Once, the Fearful Response to a School Shooting was NovelRoundup
tags: mass shootings, school shootings, Gun Violence
Sarah Churchwell is the author, most recently, of The Wrath to Come: Gone With the Wind and the Lies America Tells.
Thirty-five years ago this week, I was working at a local bookstore in Winnetka, Illinois, the quiet suburb of Chicago where I grew up. It was a warm, sunny day, a week before my 18th birthday. The store was called Scotland Yard and specialized in murder mysteries, which is the kind of detail you think about later.
Around lunchtime, customers started coming in agitated. Had we heard what was happening? We hadn’t. In 1988 news traveled slowly. There were rumors of someone running around with a gun. We turned on the radio. It was a woman who had some kind of grudge. She was running from house to house. People came in with more news. She was poisoning people. She had set fire to a house. No, it was a school in Highland Park, a town up the road. She was targeting children. Which children? She’d gone into another school. She was looking for fourth graders at Hubbard Woods, our local elementary school. There had been a shooting at Hubbard Woods. My little brother was in the fourth grade at Hubbard Woods.
Winnetka is an affluent place, which in 1988 meant it was a safe place. Children rode their bikes everywhere without helmets, and made their way to and from school without parental supervision. My family has lived in Winnetka and neighboring villages on the North Shore of Chicago for four generations. Hubbard Woods, redbrick and low-roofed, sits in a leafy enclave within the leafy town, and someone had entered it with guns.
No one was answering the phone at home. Short of running to the school myself, which felt like contributing to a crisis rather than solving it, I had no way to find out whether my brother was safe.
The fear that overtook our village that afternoon—the horror of not knowing whether a small child to whom you are viscerally attached has just been slaughtered while learning multiplication tables—was unfamiliar to the majority of Americans. Today, all too many know exactly how it feels. Today, as an American sister, I would race to the school because I know. Today, American parents fling themselves into active-shooter situations because they know. Today, American second graders text their parents to say goodbye because they know. No one else in the world lives like this.
The fact that Winnetka immediately passed gun laws after the Hubbard Woods shooting, laws that worked, disproves gun advocates’ lie that America has always been this way because of the Second Amendment. We were stunned in 1988 because mass shootings were rare. The premise of Megyn Kelly’s diatribe is that guns are inevitable in American life and therefore so are mass shootings, unless we come up with some other, as-yet-unimagined solution. She should know as well as I do that this is simply untrue, because she and I were born in the same year, and we didn’t grow up with mass shootings, or active-shooter drills, or politicians calling for the arming of teachers or metal detectors or single-entry points or security guards at preschools.
If it were true that the Second Amendment has made unregulated guns an inevitability in American life, then mass shootings at schools would have been happening long before 1988. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 became legendary because the shooting in Chicago of six professional criminals and one bystander shocked the nation. When bank robbers like John Dillinger started using machine guns, the government responded with the National Firearms Act in 1934, which mandated tight regulation of machine guns. They remain difficult to purchase, and by an uncanny coincidence, machine guns are rarely deployed in American mass shootings today. More than two-thirds of the 35 deadliest mass shootings in American history have taken place since Republicans allowed the assault-weapons ban to lapse in 2004, and the majority of them have involved assault weapons, which can now be purchased in corner shops in many states. Sometimes correlation is causation.