.
A 15-year-old girl was soon reported deceased, and soon she was followed by a 14-year-old boy.
By such unholy standards, Santa Clarita will not make the list of the nation’s most lethal cases of gun violence. Not even close.
And yet that’s why it should be studied.
The first few hours after virtually every school shooting now has come to illustrate boldly, and sometimes with callous inhumanity, how fractured and completely polarized the nation has grown.
We need to recognize when we are trapped in the typical circular, dismissive arguments and vow to do better. Otherwise, all the work, all the bloodshed and continuing trauma, could be for naught.
One thing that struck me last week was how oddly rehearsed the comments posted to social media were so soon after a shooting, as wounded children literally clung to life. Any stray bit of information was neatly folded into a debate point.
For example, word came that the 16-year-old shooter carried a .45 caliber pistol and fired 6 shots — one into each of his victims and the final bullet into his own head. This information was immediately used to question legislating around assault-style weapons capable of arming shooters with many more rounds. Coldly, the message seemed to be: Hey, kids are still gonna shoot kids.
Others eagerly pointed out that California is known for strict gun laws. Hey, gun control legislation isn’t going to protect you.
But as we all know, surrounding states have far less stringent laws and that allows for carrying or trafficking firearms across state lines. Which should logically lead to a conversation about national legislation, such as a universal background check bill that has been passed in the House but is held up by the Senate.
Hours after the news broke, I learned that a former colleague’s son had hidden, along with the rest of the Saugus High School junior varsity basketball team, during the shooting. His father, an Associated Press photographer, had once been my partner in producing dozens of news stories together.
As school shootings continue, it will be like that for more people. We will all know someone who has experienced one. No one approach, legislated or not, is a panacea. That fact alone could undercut a good percentage of the blather that follows any school shooting.
So what can we do?
Such is the case with the role mental illness in these attacks. Most people struggling with a mental illness are not violent. But mental health is obviously a potential issue when a person is willing to target and murder peers and strangers alike, often execution-style, and that factor should be at the center of discussions of possible solutions.
Many parents of school children today were teenagers in 1999 when two students killed 13 and wounded 24 at Columbine High School in Colorado, which has come to signify the first highly noted case. They’ve watched as their children learned simulated “games” like Rabbit in the Hole to practice hiding from shooters. They’ve grown accustomed to locked school entrances and passed tax levies to fund redesigned schools, conceived with active shooters in mind.
These families are crucial if the nation is ever going to surround our schools not simply with the best protocols to react to shooters, but to truly lessen the threat.
Email Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.