On the 19th anniversary of the Columbine high school shootings

Deb Sherrer: On the 19th anniversary of the Columbine high school shootings

As a young child and native Vermonter, I saw my father’s locked, gun cabinet as natural a part of our family home as the kitchen table. The wooden cabinet, with a glass door for admiring the contents, and the smell of the oil he used for cleaning and lubrication, evoke visceral memories. A passionate hunter with three hunting dogs, he exposed all five of his children to responsible gun usage until his early death at age 49.

As a result, my four older siblings have all hunted at some point in their lives. One of them is still an avid hunter that knows, like similarly passionate Vermonters, that there are actually six seasons in this beloved state: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Hunting, and Mud. Back in the day, it was normal during deer season to frequently see cars or trucks with a dead deer on their hoods, transporting and celebrating their tagged game.

Attending elementary and high school in the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, I never thought about someone entering a school building with the intent of killing me or my fellow classmates. At Otter Valley High School, we had one or two false bomb threats, each one made by a disenfranchised student who was calling out for help. Not well conceived, one student called from the phone in the high school’s lobby and was caught in the act.

Even with these threats, fire drills were our only regular safety practice. I took for granted that I was never afraid in school. Shortly after my father’s death, my family home became affected by violence and school became an essential safety net. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to not have school as a safe zone in which to relax my body and mind. In 2018, I wonder if this perception of schools as a potential safe harbor still exists, and under what, if any, circumstances of privilege (e.g., economics, race, gender).

In April of 1999, I was a practicing school psychologist in the two middle schools in Burlington, Vermont, when the Columbine school massacre occurred. The country and our community were shocked and horrified that such a tragedy could take place in our nation. In one of the two schools, the leadership and guidance department chose, with my assistance, to organize an intervention to support students in processing the event and to engage them in active prevention.

Little did we know, this was just the beginning of a 19-year journey of horror to normalization of school shootings. Within the past two decades, Americans of all ages have been asked to adapt to the reality that school-aged children participate in regular “lock down drills” and could potentially die, be injured, and/or forever traumatized at school. Even the aftermath responses are well planned and/or scripted now. Some Americans indicate this is ‘just the way it is’ in America and a necessary consequence of honoring the 2nd Amendment.

It is a politically motivated, false narrative that the rights of gun owners and the rights of American children to learn and be safe at school are in conflict. Over the years, “gun control” as a term has become toxically imbued to provoke a reactive divisiveness between American citizens. Recognizing the increasing effectiveness of such baiting language over time, the term has been manipulated by politicians, their party affiliations, and related corporate stakeholders, to impact elections and amass corporate gains, respectively. Even the fear of “gun control” legislation fuels gun sales, as has recently been observed in Vermont.

While divisiveness pays economically and politically, it assaults our collective American identity, and erodes our good will towards fellow citizens. This is necessitated to develop political “bases” that compete instead of collaborate. The end result is that we Americans are endlessly trapped in a gridlocked government, driven by a mentality similar to competing sports teams, complete with red or blue swag and odd mascots.

As a citizenry, we can cease being pawns. We have a choice to find the middle ground and step away from the false narratives, manipulations, and ‘group think.’ We can invite collectives of stakeholders to come to the table with the intent of preserving the essential rights of all citizens, while fostering safe living and learning environments. Taking an honest, reflective, and calm look at the legislation signed by Governor Phil Scott this week is a first step. This may require shifting away from reactive language and acknowledging it is possible to respect the rights of all Americans to own guns and be safe in their schools, homes, and while recreating in public. As President Trump said in his State of the Union Address, on January 30th: “As long as we are proud of who we are, and what we are fighting for, there is nothing we cannot achieve…And our Nation will forever be safe and strong and proud and mighty and free.” This can be empty rhetoric or an invitation to action.

We can prevent and greatly reduce gun violence in America. Our only enemies are fear, politicized corporate greed, and stakeholders attempting to turn us against each other. So hold onto your children, hang onto your guns, and let’s remember we live, learn, and recreate in shared communities. Vermont proud. American strong. We are only as safe, as we choose to be. I learned this at a young age from my father, a responsible, proud gun owner.