Serious problems need serious ideas

June 17, 2022 3:00 am

Brad Fowler of San Antonio, Texas, lights candles at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 3, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed on May 24 after an 18-year-old gunman opened fire inside the school. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

My friend Michael is studying in Peru this summer. He recently watched a political rally on a plaza near his school. A young Peruvian joined him on a bench, explaining to this American that the annual event featured speeches by candidates for local offices. He told Michael that Peru has many problems: grinding poverty, poor health care and widespread corruption.

“But,” the young man said as he stood to leave, “at least we don’t shoot our children.”

He’s right.

The leading cause of death for U.S. children is gunfire.

Think about that for a minute. I’ll repeat it just so we’re clear: The leading cause of death for U.S. children is being shot.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2020, firearms overtook motor vehicle crashes as the No. 1 killer of kids aged 1 to 18 — more than drownings, twice the drug overdoses, three times the suffocations and nearly as many as all the medical anomalies and diseases combined that take the lives of children.

Adults haven’t fared too well, either. The 45,222 gun deaths in the United States in 2020 were a new high.

Then came hate and horror in Buffalo, followed by the savagery of Uvalde. Within days, more mass shootings erupted across the country, one taking the life of my close high school classmate’s adult daughter, a physician in Tulsa.

We require fences and lifeguards for swimming pools. We spend billions funding research to eradicate childhood disease and keep children safe from accidents. We’ve declared a war on drugs over and over again.

But common sense and solid solutions to the peril guns represent for our children? Bupkis, nada, crickets.

Americans in large and growing numbers support limits on weapons of war, red flag laws and universal background checks. They wonder why an 18-year-old can buy a gun designed for the battlefield and nearly 1,700 rounds of ammunition; why other countries with mental health problems don’t have regular and wholesale slaughter of innocents; why some who lecture us on the Second Amendment consider it absolute.

These are difficult, serious questions requiring difficult, serious conversations. Doing nothing or minimizing the damage, especially for political leaders in whose hands many of the solutions lie, is irresponsible at best but more likely immoral given our escalating shooting numbers.

Even so, some insist too many doors led to the massacre in Uvalde. Others, like Nebraska’s governor and a candidate to take his place, believe 18-year-olds are unable to deal with America’s history of slavery but “absolutely” should be able to purchase a weapon designed for war. Still others blame video games, marijuana, broken homes, lack of prayer in schools and social media. Some want to arm teachers despite many schools already being unable to buy textbooks and classroom supplies or repair HVAC systems.

These are not serious ideas. Our children die by gunfire more than any other cause, yet these arguments do little to address the major health crisis that guns now present. Nor do they come to mind when I remember the day a teenager told me he didn’t want to die.

About four years ago, I mentored this teen, meeting him once a week in the high school library about midafternoon. That day began with him telling me about prom and graduation. A flat voice on the school intercom interrupted us: “We are in a Code Red. Shelter in place. This is not a drill.” Before she could repeat the order, students, their active shooter training showing, hurried to offices and classrooms on the north side of the library. Sheltering in a small office with me were my mentoring student, two other students and the mentoring program director. The library was dark and still.

My student whispered to me, “I don’t want to die.” I assured him we wouldn’t, hoping against hope that I was right, that someone with a grudge or a gripe just having a bad day wouldn’t show up with an AR-15. The director held a young woman who was shaking in terror. A third student pushed himself against the wall, as if trying to disappear into it.

I texted my family, telling them I loved them because that’s what you do. We sat in a surreal silence, occasionally reassuring each other with a pat on a shoulder or a squeeze of a hand, waiting … in the terrifying quiet. The all-clear came about 20 minutes later.

The threat was credible, the fear palpable, the trauma to many students surely and searingly real.

Now, four years later, it’s worse.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.