Virginia Tech shooting anniversary: Guns, schools, children and the laws we need
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Ten years ago on April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot 32 of his fellow students and instructors before killing himself. It was the deadliest school shooting and one of the deadliest gun massacres in U.S. history.

I was not paying attention to the tragedy unfolding on the news because I gave birth to my daughter at 5:50 that morning.

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Later I felt a pang of regret that my newborn had been pressed into the ranks of Americans whose birthdays coincide with a national tragedy: the 9/11 attacks; Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 and the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19.

 

To share a birthday with these tragedies is a minor nuisance in comparison to the grief that families and friends of the dead suffered that day. But in a nation committed to the idea of self-definition, people generally flinch when they notice the coincidence.

And yet, not to notice the connection is to miss the ways history frames a life. Anniversaries serve as chronological signposts that enable us to chart a narrative of where we have come from and where we are going.

The Virginia Tech shooting was echoed by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on December 14, 2012, which matched it in horrors.Twenty first-graders were shot that day, as well as six school personnel. 

At the time, my daughter was in kindergarten, and I felt the shock viscerally. To children born in 2007, there was no avoiding the stories of school shootings as they grew into school age. Most school protocols immediately changed in response. To children born in 2007, from kindergarten on, the risk of getting shot was part of what you learned in school. 

In San Bernardino, Cal. this week, Cedric Anderson killed his wife, Karen, Smith in her special education classroom at North Park Elementary School. Anderson also shot two children, killing one. As an instance of domestic violence carried out in a workplace, this school shooting differs from random mass shootings like those at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, though it is exactly the same in its effect: Children and adults died.

And also this week, a state, local and federal manhunt is on for an “armed and dangerous” Wisconsin man who has threatened schools and churches with violence after he stole scores of handguns and weapons following his delivery of a 161-page manifesto. Schools are closed in many areas because of spring break.

Schools, however, are the safest places where American children spend time. School shootings have been an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in the past 10 years, but it remains the case that children are at far greater risk of being shot in their own or a friend’s home.

 Eighty-nine percent of children gun deaths occur in homes. And of the 11 percent of children’s accidental gun deaths that occur outside the house, only a fraction occur in schools.

In the 10 years since the Virginia Tech massacre, gun control laws have been passed piecemeal at the state level, even as gun control has also loosened in other respects.

Most significantly, the Supreme Court ruled in the 2008 case, Heller v. D.C., that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms.

The 2010 case McDonald vs. City of Chicago resolved some remaining questions. A 2013 attempt to legislate new gun regulations, which would have prevented the sale of guns to persons with a history of mental illness, (including the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shooters), failed in the US Senate.

All 50 states now permit the concealed carry of a gun, and in eight states no permit is required. As a result, there are more guns, in more houses and more public places. Since 2010, gun manufacturers’ production has doubled. There are now approximately 300 million guns in the United States.

When private ownership of handguns became legal in our hometown of Chicago, my daughters were 3 and 6 years old. As they reached the ages to go to friends’ houses to play, reports showed that in the United States 17,500 children are killed or injured by guns each year. One in three houses with children have guns in the home, and 89 percent of children’s accidental gun deaths occur inside the house.

The category of non-accidental child gun deaths includes — besides murder — the many adolescent suicides made possible by the presence of guns in the house. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that parents ask the parents of their children’s friends whether any and all guns are kept locked and unloaded before letting their children go over to play.

It is 10 years since the Virginia Tech shooting. At 10, my daughter is nearing adolescence. Noting the calendar coincidence, it is important to note that school shootings are not the highest risk for our children.

Mass shootings deservedly receive wide media coverage. And all these deaths are tragic.

Yet the incidents of children shooting themselves and others by accident and the contribution of guns to youth suicides are realities that need our immediate attention every day of the year.

Amy Shuffelton is an Assistant Professor of Education at Loyola University Chicago and a Public Voices Greenhouse Fellow with The OpEd Project.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.