The week following Valentine’s Day of 2008 my phone never stopped ringing. “More guns to teachers”, “fewer guns”, “let’s arm the students” and “let’s ban all guns” were among the emotionally charged messages hurled in my direction. Contained in each message was the requisite need to assign blame on some person or group of persons. I was publisher of the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Ill., where at 3:05 p.m. on Feb. 14 former grad student Steven Kazmierczak walked into a Cole Hall oceanography class on the campus of Northern Illinois University and opened fire with a shotgun and a 9mm Glock pistol. Five students were killed and 17 more sustained gunshot wounds before Kazmierczak shot and killed himself. Dead were 19-year-old Ryanne Mace, 20-year-old Catalina Garcia, 20-year-old Daniel
Parmenter, 20-year-old Gayle Dubowski and 32-year-old Julianna Gehant, and yet all anyone wanted to talk about was their own particular take on guns. I did a lot of listening, and at the end of each call I thanked them and semi-politely said, “This is a local tragedy in which students from our own university were murdered. Now is not the time to turn the shootings into a political debate.”
I was firm. I was sincere. And I was wrong.
Feb. 15, 2008 would have been a very, very good day to begin the debate.
Instead, we got the first installment of public presidential remorse. The day following the NIU shooting, then-Illinois junior senator Barack Obama said during a Milwaukee campaign stop that the country needed to do “whatever it takes” to stop gun violence.
Three years later, at the January 2011 Arizona memorial service for the victims and survivors of the Tucson supermarket shooting, President Obama urged that the polarized debate over mental health care and guns take place “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
Following this summer’s movie theater killings in Aurora, Colo., Obama again referred to the shooting as a “terrible tragedy” and urged those attending a campaign speech to remember “all the victims of less publicized acts of violence that plague our communities.”
And last Friday, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, the president said, “Our hearts are broken today.”
There is a certain deeply troubling progression that occurs each time a mass shooting occurs. Both local residents and then national leaders immediately proclaim the shootings to be “horrific,” declare them to be “tragedies” and issue statements implying some sort of national grief that Americans feel — or at least ought to feel. The president addresses local mourning friends and families, quotes comforting Biblical passages and attempts to turn our thoughts to those things that are truly important.
And then a short 72 hours after each mass shooting, the fiscal realities of “real” solutions are cited, monied interests re-stake old ground and elected officials on both sides of all mass-shooting issues shrug their shoulders and cry out in unison, “It’s complicated.”
Yes, it is. But with the president and his re-election committee having spent nearly $1 billion — and U.S. senators and representatives spending countless additional hundreds of million dollars — they may well have thought that they’d be called upon to address, and solve, complicated issues. As Americans, we have a right to sound public policy and a responsibility to make certain that our elected officials establish sane policy and work through very difficult issues to accomplish it.
Are mass shootings a mental health issue?
Are mass school shootings a school security issue?
Are mass shootings a gun issue?
Only narrow-minded ideologues would ever consider any answer other than “Yes” to ALL of the above.
Without a solution that encompasses all of the above, there will be another mass school shooting. Children will be murdered and once again we’ll refer to them as senseless tragedies. But we’ve waited long enough; too long, really. It’s time to be honest with ourselves and see the deaths as frighteningly inevitable consequences of national inaction. We should take a moment to consider the two-word epitaph that could well be placed on gravestones underneath the name of each murdered child.
John Pfeifer is the publisher of the Times-News and Magicvalley.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.