So accustomed are we in the United States to gun violence that yesterday’s shooting at a King Soopers grocery store initially only registered in me slightly more disgust than the shootings last week in Atlanta. When my mother-in-law casually mentioned the developing news story before dinner, I decided not to investigate immediately. The story would likely be the same as we have seen myriad times before. Innocent citizens going about the business of their daily lives, murdered by some disgruntled, disturbed male in possession of a deadly weapon. It was just another day in America, a place where the right to procure military-grade weaponry trumps the right of every day citizens to shop, worship, view movies, attend school, or enjoy a concert or social event without marking out an explicit exit strategy just in case. We accept metal detectors at sporting events and music venues as part of normal life. We sigh when we learn of another shooting, and then we move on and wait for the next one. It’s inevitable as the phases of the moon.
As a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder and a former 8-year resident of the Boulder area, I naively imagined my favorite college town was immune to such tragedies. Boulder, set against the backdrop of the Flatirons and the Rocky Mountains, is a highly educated, liberal-minded town, the kind of place where the hippy vibe and omnipresent Subaru Outbacks belie a laid back, outdoorsy spirit and not the inner-city mean streets where you might imagine a shooting spree would occur. Boulder, with its protected open spaces, fine dining, and university ties, seemed insulated to me somehow. But nowhere in this country are you safe, and I should have known better than to imagine Boulder was an exception.
I have written about gun violence before. A long-time Colorado resident, I’m no stranger to the spectacle of mass shootings. I was 30 when two teenagers shocked the nation by shooting up Columbine High School in my hometown of Littleton. In 2012, I was 44 when we were returning from a trip to the mountains and I had to inform my sons about a mass casualty event in an Aurora movie theater, 20-some miles from our home. The following year we witnessed another school shooting down the street from our home at Arapahoe High School. Now, in 2021, we once again had to discuss a horrific shooting in a place they have visited many times. They were not exactly surprised.
As a parent, the most difficult part about the proliferation of random gun violence is not the fear of losing my sons in a mass casualty event (although they never get dropped at school — or anywhere else — without that thought crossing my mind), but is instead the tough conversations I have with them after more innocents have been murdered. Our oldest was born two years after Columbine. He and his brother have grown up in a world I could not have imagined as a teenager hanging out in malls and skating rinks and concert halls without a thought in my mind about guns. Their youth was defined by fear of gun-related violence. The toll that school lockdowns and shooting safety drills have taken on their psyches is measurable in their anger, frustration, and anxiety. After I informed my oldest about the shooting yesterday evening, his response was predictable. He immediately became angry, swearing that he would never raise his own children in this country. He then pivoted to fear, asking me if I had given any thought to expatriating to a less gun-happy country. Finally he settled upon bitterness, saying only that he was “done” with it. If in the past 21 years since the violence at Columbine we adults haven’t been able to find a solution to this situation, he knows there is a little hope for change going forward. Our divided political landscape suggests he is correct in this assumption.
Our sons are disillusioned. Their reality is that adults have failed them on sensible gun legislation, among other things. They are frustrated and scared and angry, and you can’t blame them. They are right. The ever-present threat of death at someone else’s gun-toting hands has gifted their generation with legitimate mental duress. When you’ve been doing lockdown drills since elementary school, barricading yourself in a classroom and hiding under your desk in preparation for becoming a human target, you might feel unimportant and unheard. On January 6th when the US Capitol building was attacked by a violent mob, both our sons said that maybe now the lawmakers would be able to understand what it’s like to be a student in today’s schools, to be hiding and fearful. Gen Z is filled with depressed, anxious, and lost individuals. Youth suicide rates climbed 56% between 2007 and 2017. Today’s kids are struggling for many reasons, and the adults in the room seem okay with it. Or at least we don’t seem to care enough about the mental and emotional health of our own children and grandchildren to make substantive changes for them.
I’m sorry, boys. I’m sorry adults in my generation and others haven’t done more to protect you and your peers. I’m sorry I’ve had to tell you too, too many times about lives lost in pointless shootings in schools and theaters and churches and shopping centers. I’m sorry that my donations to organizations fighting for commonsense gun legislation, my letters and calls to our congressional representatives in DC, and my attendance at various protest marches against gun violence weren’t even close to enough to help effectuate meaningful change. I’m sorry that our government hasn’t made headway on this issue and that we’ve accepted that your loss of innocence and sense of personal safety are the price for protecting the Second Amendment and the freedoms of those who choose to own guns. You deserve better. I see that. I see your fears and I know how these preventable tragedies vex you and affect your mental health. Your elders have no legitimate excuses. And I’m sorry.