On Valentine’s Day, more than a dozen children attending a perfectly normal day at a perfectly normal high school in a perfectly normal town in Florida were murdered by a 19-year-old who could legally buy an AR-15 but not a beer.
The next day, I became convinced the house would catch on fire from faulty wiring and that my older daughter’s room would be the first place set ablaze. I was also utterly certain it would happen while we slept, and that I wouldn’t be able to get to either her or my younger child in time.
I spent the afternoon and evening Googling search term after search term for the kind of idiosyncratic wiring system that I think we have. I don’t even really know for sure, because you couldn’t pay me to crawl into our crawlspace, which I affectionately refer to as “Spiderland.”
I googled how to know if your wiring was unsafe. I googled what the most likely causes of house fires were. I googled “ways to know your house needs rewiring” and electricians in our city. I couldn't get the thought of it out of my mind, the thought of my beautiful spitfire child in a room full of smoke while I slept and did nothing.
When Audra accidentally rolled out of bed woke herself up by landing hard on the floor, Jason held her until she had calmed down a bit, and then I laid with her for a few minutes, rubbing her back and murmuring all those affectionate nothings you say to tired, sad children.
While laying there, I stared at an outlet across the room from me, wondering if it would spark tonight, if smoke would rise, and how long it would take me to wake up to realize it.
Intrusive thoughts, the constant cycling of what could go wrong with insistent certainty that it will go wrong, are a part of living with anxiety.
Living with anxiety as a parent has meant for me a series of impending dooms on every potential level that can sometimes run on nonstop loops in my brain. Every fall could be a concussion, every time she runs outside could be the time she runs over a fire ant mound and what if she’s allergic to fire ants? I worry about car accidents during our road trips back to my mother’s house, stare at everyone with hard-eyed suspicion when we stop for gas in the middle of the night while trying to memorize license plates, and have detailed disaster plans for natural disasters that have a less than 10% chance of ever befalling my family, just in case.
Parenting with anxiety is a series of projections — I project fear on things I am easily able to affect or change in order to put off thinking about the fears I can’t. I am hyper-vigilant about the size of the gummy bears Ellie might eat because I can mitigate the potential ramifications of gummy bears that are too big.
There are worse things — far worse things — that I can't.
I laid awake until nearly midnight, replaying potential house fire scenarios in my mind, trying to get myself prepared. A dog was barking, somewhere, down the road. It left our dog restless, but made me wonder constantly if he sensed some danger that I did not. Audra had fallen back asleep, perfectly peaceful. I could faintly hear the sound of Ellie’s white noise machine down the hall, where she lay serenely hugging an enormous pile of “lovies”, all of which she needs in bed with her at all times.
I was worrying about unlikely disasters because, the day before, seventeen families and hundreds of friends, loved ones, and classmates had faced a disaster that has become increasingly likely. A teacher was once again given the responsibility to place themselves between children and a gun, because we'd rather our teachers must sacrifice themselves than make someone be inconvenienced when they want military-grade weaponry at home.
I had spent a day reading people murmuring their prayers while simultaneously insisting nothing could be done except to sell more guns. Of course the answer to guns is guns. Guns plus guns, carry the guns, always guns. No laws could be changed, of course — it's never acceptable for someone to be inconvenienced for a moment in order to save thousands of lives. No, no — it was more guns, and more prayer, and then nothing else.
Nothing infuriates me more than mumbled prayers that are intended as an end unto themselves, rather than a precursor to taking action. Nothing infuriates me like the suggestion that the solution to violence is violence. I had nowhere for that fear and fury to go.
I put that fear, and that anger, and that injustice into electrical wiring because seventeen more people were dead who didn’t have to be and that I could not change. But I could call an electrician about a wire.
They suggest our schools turn into prisons rather than effect the policy changes that have made children in every country that implemented them infinitely safer at school than our babies are here.
I have children who will one day walk into schools that can’t keep them safe, because we’ve collectively decided the “right” of civilians to own a military-grade weapon designed explicitly to tear apart human flesh is more important than a child’s right to live. People are rushing out to buy those weapons as we speak, terrified that more dead children might mean they don't get to own a weapon designed to create more.
This is the country my children live in — one where the reaction to murdered kids is to make sure to buy the murder weapon as fast as you can.
I worried about a house fire that wouldn’t happen because I can control that. I can call an electrician and pay out the nose for rewiring if I have to. I can talk to Jason and allow him to walk me through all the reasons our house won’t catch fire while we’re sleeping.
There’s not a lot I can do about thousands of people who simply do not care about dead children as much as they do a hunk of metal. There's not a lot Jason can tell me that will change the fact that my daughters' safety cannot be guaranteed when they go to school. Or to the mall. Or to a music concert. Or to the grocery store. Or to a friend’s house. Or in their own front yard.
I worry about a house fire because all the need in me to protect my children from harm can only go so far in a society that tries to blame literally anything that doesn't require us to actually do something rather than to stand up and say, hey, maybe it's time to admit trying nothing isn't working. All the nations that tried something have safer schools than we do. Maybe that's a sign.
