Editorials and opinions

What changed?

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I remember the day of the Columbine shootings where two teens killed 13 people and wounded nearly two dozen others at the Colorado high school before turning their guns on themselves.

What I remember most clearly is the shock. I couldn’t immediately process what I was hearing on TV news. I thought, they can’t be saying what I think I hear them saying. At the time, the idea that a teenager would walk into a school with a gun and shoot people was stunning.

Not anymore. A feeling of inevitability accompanies school shootings these days. Oh, God, another one, is a far more common reaction than, oh, God, that can’t have happened.

The Washington Post recently published the results of a year-long study of gun violence at schools. It says that, “beginning with Columbine in 1999, more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours.” It says there has been an average of ten school shootings a year since Columbine.

No one — except possibly the next shooter — want to hear that more kids have been slaughtered.

The fierce passion of young people, of children basically, at rallies and protests is admirable. Who could not deeply feel for them and admire them? Who could not look at themselves with some shame for adult failure, in so many ways, to protect children — from being shot, from climate change, from war, from diminishing prospects in a country of increasing income inequality? Those young people are so articulate, so angry, as they have the utmost right to be.

But after every mass shooting, people take their positions, as if it’s a dance, maybe the Virginia Reel or a square dance, with established positions and moves. The NRA says this, and gun opponents say that, and here we go. Same old, with lots of misinformation and misconceptions such as that “assault” weapons like the AR15 should be banned but hunting rifles are okay.

An AR15, a semiautomatic, looks very different from a hunting rifle, but semiautomatic hunting rifles are in common use.

If there was ever a time when people need to start thinking out of the box, understand the issues, understand each other, understand guns themselves, and launch a creative and informed debate, it’s now. After every shooting, the discussion almost immediately devolves into pro-gun, anti-gun, or worse, native Vermonter versus flatlander, liberal versus conservative.

Yes, the discussion has to be about guns, but is that all? And are the long-established positions useful ones?

I grew up in Orleans County, where it used to be unremarkable for kids to go to school with a gun. Perhaps they planned to hunt partridge on the way home. Guns were dropped off in the principal’s office and picked up at the end of the day. No one worried that they would be used on people, certainly not on fellow students. Showing up at school with a rifle was not a source of alarm.

So what changed? It’s not that Vermont gun laws got laxer. They didn’t. Protocol, at least, got stricter. Kids don’t bring guns to school these days — unless they mean ill.

Young people do not walk into a school and kill their former classmates simply because of gun laws that are no more relaxed than they were when killing classmates was virtually unheard of.

So we have to ask ourselves: What changed?

Something much more is at work here.

Vermont has done what so many thought was unthinkable and tightened up gun laws. Will it do any good?

Perhaps we need to respond to a great ill with stricter gun laws, but that’s responding to symptoms rather than the disease in this writer’s view. Yes, we need to keep kids safe in the world that is now, but I fear that, at best, that’s only a piece of the conversation.

Will the gun laws the Vermont Legislature just passed save lives? Maybe. The one sensible think I’ve heard is that the young man accused of planning a school shooting in Vermont ran across a few difficulties that at least slowed him down. He had a history of depression and anxiety, according to the affidavit supporting the original charges against him, but he passed a federal background check in Vermont and legally bought a gun.

I also think it’s somewhere between optimism and foolishness to think that someone who wants a gun won’t be able to get one because they can’t pass a background check. There are 300 million guns in this country.

Look at marijuana. That’s been illegal for as long as I can remember, but it hasn’t stopped people from buying and smoking pot. It’s mostly turned good and productive citizens into potential criminals.

And I come back to this: Twenty years ago, if a Vermont kid walked into school with a gun, it was not a source of alarm. Twenty years ago, gun laws were, if anything, laxer than they are today.

It’s inconceivable that we don’t all want to solve the problem. But are legislators just doing something, rather than doing something meaningful?

Even in this state there’s a tendency for lawmakers, even the best intentioned, often the best-intentioned, to give too little long-term thought to potential repercussion, to take a boilerplate position, largely associated with their political affiliation, and say they did something.

Children and teenagers have exhibited courage, fight, passion, and persistence. We, as adults, ought to demonstrate the same, but with a broader knowledge of what’s wrong, of the societal and economic ills that have led to such violence.

Can we step up to that and engage in a larger debate, and in action that addresses the underlying causes of people so angry and disaffected that they feel the need to pick up an AR15 and shoot children?

Until we do, I remain skeptical that new gun laws are the fix. Pro-gun or anti-gun, we need to tackle a subject even tougher and ask why school shootings started happening in the first place.   What changed?

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