For those of us in our mid-30s, it has been about two decades since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stormed Columbine High School with semi-automatic handguns, sawed-off shotguns and 99 explosive devices, firing 188 rounds from their weapons and killing or injuring 39 people – most of them students.
We were not as shocked by the notion of terroristic violence – the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City had occurred four years prior, with 168 confirmed deaths – as we were the thought that what happened inside the suburban Colorado school that morning could have happened to any of us. And it has.
In the ensuing 19 years, the Columbine massacre has replayed itself over and over again in school classrooms, cafeterias and gymnasiums across our nation, from Florida to Washington and Hawaii to Connecticut. There have been 215 people killed and 289 injured in 211 separate attacks on schools since Columbine, and these events are clearly becoming more frequent – 126 of them have occurred since the beginning of 2012.
We didn’t protest when Columbine happened. Grim psychological portraits of Harris and Klebold emerged, and it was far too simple to blame the killers, rather than the mechanism. Each time since then, we’ve seen the news reports and just assumed that the assailant was highly troubled and probably delusional. This is the case with other attacks as well – Las Vegas and the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo., are more recent examples. But as the years have passed and the attacks have mounted, we have also come to question whether it is overly simplistic to simply blame the killers, without blaming the mechanism as well.
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Over the past five-plus years, beginning with the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in late 2012, the public awakening has come full circle. And when Nikolas Cruz stormed that high school in Parkland, Fla., this month with an AR-15 rifle and started firing, public furor erupted, but the backlash was not about unchecked mental illness – it was about guns. It was about weapons that were only designed to do one thing – kill large numbers of people quickly – being purchased almost on demand in gun stores across the country. And when the politicians again offered thoughts and prayers instead of tangible solutions, it finally happened. Talk of protests began. This is a wonderful thing.
As important as these protests will be to the gun debate, they are crucial for an altogether different reason: These protests mark the emergence of a new generation into the arena of civil discourse. So many of our country’s problems are best solved not by professional politicians, but by an engaged populous. Unproductive lawmakers can be removed from office, harmful policies can be undone, and meaningful change can be accomplished when entire generations of our citizens are knowledgeable, engaged and passionate. Our Baby Boomers have been engaged since the Vietnam War protests started 50 years ago, but subsequent generations have never had a pivotal event like the Vietnam War to spark uniform engagement.
For the young students who protest, it will be an opportunity to build not only knowledge, but confidence as well – the confidence that comes with having a voice, and with standing up for what you believe is right, no matter who is yelling back from the other side.
These protests will be productive, regardless of what tangible changes to gun policy come from them. And these protests will make our country better.
Blake Shuart is a Wichita attorney.