My nine-year-old son is in third grade at an elementary school in Westchester County in New York State. My daughter, who will turn five in September, will begin kindergarten in the same school as her elder brother in the fall.
Every morning, my son boards his school bus that stops in front of our house. My wife or I then drive to drop off my daughter at her nursery school about 10 minutes away. It’s a routine morning ritual. But it is also a sacred morning ritual. While waiting for my son’s bus, we plan things to do over the weekend or he recounts a game he and his friends played during recess in school. As his bus stops, I plant a kiss on his forehead, tell him I love him, wave goodbye and tell him to have fun at school. Little children peep out of the bus’s windows, some chatting away, some looking sleepy — I often catch one or two of them yawning. Then I’m off to drop my daughter to her nursery school. We talk about Mr Potato Head — her favorite character these days — or how she loves playing with blocks with her best friend. As her teacher takes her into the school, I wave goodbye to her, telling her also to have a fun day. I shout out, “I love you” as she teeters off, trying to hold on to her Paw Patrol backpack that seems gigantic compared to her tiny frame.
Children going to school cheerful, eager and unafraid should be routine. Parents dropping their kids off at school without having an iota of worry about the safety of their sons and daughters should be routine. Routine should not be some 18- or 19-year-old walking into a school or a local supermarket or place of worship with fully-loaded assault rifles. Routine should not be gruesome murders of children. Routine should not be massacres in schools.
As details of the bone-chilling massacre at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, spread through social media and on news channels late afternoon Tuesday, my heart sank. I shuddered and grew distraught. Fourteen kids, one adult. The death toll then grew to 15 kids and two adults. Soon it was 19 children and two teachers. Children who would have been the same age as my son and daughter. Children whose parents too would have hugged them goodbye that morning and told them to study well. Children who were taken away too, too soon by a gunman whose one senseless act ruined families forever.
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It angers me to see how frequent mass shootings have become in America. There is no other country in the world where this happens with such gut-wrenching frequency. Every country has challenges and shortcomings but to have the kind and scale of mass shootings as have become commonplace in the most developed and advanced country in the world fills me and many other parents and families with disgust and outrage. Not my children, not any children should pay the price of repeated inaction by elected government officials and leaders.
After the Uvalde school shooting, my wife and I got an email from the superintendent of our school district saying that after the horrific event, there are bound to be concerns among parents and children about safety in our own schools. The email listed several measures undertaken by the school district to strengthen security at all of its schools, including video surveillance, single points of entry, distress buttons and regular drills undertaken in case of emergencies — like a mass shooting.
Citing the safety of students and staff, my son’s school executes a “lockdown drill” at least four times a year. In these drills, classroom doors are locked by teachers and the students and teacher then find a place in the classroom where they can be hidden from anyone who looks into the room from outside. This emergency protocol is initiated “if there was someone in the building who wanted to harm others”. On the day that the children go through such drills, an email arrives in our inbox informing us that the school had undertaken such a procedure.
So, in the unthinkable event that something horrific were to happen in their schools, our children are being prepared on what to do and how to keep themselves safe. But shooting after shooting, when innocent elementary school children and high school kids and shoppers and people in places of worship and theater-goers are gunned down in a matter of minutes, there is no action by lawmakers and elected officials or even the powerful gun lobby to ensure that such harrowing and ghastly events are never repeated. Nothing happens, nothing changes. This infuriates me.
I know that my wife’s heart drops a beat whenever she gets a call from our son or daughter’s school in the middle of the day. It could be the school nurse calling to inform us that my son fell off a swing while playing or, as in the last two years, about a covid-19 exposure in his class. But the moments, between her picking up the phone and the school nurse or teacher assuring that all is well and he or she is just calling to inform us about a typical school issue, are harrowing. Because the mind begins to think the unthinkable. When I look at visuals of traumatised parents waiting outside the Uvalde elementary school — some crying inconsolably, others waiting with worry and anguish writ large on their faces — it’s impossible to comprehend the extent of the pain they must be going through while they wait to learn about the fate of their dear children.
The Columbine high school massacre happened in 1999, six years before I came to America. The Uvalde shooting triggered memories of the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in which 20 first-graders were killed, and then the 2012 Oak Creek Gurudwara shooting, followed by the 2018 Parkland high school mass shooting in which 17 students and faculty were murdered. The list grows.
One would imagine that after each such unspeakable tragedy, leaders and lawmakers in the US would immediately move to enact common-sense gun laws. It would be the sane thing to do, the most logical action to take. But there’s nothing but inaction and this inaction is costing precious lives. Congress has repeatedly failed to pass gun-control legislation. The US does not have enough baby formula to feed its infants but a teenager can walk into a gun store and buy two assault rifles on his 18th birthday.
The US may be the only country in the world that has more guns than people. There are about 400 million guns in a country which has a population of nearly 332 million. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees an individual “the right to keep and bear arms.” After the Sandy Hook shooting, then President Barack Obama outlined a plan aimed at reducing gun violence that included measures such as stricter background checks for all gun sales and a stronger ban on assault weapons. The effort to pass that Bill, which would have put in place stringent background checks for gun sales, was defeated in the Senate. The Democrats have accused Republicans of blocking “meaningful, bipartisan background-check legislation”.
When one becomes a parent, the sense of fear, worry, despair and agony over the safety of one’s child are magnified. It’s overpowering. As my wife and I watched the news of the Uvalde shooting, fighting back tears, my son looked up at the TV and read the ticker “19 children and 2 teachers dead in shooting at elementary school in Texas”. “It happened in an elementary school! Why did it happen in an elementary school,” he asked us, his eyes fixed on the television set.
My wife and I looked at each other, at a loss for words. We did not have an answer for him.
The writer, based in New York, is director, strategy-data cloud at an analytics firm