In the shadow of the gun

A school bus passes a makeshift memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting as it takes students to Newtown High School in December last year in Newtown, Connecticut.

Sandy Hook Elementary School has been completely demolished — but one year after the shootings, Americans are as obsessed as ever with guns, says Suzanne Harrington.

IT WILL be the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on Dec 14. By the time of that date, the school will have been completely demolished — the bricks crushed, the steel melted down, so that grisly souvenirs don’t end up on eBay, as did bits of Twin Tower brickwork.

A new school will be built on the place where the old one stood, which is designed to signal that life in Sandy Hook is going forward, moving on. Along with the school, the lives of 26 families were demolished last December in the Connecticut town when 20 small children were murdered by a 20-year-old man with his mother’s assault rifle. Adam Lanza also killed six adult women, including his mother, before killing himself.

You don’t expect to write sentences like this unless you are reporting a war, but America, with its undying, unkillable devotion to gun ownership, is an exception.
Recently in Sandy Hook, a group of gun owners showed up at a local Starbucks wearing holstered guns that were visibly on display, for something they called Starbucks Appreciation Day. This was apparently an unofficial thank you to Starbucks’ gun-welcoming policy in states like Connecticut with open-carry firearms laws — which means that in Sandy Hook, you can openly and legally carry a gun as you enjoy your skinny double shot macchiato.

However, such gun slinging seemed in poor taste, less than a year after a man with a legally owned gun murdered all those six-year-olds and their teachers.

The Sandy Hook Starbucks didn’t quite know what to do that day when the gun enthusiasts showed up flashing their weapons, other than close five hours early. The coffee chain’s CEO then “respectfully requested” to gun owners to desist from bringing guns in when they came for a latte. It was all a bit awkward. But at no point has anyone suggested that guns be made illegal so that no more small children die (or anyone, of any age).

Apart from CNN anchor Piers Morgan, who called the gun lobby stupid, and made his incomprehension and disgust at American gun law loudly known. As a European, Morgan is as baffled as the rest of us as to why America continues to allow these kind of massacres to happen, but the US gun lobby’s response was to start a petition to get Morgan deported. (A counter petition was immediately set up in the UK for the Americans to keep him.) But despite the horrific body count of six-year-olds, Morgan was the only prominent voice in the US to vociferously protest — when Obama tried to introduce modest changes to gun law in the middle of last year, his proposals were rejected.

The Sandy Hook Promise is a website started by parents “to join other parents to encourage and support sensible solutions that help prevent gun violence in our communities and our country”.
So far there have been 258,726 online promises, which might sound like a lot, until you remember that around 42% of American households have guns. (There is no national database on gun ownership, so no exact figures are available.) But the population of the US is 314 million, so that’s a lot of guns. The Guardian estimates it is 88 guns per 100 people, making it the highest in the world (the second highest is Yemen, with gun ownership at 54 guns per 100 people).

Yet even those most affected by guns are still pro-gun. “Some of us who came together to start Sandy Hook Promise are gun owners,” said co-founder Tom Bittman. “We hunt. We target shoot. We protect our homes. We’re collectors. We teach our sons and daughters how to use guns safely. We’re not afraid of a national conversation within our community and in Congress about responsibility and accountability.”

The great American logic disconnect seems to be that no amount of responsible accountability will change the fact that guns are devices designed for killing. There are almost 10,000 gun deaths in the US per year, massively exceeding all other developed countries. Sandy Hook was particularly appalling because it involved six year olds — usually in school killings, the dead are at least teenage — but does that make it less awful? Or are we so inured to news of another American gun massacre that we only react in genuine horror when the dead are kindergarten age? As for the six dead adults of Sandy Hook, well, we hardly react at all.

The murdered six year olds and adults lived in a supposedly idyllic town. Much has been written about the wholesome Main Street USA image of Sandy Hook, Connecticut — the massacre did not happen in Detroit or Baltimore or Chicago, or any other deprived inner city ghetto.

It happened in a real life version of Disneyland, where white middle class people escape New York City to go to raise families. This seems to be a pattern with American school massacres — the dead at Columbine and Virginia Tech were also the victims of white middle class killers.

One local parent, Sarah Caron, whose child was at Sandy Hook Elementary school that day, but who survived because she was not in the classroom where Lanza opened fire, gave her reaction months later: “Our locked down campus is a source of comfort. The presence of police officers who guard the drive into the campus, checking passes and IDs, are a welcome site. Inside the school and on the playground, other officers are always there, always watching, always protecting. Mental health professionals are always on hand, helping kids work through the difficulties associated with the trauma they experienced.” A locked down campus and police presence at a primary school? So that American adults can continue to own guns?

Nicole and Ian Hockley were the parents of six-year-old Dylan, who was murdered in his classroom. “I would love to know why,” she told CBS. “But I think that’s a question that is never going to be answered. We’ll never know what went on in that shooter’s mind.”
The children who survived remain terrified of fire alarms, intercoms, loud bangs. They have nightmares. One parent, David Posey, described how his six-year-old son began wearing Batman and Ironman costumes after the massacre, believing that dressing up as a superhero would protect him.

Nicole Hockley believes that it is pointless to wait for the US government to implement gun control laws, and says that change has to happen at a grassroots level, so that any future legislation will come about after a cultural shift. Citing changing attitudes to smoking, drunk driving and gay marriage, she believes American gun law cannot be challenged from the top down: “Parents don’t want to be just told what to do by [Washington] DC, we don’t want to have laws forced on us. Let’s tackle the problem ourselves within our communities and in our own schools and let that spread out to affect the nation and affect legislation that way instead of being told what to do.”

The Hockleys moved away from Sandy Hook earlier this year, because their house was too near the house of Adam Lanza — it was in their line of vision every day. They continue, with the other parents, to campaign for changes to gun law, but change remains deadly slow. One Texan congressman’s reaction to proposed gun law changes was to threaten Obama with impeachment. Instead, in the direct aftermath of the Sandy Hook deaths, the town was flooded with support from well wishers in the form of teddy bears — in the period between Christmas and Easter, almost 70,000 toy bears were sent to the town, along with thousands of items, including school supplies, boxes of tissues, and Amazon and iTunes gift vouchers. So much stuff was donated that the town had to set up a task force to sift through it all.

You would imagine the families of those murdered would rather some meaty gun legislation — or maybe not. In America, guns have more of a right to exist than school children.


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