In the wake of the Parkland massacre, in a land whose citizens own an estimated 265 million guns, half of them in the hands of just 3% of the population, and with mass shootings (four or more people) taking place, on average, nine out of every 10 days, this country is unique among developed nations when it comes to guns and gun violence. There’s no other place where civilians are quite so weaponized, nor any other country whose weaponized politicians (backed to the hilt by the NRA) are quite so sophisticated and sophistic when it comes to explaining why all this couldn’t be more normal in a “free” land. (The satirical publication the Onion caught the spirit of the moment perfectly in 2014 with this headline: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”)
Unfortunately, as is clear from the responses to the Parkland, Florida, slaughter, our children don’t feel quite so “free” as they perform grim lockdown drills at their schools. My 5½-year-old grandson came home recently after just such a drill and asked his mother, “Why would angry dogs try to break into my school?” Okay, he doesn’t quite have the details straight yet, but he will all too soon while huddled in the corner of some darkened classroom. It’s a hell of a way to go to school.
There was, of course, an equivalent in my own 1950s childhood: the “duck and cover” drills we schoolchildren took part in regularly in our classrooms, while outside sirens wailed their test warnings for a nuclear apocalypse. As you might imagine, that, too, was frightening at the time, even if not in quite the same way. To the extent that we kids could take in the idea of a nuclear attack, we knew, at least, that those Soviet missiles weren’t aimed specifically at our school or meant specifically to slaughter us; they were aimed, after a fashion, at everything, at slaughtering everybody. They were horrifying, but also strangely impersonal.
In the intervening years, in the school context, death has become so much more personal. No wonder that, led by inspired and inspiring high school students who have been in the line of fire or fear that they will be, something is actually happening in this country when it comes to guns — a transformation of public opinion, a growing business boycott of the NRA, a chain of sporting goods stores that will no longer sell military-style semi-automatic rifles like the one Nikolas Cruz carried into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and even a few politicians who are beginning to rethink their positions on parts of American gun culture. In that context, let a high school teacher, Belle Chesler, take you inside an all-American school-cum-shooting-gallery of our era and clue you in as to what a grown-up thinks about the nature of American life while locked down in the dark with her students.