I can’t keep my sister safe. I cannot keep my niece safe. I can’t keep my friend from being the next teacher forced to watch her students frantically text their parents goodbye. I can’t protect my cousins, teaching children right in the same age group as the Sandy Hook kids were.
I cannot control a country that increasingly thinks that building schools out of stacks of guns is better than making changes that result in less gun violence.
Show me someone who suggests that the solution to gun violence is for more people to be armed, and I will show you someone who thinks we’re all going to be an action movie hero totally unbound by the laws of adrenaline or panic response. I’ll show you someone who just wants to sell — or buy — more guns.
I cannot protect my children from gun violence because I live in a country that does not think they deserve the barest hint of protection from it.
My babies will one day have to go to schools that teach them how to hide under their desks or in closets and be quiet, so quiet, and hope that being quiet is enough because God knows no one will suggest that perhaps we take the military-grade weaponry and thousands of rounds of ammo out of a shooter’s house instead.
National policy should reflect the value of a human life and place it so far above that of a weapon designed to rend human flesh until death, but it doesn’t. National policy should place our childrens’ lives above the value of a piece of twisted metal, but it doesn’t, because the people who sell that metal spend millions ensuring politicians do nothing.
Marco Rubio should be swallowed up by a sinkhole every time he mumbles “thoughts and prayers”, but no sinkhole opens. Paul Ryan should feel physical agony every time he says it’s “too soon to talk about changing anything” when shootings in schools happen so often at this point that there is never time to recover from the last one before the next one happens.
I worry obsessively about the things I can control because I cannot control everything.
But I will not let my worry paralyze me, and I won't stand by and mumble good thoughts and then close my eyes to the complexity of the problem and the reality of what it will take to fix it. I will not be complicit in this. I will not sit still and do nothing while people act as though the solution to gun violence is encouraging more gun violence.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving was widely ridiculed when it first began. They were accused of violating individual rights. They were accused of wanting to take all alcohol away forever, even though none of their proposed policy changes included wholesale prohibition. "They just want to take all the alcohol away," pundits cried. "Making drunk driving illegal won't stop a single drunk driver," others said. "They'll just do it anyway. Criminals will still drink and drive, there's nothing we can do."
Massively powerful alcohol lobbies ran ads calling them names and suggesting their grief had driven them crazy, that no one should listen to anything they had to say, they were just angry hysterical women trying to keep everyone else from having a good time.
People brought lawsuits against tobacco companies after the deaths of their relatives, friends, and loved ones, and were ridiculed. Tobacco companies mumbled that nothing could be done, the solution to cancer caused by cigarettes was just for smokers to buy other tobacco products. They bribed politicians to refuse to do anything. They tried to brand the people putting out information about the harmful nature of tobacco as crazy liars who were misleading with statistics.
In both cases, dedication and purpose persevered. While we still need tougher enforcement of drunk driving laws and far too many people are still addicted to nicotine, tens of thousands fewer people die each year from drunk driving accidents and tobacco-related health problems than did before the laws were passed.
Don’t tell me we can’t change anything when you go to work or go out to eat in buildings where nobody is filling the air with smoke. Don’t tell me we can’t make changes to entrenched policy when you are legally required to wear a seatbelt, register every single vehicle with your local municipality and state government, and pay taxes on it simply to operate it. Don't tell me there's no hope when every car must be insured to be operated legally, and we have enforcement for those who don't.
Don’t tell me we can’t make changes when you have to show ID to buy a case of beer.
Technology already exists to make it harder to pull a trigger. With fingerprint recognition like you already have on your phone, we could save every toddler who dies from accidental shooting each year and make it impossible for a teenager to steal their dad's gun for a rampage.
There is plenty of overwhelming public support for expanding background checks and confiscating the weapons of those convicted of domestic violence or other criminal acts, enforcing current laws already on the books, and new laws designed to ensure that it’s at least as hard to buy a gun as it is, you know, a beer.
Americans are demanding access to health care regardless of how rich we are or aren't, including mental health care. We are declaring that we should not allow ourselves to become a failed second-rate nation whose children are mired in daily violence and whose government whistles with their hands over their eyes while gun manufacturers slide money under the table. We are working to take on the social isolation created by an increasingly walled-off digital culture and the way our family and community bonds have been stretched thin or shattered entirely. We are trying to build a world where troubled children have somewhere to go that isn't withdrawing into violent fantasies — but we need help.
We need, as a society, to declare that it is worth a little hard work and some brief inconvenience to save thousands of lives. It's worth taking steps. It's worth having to have uncomfortable conversations and admit that we need to change policy and laws in about sixteen different directions and while most of them are other things, one of those directions is gun control regulations.
Those thousands of lives deserve to be saved.
I spent last night worrying unreasonably about a house fire because my reasonable worries seemed too big, too vast, too overwhelming.
Well… everything is overwhelming until you pick a place to start.
So let's get started.