Sandy Hook, Charleston, shootings

Sarah Illingworth on Sandy Hook, Charleston & gun control in the US

As the nine victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina are laid to rest, I’ve been reflecting on a trip I made to Newtown, Connecticut two years ago. 

I was there with a friend who was doing some academic work around grief. Her choice to visit the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting was in response to the US government’s increased focus on surveillance and security in the wake of the massacre that took place there on December 14, 2012, and the national mourning it met with. Demolition of Sandy Hook started the day after we visited, the plan being to destroy it entirely before the first anniversary of the homicides. Incidentally, construction of the new school was completed yesterday (June 30) on the same site. It’s scheduled to open in the fall of 2016.

While in Newtown we visited a number of locations related to the shooting, including the outer grounds of Sandy Hook (the site was blocked from public access), a cemetery at which some of the victims are buried, and the home of the perpetrator, Adam Lanza. The latter in particular was pretty macabre, although we weren’t there for speculative reasons. Sitting in the car on the street outside, looking up at the two-storey house, we were struck by its normalcy. There was nothing to signal it as a crime scene, bar some boards in the ground level windows and a tiny, torn No Trespassing sign plugged into the ground by the driveway – that had a couple of newspapers on it the mailman was, unnervingly, still delivering.

We didn’t talk to anyone in the community about the shooting, figuring they’d had enough of that, but it was moving to see small tributes all around the town to the people who died, and to think of Adam’s mother, who he also shot and killed. Used as I am to feeling disconnected from tragedies I hear about in the media, being in Newtown messed with me more than I expected, and I felt more and more affected by the experience in the days following. Reading about the incident, seeing pictures of the kids who died after seeing their names on tiny plaques surrounded by their favourite toys, planted in the ground with them by family and friends, I felt the anger and disbelief, and sadness, one would expect to feel when confronted by such a massive abuse of vulnerability.

At the same time, I also felt what some might consider a misplaced empathy for Adam. He was 20, a kid himself. I kept wondering how he’d arrived at a point where he could wake up one morning, shoot his mother, then drive the 10-minute route between his house and old school to do the same to 20 children and 6 adults before also shooting himself. He left no conclusive clues, at least that have been reported on, as to his motives – he just got out of bed that day and went on what certainly appeared to be a calculated rampage.

The last place we stopped at was the site in a neighbouring town that Sandy Hook school had been relocated to (pictured) while the old one was being demolished and rebuilt. It was a Sunday so there was no one around, but I stood in front of the building for a while and thought about the kids who every day walked through its doors. Some of them would’ve lost siblings, others buddies, their teacher. How do you carry that when you’re a kid? What do you do with all the stuff you don’t understand, or you’re angry about? Has it ultimately reset their course for better or worse?

Like I said, the recent slaughter of nine people in Charleston has this trip back on my mind. While the Emanuel shooting was overtly racially motivated and Lanza had no clear MO, the two incidents aren’t dissimilar. Perhaps their most striking commonality is that both perpetrators were sadly young, yet both had relatively free access to firearms. One would think the ease with which both Lanza and (allegedly) Dylann Roof were able to obtain weapons would in and of itself make a solid case for gun control legislation in the US to finally be tightened. However, even a 21 year-old acting on his hate doesn’t seem to shake the certainty of many gun owners that no one has the right to strip them of their right to possess and use a firearm.

Beyond acts of terror like Sandy Hook and Charleston, gun violence in the US is an institutional, systemic issue. US police shot and killed 59 people in the first 24 days of 2015 – four more than in the last 24 years in England and Wales combined. As at July 1, the number of people shot and killed by US police in 2015 totals 547 (and yes, the majority are black). Whatever country you compare that to, within whatever timeframe, that’s an unusually high, horrific number.

It’s fair to argue that the factors involved in civilian and police gun use are varied enough to make them separate issues. But, while I agree they’re not one and the same, I don’t believe they’re exclusive. I’m not going to attempt to unpack the racial element further here, but there is a), screamingly, that. My b) is a pretty basic: hate leads to hate, man. Unfortunately, curbing its effects isn’t as straightforward as just getting people to be nicer to each other, but Martin Luther King Jr acknowledged a profound truth when he stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

As yet more victims of gun violence are laid to rest in the US, what will this mean for gun control legislation? Changes that may inhibit some citizens’ right to possess, but ultimately lead to reduced gun violence and unnecessary death? Or further denial that lax gun laws and gun violence are linked, and another ramping up of state and civilian ‘security’?

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.