When I was in grade 12, a kid threatened to bring a gun to school.
It was a Tuesday night. My best friends texted me asking if I had “seen it” but I didn’t know what “it” was. A few minutes later, my little sister walked into my room and handed me her phone. She showed me an explicit shooting threat, an Instagram page that contained the name of my high school, the day he planned to go through with it and, most terrifying of all, a list of boys he was planning on shooting along with a list of girls who he was planning on raping and murdering. A girl I knew was on that list.
By midnight the account had been taken down and our principal had sent a panicked call to our parents’ cell phones telling us that the school would remain open, that he took these threats very seriously and the decision to attend would be for us to make. I went to school because I had rehearsal for a drama festival that was fast approaching and because I stubbornly believed that if I stayed home, I would be giving this kid exactly what he wanted.
That day at school was terrifying. Normally my friends and I would saunter around the hallways, taking as long as we possibly could to get to our classes. We’d take the long way from our classrooms to the bathrooms; we felt like we owned the place because we kind of did. On that day, however, any sense of ownership was stripped from us. We were no longer in charge of our own lives.
They made an arrest a few days later. The suspect was 13 years old. We were all finally able to release the collective breath that we had been holding as a community. We laughed about it after. We turned it into a joke.
We were all pretending that we didn’t care. It was a prank, the result of one seriously troubled kid lashing out. It was fake but the tightness in my chest as I walked as fast as I could without running between my classes was real. The texts I sent my little sister every hour to make sure she was okay were real. The plans we made to run to my friend’s car, to hide in our lockers, under our desks or in the theatre were real. The police officers standing at the front doors of my school were real, their guns were real and the concerned looks on their faces as they looked through our backpacks were real.
We knew what might have happened because we’d seen it. Columbine happened before I was born, Virginia Tech when I was seven and Sandy Hook when I was 11. I was 15 when 49 people were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting. At the time it was the most people ever killed in a mass shooting. The next year, just before I turned 17, that number went up. At a concert in Las Vegas, 58 people were killed and almost 700 were injured. The students at Parkland in 2018 were my age; they could have been my classmates, my friends, my sister or even me.
We grew up hearing about mass shootings and school shootings nearly every day. I do not know a single person my age or younger who doesn’t remember active shooter drills in pre-school, who hasn’t thought about where they would hide, who doesn’t make note of the exits every time they walk into a classroom.
That day, at my high school, 18 years of planning suddenly kicked in. We’d been trained for this. We knew what to do. We knew to run if we could and hide if we couldn’t. We knew the safest classrooms before anyone even asked us to point them out. Nobody died at my school that day. There was no gun. There was no shooting. I think the kid just wanted attention. Thank God nothing happened, but I wouldn’t have been that surprised if it had. I don’t think any of us would have been.
When you watch kids your age die almost every week, it stops feeling like an if and starts feeling like a when. You wonder if you could run fast enough. You wonder if your friends could. You wonder when it will be your turn to find out. You have a note written to your family on your phone just in case. You look around on the first day of school and wonder which one of your classmates might be capable of a senseless act of violence.
Adults acted surprised. They asked “who could have seen this coming?” and “how could someone do this?” They thought these things didn’t happen in their neighbourhoods, to their children, the world is a scary place, but mass shootings happen elsewhere to people who are not them.
But we weren’t surprised. We aren’t anymore. We’ve asked, we’ve marched, we’ve screamed and shouted and begged and pleaded for gun control so we can feel safe in our classrooms. Nothing has happened.
We live in a society that allows weapons of war to be manufactured and sold to civilians. You lost the right to be surprised when you didn’t change that fact after Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Virginia Tech, after Parkland. You lose that right every time someone with a gun walks into a church, a Walmart, a restaurant, a concert, a synagogue, a mosque, an office building, a festival or a school, kills someone and you do nothing to change.
We can talk about mental health, online radicalization and bullying and all the things that you think are causing these shootings if and only if we get rid of the guns people are using to commit them. I am not going to have the conversation until we do. Nothing else matters. As long as people can get their hands on guns, there will be shootings. Mental health care doesn’t matter when you’re sitting in a classroom with the lights off and the shutters drawn. Anti-bullying programs don’t work when you’re running away from the sound of gunshots. Kindness, compassion and respect will do nothing to save us. One thing matters in that moment: there is a person, they want to hurt you, and someone, somewhere has decided that it is okay for them to have a gun.
I can’t tell you how many mass shootings there have been in the past month. In the States, countless. Even in Canada we feel the fear, the spreading of their violence across the border. I don’t even register it anymore: 10 dead, 15 injured, three dead, 40 injured… It doesn’t make an impact. It doesn’t surprise me. We are a generation used to seeing our peers die. We have been traumatized by inaction.
The victims of school shootings should not have had to grow up to change the world that allowed dozens of their friends’ lives to be stolen in mere minutes, but here we are. A generation was allowed to be defined by school shootings, what happens when we grow up?