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Gene Collier is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
At the right time of day, you can hear an elementary school before you can see it, and if the air is still and the natural acoustics favorable, the discordant symphony of America’s youngest students at recess is an auditory blessing.
The beautiful racket that boils from an attack on playground equipment or a race around it or any of the thousand other impulses bursting from dynamo bodies and newly freed minds has a clamorous harmony like nothing else.
There’s one school I walk past almost every day, through the park across the street, then back across the full span of its architectural footprint. With or without the soundtrack, I look for only one thing — someone who looks out of place, or who is carrying something that looks out of place, but more bluntly, someone with a gun.
Since about Columbine (1999).
There is no school at Richneck Elementary in Newport News, Virginia, this week because last week ended with a first grade teacher getting shot in her classroom by a 6-year-old.
“This,” said Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones, “is a red flag for the country.”
Respectfully, Mayor, are you new to this country?
This country did not lose its gun-loving mind last Friday. It took decades upon decades of ill-conceived arguments, millions upon millions of gun lobby dollars, and generations upon generations of gutless politicians to make this a country with more guns than people, a country with less than 5 percent of the world’s population holding 40 percent of its civilian-owned weaponry.
If the red flag is the signal to question how a 6-year-old got a gun in the United States of America, the better question is probably, “How did he avoid it for the first five years of his life?”
Only by the favorable exactitudes of trajectory and ballistics was first grade teacher Abby Zwerner not murdered in her classroom by a 6-year-old extracting a gun from his backpack — and maybe that’s why this particular news story got such poor traction in a media culture consumed by Prince Harry, Kevin McCarthy and the all-important re-jiggering of the NFL playoff format. Nobody died at Richneck Elementary. It was the first school shooting of the year. If trends continue, we’ll get 50 or 60 more.
If there’s a red flag still flappable in all of this, it might be the psychological compromise we demand from America’s children to appease the craven political culture that contorts itself to the Second Amendment. Some days, many days, the saddest news story anywhere is that 6-year-olds go to school fearful of being shot so that someone’s desire to own an assault rifle shall not be infringed. Some days, many days, it’s hard to tell who the real 6-year-olds are.
“I was scared,” a fifth grader told one of the cable channels in Newport News. “It was like my first lockdown and I didn’t know what to do, so I just hid under my desk like everybody else.”
That’s a terrible way to count your blessings. You made it to 10 before your first lockdown.
Ninety-five percent of public schools in America have some kind of active shooter drills, but the youngest kids, the most fragile, still aren’t going to know what to do when someone walks in with a legally purchased AR-15. The burden on those kids is preposterous, unconscionable. It’s one thing to fret about your math homework; it’s very much another to see if you can remember where to hide when the man with the gun comes.
The most sickening quote I’ve ever seen was something an elementary school kid told his parents about active shooter drills; he hates them because “the good hiding places are always taken first. There’s nothing to hide behind. He’ll be able to see me.”
In America, in 2022, gun violence surpassed car crashes as the No. 1 killer of young people. Schools, our supposed safe space, have been the stage for nearly 150 shootings since 2018. We went from smoke free school zones to drug free school zones, but some days, many days, it seems we won’t be happy until we have school free gun zones.
A law professor who runs the Children’s Defense Clinic at the University of Richmond weighed in Tuesday on the matter of what to do with the 6-year-old shooter. “Obviously this is a tragedy on every level,” she said. “As a 6-year-old, he just doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to even understand how to form the intent to commit a crime like this.”
No, he doesn’t. But a gun — yeah, that he’s got.
One day the sound an elementary school makes before you see it will be different, no longer pulsating with its total color and richness, not exactly full with its accustomed joy. There will be no mystery as to why.