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Prompted By Guns Then and Now

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When our son was five, all he wanted for his birthday was cowboy guns. We were horrified and tried to talk him out of it. After all, it was 1976 and he was the child of the trauma we had lived through before he was born. The shocking violence of the war in Vietnam, aired nightly on our television. The assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Bobby Kennedy. The riots that erupted in our major cities.

My grandkids live in a very different world, characterized by mass shootings, increasing gun ownership, and everyday violence that claims so many lives in cities like Chicago near where I live.

Instead of calling the card game “War,” we called it “Winner.” But he persisted about the guns and we relented.  After all, making something forbidden fruit only makes it more attractive. He stuck to his guns for about a week and then abandoned them to the bottom of the toy chest. He actually became a gentle guy who abhors violence in any form.

The same was true of my brothers, pictured above in their cowboy phase. I think they are holding their cap guns, and I remember them shooting at each other and smashing the rolls of caps with rocks. They both ended up being pacifists.

But that was guns then. Now, we have a different story. One of my grandsons has a nerf gun similar to the one in the featured image. He shoots mostly harmless foam bullets at his brother. I’m hoping this phase will end peacefully as it did for the generations before him. But he also lives in a very different world, characterized by mass shootings, increasing gun ownership, and everyday violence that claims so many lives in cities like Chicago near where I live.

Here’s guns now. Last year, there were 43,560 gun deaths in America, more than half of them suicides. This year, as of now, 21,593 people have died at the hands of guns. The June 29, 2021 issue of the Chicago Sun Times described several recent killings, part of the violence we have come to expect in certain neighborhoods here. Internal gang conflicts led to two shootings on June 27, killing Nyoka Bowle, a 37-year-old woman, and wounding 10 others at one site, as well as killing Kristine Grimes, age 23, who was waiting for food outside a restaurant, and wounding five others standing with her. In Calumet City, a man executed his girlfriend Jeaneen Walters in the midst of an argument She was 30 and mother of his young child. A 14-year-old boy and three others were shot Monday night in East Garfield Park. An Aurora man shot four people in a nightclub parking lot, killing one of them, Khalief McCallister, age 23.

On November 3, 2015, I wrote about one of these everyday shootings that plague our country in Chicago Now. I’m reproducing A Tale of Two Grandchildren below. Guns violence now is vastly different from when my son and brothers strapped on their six-shooters.

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Yesterday, I waited for my nine-year-old granddaughter after school. When she didn’t show at up our arranged spot for Mondays, I worried that she was confused and looking for me where I usually pick her up the rest of the week. And that was what happened. Never once did it cross my mind that someone shot her. But that is exactly what happened to another nine-year-old, a boy named Tyshawn Lee. He was killed in an alley walking to his grandmother’s house on the South Side of Chicago at about the same time I was worried about my granddaughter being late in Evanston.

Tyshawn, age nine (Chicago Tribune photo)

 

My granddaughter, also age nine

How can this keep happening to children whose main mistake in life is living in the wrong neighborhood and being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Are we so afraid of a small minority of NRA members that we can’t speak about how tragic this is?

I guess it’s our politicians who are afraid of a powerful lobby that owns them. But we must also share in the blame. We don’t vote. We don’t make our voices heard. We mostly shake our heads when we hear about a six-year-old killing his three-year-old brother. And then we go on with our lives.

Like many of us, I thought things would change after 20 children and six teachers died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Now almost three years later, nothing has changed. In fact, according to Nicholas Kristoff in The New York Times,

“First, we need to comprehend the scale of the problem: It’s not just occasional mass shootings like the one at an Oregon college on Thursday, but a continuous deluge of gun deaths, an average of 92 every day in America. Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns than died in all U.S. wars going back to the American Revolution.” Amazing. Tragic. Inexcusable.

Bet you didn’t know that more preschoolers (82) were killed with guns in 2013 than police officers were in the line of duty (27). Injuries and deaths caused by guns are a huge public health issue.  Most Americans, including gun owners, recognize there is a problem and support solutions like universal background checks, more regulation of gun dealers, and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and people convicted of domestic violence or assault.

To those who think the right to bear arms means we still live in the Wild West, except our weapons are capable of doing so much more harm, if you don’t like the word “control,” how about “safety.” Aside from registration and banning military style weapons, we could use our technological skills to create guns that only fire for the owner. What’s wrong with that? You accept that you need a license to drive and liability insurance for your car. Why not for guns?

My heart breaks for Tyshawn’s grandmother, who heard the gunshots while waiting for him to arrive at her house. She knew there was a chance her grandson had been killed, and her worst fears were realized.  As a fellow grandmother waiting for her grandchild to arrive safely from school, I can only begin to imagine her fear, but I can totally feel her grief. Our grandkids deserve a safer world.

