Strange how inconsequential moments can lodge in one’s memory. I remember one day in junior high school — this probably would have been ninth grade — sitting in the gymnasium, having been put in lines for some purpose and hearing a helicopter nearby. The vision that flitted through my young imagination was of a Red Dawn–style invasion during which I would help to save my fellow students. Around the same time, I wrote a short horror story about living rain that ate human flesh, and my narrator similarly sought to save the other children in his school.
Then as now, I was a bit of an outcast, and then as now, my dream was personal redemption by helping others. That’s why, a few years after that day in the gym, I found the Columbine High School shooting especially bizarre. In broad ways, I felt like I knew those kids. I had the black trench coat, for example. But when I thought, “I’ll show them,” it wasn’t in the sense of the classroom massacre of Pearl Jam’s song, “Jeremy,” or the movie, The Basketball Diaries, but in the sense of what I could accomplish, proving that I was a good person who could overcome life’s challenges.
Sadly, the pop cultural influences aren’t even necessary anymore. These days, a school shooter doesn’t need the influence of a film like Natural Born Killers. In keeping with our do-it-yourself, reality-TV culture, the news media carries the story just as well, and in some ways, that seems worse. In the fictional accounts, we tended to get the gory details of the event, and the aftermath was left to the imagination. School shooting journalism doesn’t give us many images of the gore (although that may change with social media in the mix), but we do get video of the community reacting and fame-making investigations of the shooter’s motivation. And the subjects aren’t fictional figures, but real kids just like other kids.
Also trumpeted is the message that something good can come from the horror if only politicians would take on the NRA and get rid of guns.
The principle that the Bill of Rights should bend in response to this terrible new trend raises an important question. The Second Amendment isn’t new, yet the sorts of school shootings that have been proliferating are. Guns may be the most prominent tool of the would-be killers, but social media and television news carry the message from one to the next and provide the reward. Should we ban news coverage of these events? Should we ban social media? How about the days of revenue-generating commentary on TV and radio talk shows after each attack?
As the reaction most people will have to curtailing the First Amendment illustrates, we understand that there are larger considerations around our rights than just “taking action” after the latest incident. We should also understand that none of this will stop the nightmare, because ultimately the horror is that kids want to do this to other kids. That’s the problem we must solve, and it isn’t going to happen by limiting rights. It’s going to happen when we remember that we have to use our rights responsibly, not just in our handling of weapons, but also in our public talk and in our families and personal relationships.