Last week, our nation was rocked to the core by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary that ended the lives of 20 children and six adults. This weekend we sat together remembering years ago when we had the same raw, devastating and surreal conversations dozens of families were forced to have this weekend — both the victims’ families and the murderer’s family. We shared the same screams of grief; the same moans of despair.
On February 2, 1996, we lost our 14-year-old brother to one of the first highly publicized school shootings in our country. He, along with another student and their teacher, were shot and killed by a classmate. Another student was critically wounded, but thankfully survived to endure the long road of physical and emotional recovery. An entire school lost its innocence. Our lives became divided into two: before Arnie died and after. We endured the media’s relentless presence through funerals, memorials and then the trial of the killer. We hoped and prayed that maybe this tragedy would be a wake up call that would force needed conversations around access to guns, mental health resources, and school safety.
Ten months later our teenage cousin used legally owned guns to shoot and kill his mom and his young sister before committing suicide. The guns were hunting rifles that were stored in the family home. The home also had a gun safe. They were by many counts responsible gun owners. The error was that a 14-year-old boy, depressed by his cousin’s murder, among other things, had access to those guns.
Our cousin and the boy who killed our brother had three things in common: signs of mental health problems, easy access to guns, and crimes that were committed at a time when our country did not have the courage or will to honestly look at our culture of violence, have difficult conversations and implement effective change.
A hard reality we are facing is that we have also been part of the problem. Our desire and resolve to ensure that no family need endure what ours had took very personal routes. We received undergraduate degrees in Political Science, Sociology and Psychology, graduate degrees in Public Administration and Education. We used those degrees to try to affect change through our work. Over 17 years, this has included front-line social work with at-risk teens, middle school teaching, school administration, juvenile-justice policy work and running a public safety non-profit. While our brother’s death influenced the work we do to generate change in our own spheres of influence, we have also joined in complacency and acceptance of this pervasive and complex problem.
It’s 17 years later and there have been nearly 50 mass shootings since. The terms “school shooting” and “mass shooting” have become commonplace. This is a norm we must refuse to accept. Can we finally have the courage to address our attitudes around guns, mental health, and general acceptance of a culture of violence?
It’s time. It’s been time for a very, very, very long time. This WILL happen again. And again. Until we address, among other things, mental health resources and gun laws.
The issues are complex. However, complexity should not be an excuse for inaction. When we have faced other challenging problems in our country, including mass violence (9/11), we responded with new laws and procedures, to improve safety. When we have disease outbreaks, we respond with vaccines, treatments, and public awareness campaigns. These responses are not deemed “political.” They are deemed necessary.
Some choose to call any conversation about gun violence political. While uncomfortable, difficult and complex, these conversations are responsible, we believe. There is no single answer to prevent horrific acts of violence from happening again. However, to pretend guns and bullets are not part of the problem is simply irresponsible.
We know that in mass shootings, like those that impacted our family, the perpetrators are almost always young males with histories of mental health problems (documented and undocumented). They have easy access to weapons, often legally obtained by family members. We also know that gun violence is preventable. Those states with the most reasonable gun laws have far fewer gun deaths than those states that have the least restrictions. Gun violence claims more than 30,000 lives a year in our country. The US ranks 8th in the world for the number of homicides by firearm. According to an ABC news report in July, “among the world’s 23 wealthiest countries, 80 percent of all gun deaths are American deaths and 87 percent of all kids killed by guns are American kids.”
As a society, we have failed. We have failed the young men screaming for help and we have failed each and every one of their victims.
The goal is to mitigate gun violence through common-sense gun policies. We believe guns should be no less regulated than automobiles: to own one, you have to register it; to drive it, you have to get a license, and obtain liability insurance; and just as we have laws requiring cars to have seat-belts and laws that require people to wear them, every gun must come with a trigger lock or similar safety device to mitigate its inherent risks.
Also integral in these discussions is the need to address mental health resources, especially for adolescents. Our mental health system has been decimated over the last 30 years. In the last four years alone, states have reduced mental health expenditures by at least $4.35 billion. It’s the largest reduction in funding since de-institutionalization in the 1960s and ’70s.
Finally, we must also address change at the personal level. As individuals, we have to ask ourselves what price we are willing to pay to save the innocent victims of gun violence. After almost every one of the highly publicized mass shootings since our brother’s death, we hear from friends who tell us they are thinking of us because they know the pain resurfaces. We have thanked them, called for change, and moved on. After Newtown, the conversations have shifted. Each one of us has had meaningful and courageous dialogue with friends and family who disagree with our beliefs on gun laws. For the first time, we find people engaging in discussions about what common-sense restrictions, policies and support would look like rather than having knee-jerk reactions that are polarizing. Unfortunately, we have also seen an increase in the call for more guns, including the absolutely horrific idea of arming teachers. We are also forcing ourselves to engage in the conversations and not just “agree to disagree.” By agreeing to disagree, we’ve been part of the problem for the past 17 years.
While improving mental health services and enacting common-sense gun laws will not eradicate gun violence, they will mitigate gun deaths. After December 14th, we can no longer turn away from difficult but necessary and responsible discussions that lead to improving the safety of our most vulnerable — our children.
We hugged our kids that night. Tight. While we did so, we knew that hugging them would do NOTHING to keep them safe. It’s time to begin the difficult conversations. It’s been time for a very, very long time. Please join us by getting to know your local laws, contacting your elected officials at the local, state and federal levels to express your desire for common-sense change and increased mental health resources. Don’t let your voice be silent because the problem seems too complex. Finally, talk about these issues with your friends and family. Engage in courageous and difficult conversations and make sure those conversations focus on actions and solutions. While these conversations might be uncomfortable, they have to occur. Our brother deserved it 17 years ago. All of our kids deserve it today, the ones we tuck in at night and the 2,000 that one of us is responsible for every day.
R. Hopkins and N. Fritz are Washington State natives and have lived in the Seattle area for the last 14 years. Hopkins runs a local public safety non-profit and Fritz is an assistant principal in a local high school. L. Fritz is a small business owner and lives with her family in Spokane. Their brother was killed in the 1996 Frontier Jr. High School shooting in Moses Lake, Washington. Their views are their own.