I was 15 years old the first time I experienced a school lockdown. Our teachers locked the classroom doors. Our busy hallways emptied. And no one was allowed in or out of the building. All the while, 18 miles away police were trying to figure out how to stop the spray of gunfire at Columbine High School. That was April 20, 1999.
I thought it would be the last time I saw students running from a building with their hands up. I thought no other president would offer his condolences to parents whose children had been slaughtered at school. I thought we would never let this happen again, anywhere.
I would experience countless lockdowns as both a student and a school employee over the next 19 years. But I’ve been fortunate. In dozens of instances across the country—in schools, colleges, churches, military bases, workplaces, shopping malls and concerts—far too many Americans haven’t been as fortunate.
As a nation we’ve gone from feeling dumbfounded to horrified and heartbroken, at least until the next shooting occurs.
But do we really feel any of these things anymore, or have we grown completely numb to the pain? Do we care enough to do anything when another life is lost due to gunfire?
Or are we only concerned with loss of life when it can be called an “act of war” or “terrorism” inflicted upon us by people from a faraway country?
What was it about the attack on Pearl Harbor and September 11th that immediately thrust us into action to ensure that another terrorist attack by a foreign enemy would never again happen on American soil? We felt the loss and poured every ounce of our governmental and military might into preventing such an attack in the future.
So how has the richest, most powerful nation on the planet failed to prevent mass shootings carried out by its own citizens—often in our community’s most prized sanctuaries, schools and churches?
The only reason the richest, most powerful nation on the planet can’t figure out how to prevent the mass shootings of—and by—its own citizens is because at our core, we don’t want to look more carefully at controlling the common denominator linking every act of gun violence—access to guns.
And that core, that foundation that we refuse to inspect is rooted in our own Constitution and the right to bear arms. Now this is not meant to be an attack on our constitutional rights. This is an education blog after all, and it might do us all good to take a history lesson from one of our Founding Fathers who—believe it or not—had our future in mind when establishing the foundations of our nation.
While some would like to note Thomas Jefferson as a staunch proponent of the right to bear arms, he also noted that as times change, so should laws. As printed on the walls of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the leader once said:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
In other words, changes to our laws and institutions should never be taken lightly, but as our world becomes more developed—for better or worse—we should at the very least re-examine those laws. And with regard to new truths being discovered, the truth is Americans own the most guns per person compared to every place else on the planet. The truth is gun homicide rates are 25.2 times higher in the U.S. than in other high-income countries.
The circumstances we find ourselves in today have changed drastically since our Constitution was first written. We live in a time where the prevalence of mental illness in the U.S. continues to increase, yet only 41 percent of those diagnosed receive mental health services, and too many loopholes place guns in the wrong hands. We sell backpacks with ballistic panels as an extra precaution just in case our fancy 21st-century school buildings equipped with door-jamming devices and front-office iris scanners fail to protect our kids.
We go to bed horrified and wake up in mourning time and time again, refusing to acknowledge the changing world around us. Our nation is not still in its infancy or even its adolescence. Yet we force ourselves to wear the same “coat” that once fit when we were young and defenseless.
Our times have changed. Our people have changed. Our laws and institutions must catch up. “We the People” acknowledged this inevitability more than 200 years ago.