Politics

Our Unique American Grief Is an Opportunity

Children slaughtered in their classrooms and grandparents slain while picking vegetables demand our attention and action.

Members of the community gather at the City of Uvalde Town Square for a prayer vigil in the wake of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.
Members of the community gather at the City of Uvalde Town Square for a prayer vigil in the wake of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Photo by Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Image

I can hardly speak as the number dead in Uvalde rises to 19 children and two adults. My words slip on my tears, insufficient to capture the central horror; language cannot express the primal howl I know so many of us feel. Nineteen children woke up yesterday and kissed their folks goodbye, looking forward to after-school sports and cartoons—giddy at summer vacation just three days away. Two adults going about their day, making grocery lists in their heads, imagining what might be for dinner. Twenty-one sacred, irreplaceable wonders gone in minutes—the latest sacrifices upon an insatiable American altar.

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And if our diction fails to name the calamity of yesterday’s shooting, it is even more incapable of voicing the tragedy of a nation that watches unending slaughter but refuses to end it. The massacre at a Buffalo supermarket had already drifted from headlines in the mere 10 days between that atrocity and this one. We are a nation traumatized into forgetting, psyches so pulverized by mass death that we vacillate wildly between rage and numbness—waiting until the cycle begins again, so frequent it masquerades as normalcy. But grandparents slain while picking vegetables and babies slaughtered in their classrooms deserve more than another performance of thoughts and prayers. Their lives demand our attention and our action.

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At first glance, these two shootings seem markedly distinct. It’s 1,700 miles from rural Texas to urban New York. The victims were different, too: elders in the golden years of life, children just beginning theirs. But if we peer beneath this, the deep resonances are inescapable: a glaring look at how vulnerable people suffer most acutely, a lament for how we’re failing our children, and a wailing indictment of lawmakers complicit in their deaths.

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The unchecked proliferation of guns across the United States yields carnage in all types of communities. No amount of wealth or privilege can completely shield people from the looming specter of another mass shooting. And yet, the systemic forces that shape our national life mean that some people are more likely to be shot because of who they are than their neighbors. White supremacists who hunt and kill parishioners at a Black church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, or a gurdwara in Oak Creek—who travel three hours to kill folks buying groceries—do not have an analog in American culture. No one shoots up a nightclub because straight people are dancing there. Children are targeted in schools because they’re innocent and vulnerable. When people are deliberately chosen for murder, time and again tragedy befalls communities it has previously afflicted.

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But there’s another common thread here, too: Both shooters were 18, barely older than kids themselves, shaped by a culture that moves far too many young men to violence. We may never know the full motives of the shooter in Uvalde; he’s not alive to tell us. What we do know is that, before the shooting, both killers posted photos of their weapons on social media with comments announcing their intent. And both grew up in an internet culture that radicalizes more and more of our youth. We seem locked in a descending spiral into violence, and it’s shaping how our children grow. We desperately need a revolution of values, but that is long and arduous work and we simply cannot endure unending carnage while we do it.

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The one common factor underlying every shooting in this nation—suicides, indiscriminate acts of violence, and calculated hate crimes alike—is the more than 393 million firearms, a number increased every day by incredibly lax gun laws. It’s not a mystery why the U.S. has so many more mass shootings than any other country in the world—212 so far this year, 27 of them in schools. Research is clear: It’s the guns. Given the remarkably high rates of gun ownership, if the solution to this violence was more guns in the hands of more people, we would have already ended this epidemic of mass death. When communities have more guns it increases the homicide rate. It increases the number of people who die by suicide. It increases the number of fatal accidents. And it increases the number of times we collectively experience this potent rage and grief.

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And still, Congress refuses to pass even the most measured, moderate gun legislation—much less the kind of drastic gun confiscation we’d need to truly eradicate what plagues us. State legislators have passed more than 550 bills to restrict abortion access, but many can’t be bothered to protect the lives of the children already in our midst.

Mass shootings do not need to be an inevitable element of American life. If we want this time to be different, we must be different as well, finding ways to transform our grief into healing our future. We cannot be content with calling our representatives so they can continue to summarily ignore us and stifle change. The protests outside Brett Kavanaugh’s house made one thing abundantly clear: Clear and direct non-violent action still holds the power to pressure public officials to take action of their own. And we cannot be content with marches along predetermined police routes, containers constructed to defuse our righteous rage.

Gun policy must be a litmus test as we organize for the midterms in November. Any politician who refuses to act must wear their indifference as a millstone around their necks, pulling them from office. Our votes are our voice; they can answer the cries of the dead. They can proclaim: We will not continue to live and die like this.

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