When I was seven years old, a teenage student of the high school from which I'd eventually graduate shot up a local elementary school. If not the first of her kind, Brenda Spencer was certainly an anomaly in 1970s America. I read a comment somewhere that when Spencer shot up Cleveland Elementary in San Diego on January 29, 1979, her act was so unimaginable that it inspired a song about her motive.
At the time of the crime, Spencer was a student at Patrick Henry High School. I graduated from Patrick Henry in 1990. The high school Spencer and I both attended isn't far from where I grew up. Spencer lived across the street from Cleveland Elementary and shot from her bedroom window.
I’m not sure where Cleveland Elementary was located. The school is no longer in existence and I was not a student there. But the date of the crime grabbed my attention and I did some mental arithmetic. I’d have been in first grade and a student at another elementary in Patrick Henry’s district.
Which means that Brenda Spencer didn't live all that far away from where I lived, and that I could just as easily have been one of the victims that day.
I remember my old elementary school. It's still open. There are houses right across the street, facing the school. In the late 1970s, kids walked to school, took the bus, or were dropped off by parents. If the school wasn’t yet open, we congregated on the front lawn, playing or reading or chatting. The set-up would've been similar at Cleveland, and those victims probably were sitting ducklings for the girl who didn't like Mondays.
Decades passed. By the late 1990s, I was a young adult and school shootings seemed to occur every few years. But the murderous rampage that occurred at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, was still a marker of something that "just doesn't happen." We still had hope it would never happen again.
I hit middle age this year, and 2012 was one long news run of gun violence. From shopping centers to movie theaters to places of worship and back full circle to elementary schools—with small children as the primary targets—this has been a "banner year" for nutjobs with access to arsenals.
I can already predict the sloganeering in the wake of today's horror at Sandy Hook Elementary. "Take away guns and only criminals will have guns!" "Guns don't kill people, people kill people!" "Arm more people so they can shoot back!" In a few days, people will move on to something more interesting. After all, there's only a few shopping days left until Christmas. And then we wait for the next unspeakable tragedy, which given this rate of acceleration in events, will be sooner and not later.
I don't know what the solution is to the violence. Although I do know it is wrapped up in the mystery of suffering and iniquity, that doesn't get us off the hook for trying to take steps to protect innocent lives. I do know that what we've tried so far isn't working, and I don't doubt that if the founding fathers were around today, they'd be adding a few more clauses to the Second Amendment.
We must pray, and I do, for all the dead and their loved ones in Connecticut. But we also must stop being everything from apathetic to hostile to pleas to work seriously on solutions to limit gun violence insofar as we can. How many more Cleveland Elementarys and Columbine Highs and Sandy Hook Elementarys must occur before we can agree to talk together and work together to protect the innocent by restricting the access of the violent to dangerous weaponry?
Gun violence in schools got its start in my generation and I’m now in my forties. When are we finally going to say enough is enough and take serious steps to end it?
(Image: Anti-gun violence protest sign, Wikimedia Commons.)