As the shots rang out just after noon last week, I was in a college classroom with my writing students, discussing the art of the interview. Some few might have wondered from time to time whether they’d survive Media Writing 210, but none of us had ever, ever doubted that we’d live past Thursday.
Ten people died, including the teacher, eight students and the gunman.
Except for two little details, Thursday’s tragedy could have been our own: None of the students enrolled in my class arrived that morning carrying a legally purchased rifle, five handguns, a flak jacket and a steaming grudge. Too, we had the lifesaving good fortune to be in our classroom at Minnesota State University Moorhead at the precise moment when another student ― an angry, isolated young male misfit ― opened fire in an eerily similar setting at Umpqua Community College.
Despite America’s near-daily parade of tragic shootings, there’s something about the one that could just as well have starred you that brings the terror of gun violence home.
Instead of Moorhead, where we’re still safe for now, the national news spotlight turned to Roseburg, Ore., another semirural target not so unlike our city. Umpqua Community College sits beside the North Umpqua River, one hour south of Eugene, the home of the University of Oregon Ducks. Interstate 5 splits the town of 22,000. Roseburg is an hour east from the Pacific Coast and 100 miles west of Crater Lake National Park and the rest of Oregon’s Cascade Range. The college has grown up among logged-over forests and fields once famous for growing premium prunes. Now, though, you’re likelier to see acres of Christmas trees, and upper-middle-class housing. Vineyards, too: Sunset Magazine has dubbed the Roseburg area “the next Napa Valley.” Its visitors bureau boasts of great steelhead fly-fishing and “one of the world’s 25 most epic mountain biking trails.”
It’s a locale eerily like our own … agricultural, middle-class, hard-working, quiet … the same kind of dot on the map where some 142 school shootings have taken place since the weeks before Christmas 2012, when 20 6- and 7-year-olds were murdered, along with six teachers, at a school called Sandy Hook in Connecticut.
Another horror. Another pointless sacrifice of lives ― lives undeniably like our own ― on the altar of the gun gods.
My students are part of the generation that’s grown up in schools where lockdown drills are just part of the routine. They come from K-12 systems that are busy floating bond issues to not only pay for classrooms and gyms, but cover the cost of hardened security systems.
The time has come for real, everyday people like you and me to stand up to the gun lobby. We need to temper the legion of gun fanatics who hold our communities hostage. We need to keep ourselves and our children safe … not perfectly safe, perhaps, given the many factors that lie behind these massacres, but safe enough to know we’ll live to go to school tomorrow
No, no one is coming to take the gun lovers’ arms away. Not going to happen. Despite the paranoia that surrounds the topic, that’s never even been seriously proposed. With firearms outnumbering individual citizens in the good old USA, the very idea is ludicrous.
But that doesn’t mean we must resign ourselves to the unspeakable, horrifying, bloody status quo.
America faced a different mechanical threat and another kind of terror 100 years ago. Terrible and mighty, these deadly machines soared in popularity as our forebears fell in love with their intoxicating speed and power. Their practical utility, when used by reasonable men, was offset by the cost and carnage caused by reckless users. Too often, they mowed down the innocent and extinguished owners’ lives.
It was called the most dangerous public menace of the 20th century. We call it the automobile.
Driving could be a killer. As the nation’s death toll doubled again and again and yet again during the first four decades of the 1900s, car lovers and safety advocates were at each other’s throats with almost the same intensity the National Rifle Association generates today. Defending their absolute right to drive their beloved machines, advocates of the wide-open road rallied around a cry that has a ghostly ring to it: “Cars don’t kill people. People kill people!”
Yet Americans did eventually come together to curb the crisis. While a few idealists might have dreamed of going back to buggies, no one talked seriously of banning horsepower. Instead, mostly in baby steps boosted by the occasional breakthrough, the nation has crafted many ways to make both cars and drivers safer. In 2013, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the national highway death toll was just one-third of its peak rate 80 years back.
We found a tolerable balance. Americans could still drive ― and adore ― their cars. But federal and state governments, working with public-health agencies, engineers and auto manufacturers, stepped up with a set of rules and standards to make motorized travel safer, while maintaining the personal freedom that drivers prize.
Today, we accept what they came up with: Speed limits. Rules of the road. Patrol officers to enforce them.
From the moment a vehicle rolls off the assembly line with its own unique VIN to the day it hits the salvage yard, its identity and ownership are tracked and traceable. Title transfers keep ownership records every time it changes hands, whether at retail or a private sale.
That potentially deadly machine can’t move an inch without a state-issued license plate. To get that plate, the owner has to show a driver’s license … and proof of liability insurance.
All kinds of mechanical innovations have made those who ride inside much safer than Great-Great-Grandpa could have dreamed, from safety glass and padded dashboards to seat belts, airbags, emission standards and the sensible concept of manufacturer liability for design flaws. When those flaws are discovered, owners are notified and vehicles recalled for repair. Naturally, automakers have fought most of them every step of the way, sending lobbyists abroad with pocketfuls of cash to oppose their adoption. Sooner or later, though, the public interest has so far come out ahead.
And yes, we have recognized full well that cars ― like guns ― don’t kill until you put humans in the driver’s seat. Our society places ultimate responsibility where it belongs and takes steps to improve it. Driver training is mandatory. Cars are kept out of the hands of children. Drivers are tested and retested to win and renew their licenses.
Those who love guns are not so different from “car nuts.” Both talk long and lovingly of freedom and their rights. Both are deeply fond of flaunting their metal. Both savor the overwhelming sense of power and the pride ― along with the attention of those who may look on with admiration, envy or apprehension.
Yet when it comes to motor vehicles, common sense has gained the upper hand. Perhaps it can rise again if the American people raise their voices loud enough to drown out the gun lobby and its paid performers in Washington.
While there is no single magic bullet, opinion polls consistently show a huge majority of Americans support the most basic steps toward regulation. The Pew Research Center finds that 85 percent of gun owners also support proposals to require background checks on private sales and at gun shows. Ninety percent favor laws to limit sales to those with mental illness or criminal records. Sixty percent of gun owners ― almost as many as the share of nongun owners who agree ― support creating a federal data base to track gun sales.
No one confiscated automobiles back in the days when they were wreaking the most damage on society. Instead, we arrived at a reasonable compromise. That can happen again with guns if we can somehow get beyond the special interests and let the American people truly have their say.
We want our lives back. We want to go to school or a movie or walk across a public plaza without thinking “duck and cover.” If it’s reasonable to require drivers of powerful speeding cars to handle their vehicles safely and responsibly ― how can we demand less of speeding bullets?