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My grandkids are part of what has sadly been dubbed “Generation Columbine.” All of them were born after the 1999 mass shooting there. The older ones know about the slaughter of young kids at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 young children and six teachers were killed by a gunman wielding an automatic assault rifle. They also know about the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which a former student killed 17 people.

Add to this horrible epidemic of mass shootings the terror of kids who live with the potential of being shot on a daily basis. I have written many times about the how gun violence threatens the lives of children in the Chicagoland area every day.

As part of the duck and cover generation, my childhood fear of harm came from without and felt remote. Nuclear war was possible but it was an existential threat. My Generation X children were drilled to fear “stranger danger.” If approached by someone they didn’t know on the way to and from school, they were instructed to run. There were handprint signs labeled “helping hand” on some homes in the neighborhood indicating they were safe places to go.

My grandkids don’t fear abstract outside forces like nuclear bombs. They may be leery of strangers, but once they get to school, the real fear begins. Will someone come in to shoot them? I can’t promise them it won’t happen or reassure myself that they will be okay. How have we allowed schools to go from safe havens to places where kids have to fear an intruder with a sick mind and an AR-15 in just three generations?

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real, join my Facebook community, and visit my website.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Jeff Gerken says:

    You make a number of great points. When I was in first and second grade, I walked every day from our house to Central Elementary, a distance of at least two mile. The only thing I had to fear was Louie Sorrell, who lived right across the alley from my house. He used to beat me up on about a weekly basis. But now, no parent would consider letting a six-year-old walk that distance alone. What is wrong with us?

    • Laurie Levy says:

      IO think we became fearful of strangers snatching our kids in the 1980s. That was the era of missing children appearing on milk cartons. Like you, I walked to school in Detroit and no one worried about it. Sadly, times have changed for the worse in that regard.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Laurie, you eloquently describe the human suffering along with the numbing statistics of gun violence. The pictures of Tyshawn and your granddaughter are heartbreaking. You may have seen the video (ad?) featured on MSNBC recently, where they pranked the head of the NRA into making a graduation speech to a phony academy, in front of over 3000 empty chairs–the class of 2021 that was killed by gun violence. Thanks for your advocacy.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Beautifully written (as always), Laurie. And, of course, you well track an arc that so many of us have travelled. We have gone from a world casually accepting of guns, both as toys and possible weapons, to the horrors of almost daily mass shootings we face today.

    Dare we hope for a better, safer world in another two or three generations? Given current politics, I am sadly pessimistic.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      John, I fear I share your pessimism. Even if we pass gun safety legislation, and it can’t be state-by-state as Chicago gangs get their guns from Indiana, what about all of the guns already out there? Plus, people have stock piles of ammunition which doesn’t spoil.

  4. Marian says:

    Terrific story, Laurie, and statistics don’t lie. It’s the human angle that is so devastating in what you write. I hadn’t thought about how different our “duck and cover” drills were from today’s “active shooter” drills. Maybe it was the “stranger danger” atmosphere that engendered the feeling of being unsafe in Gen X folks, and maybe that’s why that group buys guns. Thanks for a story that’s educational and moving.

  5. Laurie, I see you first wrote about Sandy Hook just a few years after the shooting and there was no satisfactory gun legislation by then.

    And now almost 20 years have passed with more mass shootings and gun violence, and yet our legislators seem to have short memories. Not so I’m sure for those Sandy Hook parents.

  6. Laurie, I see I wrote almost 20 years since Sandy Hook, I meant of course almost 10.

    Driving to Connecticut most weekends we pass a sign on the highway for Sandy Hook, always painful to see.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    You spell out the epidemic of gun violence in explicit and graphic terms, Laurie. Your data and personalizing it, by comparing your own 9 year old granddaughter to Tyshawn brings home this tragedy on a grand scale. We are overwhelmed and you are correct. The politicians have been cowed by the NRA. It is a national shame. I hope we can overcome them and get some sensible gun reform laws finally on the books.

  8. You really brought it home, Laurie. Sadly, I share your pessimism.

  9. Suzy says:

    This was a very powerful story, Laurie. I was so optimistic that the MSD kids would cause a change in the narrative, but sadly that did not happen. Now I don’t know what will.

  10. Well done, Laurie. Spot on in all respects and well-told. Added bizarre wrinkle: when I started to type “on in” Otto Korrect prompted “gun”. Didn’t know Otto could read.

  11. John Zussman says:

    Beautifully done; tugged at my heart. We went from duck and cover drills to active shooter drills in two generations. Not a good trade for our grandchildren.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Definitely not. John. I don’t remember being very afraid during those duck and cover drills. Even then, with the Cold War raging, I doubted someone would drop an atomic bomb on Detroit. My grandkids, on the other hand, know a school shooting is a real possibility. Makes me sad for the world they are inheriting.

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