Remembering Sandy Hook: We’ve Changed, But Our Gun Laws Haven’t

Three years ago, the horrific and unimaginable became shockingly commonplace.

On December 14, 2012, 20 students and six faculty members were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was the largest mass murder that had ever taken place at a grade school in the U.S., and it should have been a watershed moment for America’s decades-long push to curb our gun control issue. Sandy Hook should have been a national wakeup call to parents, students, and mourners across the nation—but it was a signal that gun violence had become America’s new normal. As Dan Hodges famously argued, “once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”

I woke up this December morning to an America scarcely different than we left it three years ago. After an initial push for universal background checks and an assault weapon ban in Congress, both of those quickly died. A recent infographic from the Huffington Post offered a haunting visualization of our government’s lack of action when it comes to a national solution to America’s gun crisis. Instead of an image that illustrates a movement toward progress on the gun control issue, their infographic is completely blank.

While Congress remains divided and inept, unable to act, mass shootings have become a daily reality in the United States, as painfully ordinary as the sunrise. Recent statistics have shown that 2015 averaged more mass shootings than days in a calendar year. Cities like San Bernardino, CA; Umpqua, OR; and Charleston, SC have become cultural shorthand for tragedy. For every shooting that became a national trending topic, hundreds more were invisible, simply because they couldn’t compete for the airwaves. Even as far back as 2009, mass shootings were so routine that the murder of 13 people in Binghamton, NY was all but completely ignored.

But it’s not just a mass shooting issue: Last year, 51,773 were killed by guns. For reference, I grew up in Milford, Ohio, a small town outside of Cincinnati. With a population of just 6,683 people, it’s the kind of quiet area America lionizes, a place where people still know their neighbors and where I could walk to school without fear. Our town’s biggest attractions were our movie theater and the local IHOP, a sensation when it opened during my Senior year of high school. In 2014, the population equivalent of nearly eight towns just like mine don’t exist anymore. This year will witness at least eight more being wiped from the map.

A recent YouGov poll showed that those realities have taken a toll on Americans. Over a third of respondents argued that mass shootings are “just a fact of life in America today,” while less than a majority felt that it wasn’t even possible to stop the violence—whether through gun control or (as those like House Speaker Paul Ryan have argued) sweeping mental health reforms. According to the Guardian’s Megan Carpentier, we’ve even come to accept that those killed in a Newtown-style tragedy might be us—whether we’re pumping gas or walking down the street.

I can relate. After the shootings in Aurora, CO, and Lafayette, LA, became the stage for violence, I can’t go to the movies without praying that the guy getting up isn’t packing. When I saw “The Danish Girl” with my boyfriend a few weeks ago, we mapped out our exit strategy before the film started. We were seated near the back and decided that it might be best to hide in a crawlspace near the railing; all the exits were too far away and it was too high to attempt to leap over the rail. When the film was interrupted by a disturbance—an argument between two patrons over cell phone usage—I instinctively began to duck. This is it, I thought.

In America, we don’t have real gun control or a government that’s willing to act; all we have are these small, daily calculations and that lingering thought in the back of our mind that one day, it could be us. We could be the faces of America’s gun epidemic—or the stories that are forgotten. After all, I can name dozens of mass shooters from the past three years. In 2014, a troubled 22-year-old named Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, CA, killing sorority girls and other bystanders because of his fear of rejection; I can tell you about his home life and his social media habits. I can’t tell you one thing about any of the women he killed. I can’t remember the names of any of the children murdered at Sandy Hook or the black church members gunned down in Charleston.

Prolific essayist and writer Gore Vidal once called our country the “United States of Amnesia.” In an essay for the Nation, he wrote, “We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” According to Vidal, this isn’t just a matter of our cultural past but our psychological present. “You have a people that don’t know anything about the rest of the world, and you have leaders who lie to them, lie to them, and lie to them,” Vidal later clarified in an interview with the Progressive.

Vidal argues that it’s a state of constant misinformation—where a staggering percentage of the population still thinks Saddam Hussein was behind the September 11 attacks—but it’s also a daily forgetting. Remembering is a powerful act. Without memory, we lose our very identity. When Alzheimer’s patients brain cells begin to deteriorate, they become a different person, no longer the loved ones we knew. But when you’re the one who is afflicted, you lose touch with what the world is—or what it can be. Lacking a recollection of any other life, it’s easy to accept the one provided to you.

Three years after Sandy Hook, it’s not just a matter of Googling the victims’ names or reading about their stories; Daniel Barden’s family posted a video tribute to remember the seven-year-old’s too short life, while CNN anchor Jake Tapper has been tweeting photos of the children lost in the tragedy. We also need to remind ourselves that no one’s death has to be a fact of America today, and most of all, we need to finally do something about it. It’s time to fill the blank space where America’s outrage should be.