A Real National Emergency

This week the nation mourned the one-year anniversary of the Parkland, Florida shootings, which claimed 17 lives. Seventeen used to be my lucky number—the day I was born in September, the age I was when I started college, and the year I gave birth to my only child.

A year ago, as I listened to NPR, unloading the dishwasher as my almost one-year-old daughter napped, I had no idea how ominous the number 17 would become. Like many that day, I stopped what I was doing and listened closely to the news. I tried to envision what it would be like to send my daughter to school in four short years, knowing full well active-shooter drills would most likely be in her future, even though we are not certain such drills actually help.

And while I am not usually a superstitious person, when I heard 17 people had died, and 17 more had been injured, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last Valentine’s Day, the number’s good luck vanished.

Italians know that 17 is not an auspicious number, the equivalent of Americans’ unlucky 13. The Roman numeral XVII transforms into the anagram VIXI, which, according to The Independent, translates from Latin as “I have lived,” “with the implication ‘My life is over’ or ‘I’m dead.’” Like many American hotels avoid having a thirteenth floor, some Italian hoteliers omit a Room 17.

In a week where Esquire chose to put a white, Midwestern teenager on the cover of the magazine with the feature story, “The Life of an American Boy at 17,” there is no direct mention in the article about the research from over 50 years of school shootings, which shows us most perpetrators are 16 or 17, male, and white. Critics of such a broad-sweeping profile say this generic information is not as useful as one might think.

Yet, the Esquire article also showcases its young subject’s racist lament, “I don’t know why it’s always white males shooting up schools,” Ryan says. “In the inner-city schools there are shootings and stuff, but it’s more like ‘I hate this kid because he touched my girlfriend, so now I’m going to shoot him.’”

Ryan’s comment prompts a need for more conversation, as P.R. Lockhart wrote for Vox almost a year ago, “about who gets empathy in America, what issues are deemed important, and the types of activism and activists the public responds to,” especially in relation to how the public supports activists like the ones from Parkland and activists for Black Lives Matter. Ultimately, support for the two groups need not be mutually exclusive.

Regardless of one’s views on gun control or mental health care, to ignore or downplay the pressing issue of gun violence in America is to be an ostrich, to choose to be a silent bystander to an issue that continues to hurt and kill more people.

Last year academics, law-enforcement professionals, and psychologists told FiveThirtyEight that experts’ recommendations about how to address school-shooting risk factors still stand and have been available and shared with the public for the past 20 years. Namely, most “would-be shooters don’t keep their plans to themselves.”

“While all the experts I spoke with said that policies that keep guns out of the hands of teenagers are an important part of preventing mass shootings,” Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote for FiveThirtyEight, “they all also said it was crucial to set up systems that spot teens who are struggling and may become dangerous.”

The problem, Koerth-Baker wrote, is that staff turnover and budget cuts make such wrap-around prevention programs hard to maintain.

Yet, perhaps the even bigger problem is as I finished writing this piece, live updates about an active shooter who opened fire at the Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois began to populate my screen. Schools in the area were being kept on “soft lockdown,” according to the West Aurora School District 129’s Facebook page. Violence does not have to occur inside school hallways to affect young people, something most of us know, but perhaps do not focus on directly as such violence is not always as plainly horrific as a school shooting.

In this era, saying something is often not enough. Gun violence has been a national emergency for quite some time. Ninety-six people die by firearms in a given day, most of whom are not victims of mass or school shootings. Parkland’s one-year anniversary and Northern Illinois University’s shooting 11 years ago, and now whatever happened in Aurora, Illinois this Friday, prompt us to ask ourselves has anything really changed since 17 people lost their lives a year ago?