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“The New Normal Is Happy Sorrow”

A writer copes with America's mass shooting epidemic.

Mark Wilson/Getty

When I was ten, my mother married a Baltimore County Police officer. While off duty, he kept his service pistol in a locked box in their bedroom closet; after each shift, he’d sit on the edge of their bed and unload it. I never watched him do it. But the clicks and cadences became familiar, and the chills I felt hearing them never went away—even now, when I hear pistols being loaded and unloaded in action films, I shudder. The sounds echoed off our high ceilings. Some nights, it was impossible not to think: “There is a weapon in this house that can easily kill. Only one of us is trained to use it.” It was also impossible to forget what I’d seen and read about police officers using their guns on unarmed civilians. These were the Amadou Diallo years, the Sean Bell years. For about nine of the eleven years they were married, my stepfather served on the police force. I never saw him wield the gun, but living with it in my house shaped my ideas about owning one. I don’t want to. They have never made me feel safer. 

In October, as President Obama delivered his impassioned response to the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon at Umpqua Community College, he stressed how repetitive this cycle has become. “Somehow this has become routine,” he said. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.” And these shootings are happening so frequently that numbness is unsurprising. We develop stock responses, because the details of each tragedy being to blur and our condolences and pleas for more stringent gun control—or a redoubled defense of gun ownership—become interchangeable. 

The data show that a mass shooting—where four or more die—happens nearly once per day in this country. This year, they have happened more often than that. But there are ways to avoid forgetting the cost of American gun violence, even for those of us who have experienced the news reports at a remove, even among those of us who have been fortunate enough to have never witnessed or been the victim of a shooting. This is imperative, because retaining our humanity depends on being able to feel.

For me, staving off numbness involves a series of rituals. They alternate between conjuring memory, speaking the names of the dead, and, retaining some minor detail reported about the personality of at least one victim among those slain in mass shootings. Six-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary student Catherine Violet Hubbard, for instance, had flame-red hair and a smattering of freckles across her cheeks and nose. She loved animals so much that her family requested donations to the Newtown Animal Shelter in lieu of flowers to honor her memory. Lucas Eibel, one of nine killed at Umpqua, was a Wildlife Safari junior zookeeper and a quadruplet; when I think of him, I think about his siblings, and imagine how they are coping. 

President Obama was quick to acknowledge the many “responsible, law-abiding gun owners” who use their firearms “to hunt, for sport, and to protect their families.” And I immediately remember my first years teaching college in Michigan, where, during deer season, some of my students would occasionally come to class in camouflage. Some would write their narrative essays about their first successful kills as young hunters. Mostly I remember them as proud, grateful for their familial rites of passage. But I also remember the student who wrote that he froze the first time a deer entered his sights, and how the sudden gravity of his power to end a life filled him with indecision. His father, he wrote, reassured him: many hunters pause the first time. He said his father told him it would get easier. 

Thoughts of former students often pull me back from ambivalence. In July, as Baltimore experienced its deadliest month in 30 years, I scrolled through a Baltimore Sun article that shared the photographs of the 45 people murdered in 31 days, along with brief summaries of the circumstances surrounding their deaths and small details about them from their families. The victims died mostly from gunshots.

As I scrolled, the details and faces began to blur together, though I instinctively checked the neighborhoods where the homicides occurred. None were close to mine. This shouldn’t have mattered; I know that my address doesn’t insulate me from gun violence. Nothing does. But it’s hard not to feel an admixture of relief at latest shooting’s distance from my street and shame for being glad to have been spared other neighborhoods’ misfortunes. I kept scanning the ages of the victims in the paper to see if I might remember anyone from grade school. Another sigh of relief; I didn’t see the faces of anyone from my childhood. But suddenly  I was struck with growing alarm: I realized I still might recognize one of the dead from the introduction to college writing class I taught in Baltimore for three years. There are too many ways to know or know of someone who was killed in a shooting; there are too many ways to know someone who did the shooting. Gun violence is that prevalent.

After those twenty children were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, I joined the Facebook community “Remembering Ana Marquez-Greene.” I still visit it and her mother still updates it. In 12 days, it will be the three-year anniversary. On September 17, she writes: “The bus Ana should be on to 4th grade just drove by the house (it’s amazing how that sound makes my knees buckle).” Later, on September 27, she notes that how her surviving son, Isaiah, still asks why it happened. She says that even he’s happy, “it’s hard to be ‘completely’ happy. The new normal is happy sorrow.”

I remember that Tywanza Sanders, who died trying to protect his mother and aunt at Bethel A.M.E in Charleston, was afraid to flush the toilet when he was a little boy, according to his sister’s remarks at his funeral. “And look what he did last week,” she observed in the aftermath. “He wasn’t afraid of anything.”

In the coming days, just as President Obama predicted a few months ago, I’ll settle into my own routine again. If I can stomach it, I’ll read what I can about the victims of the latest shooting. I’ll try hard to remember their lives, because that is how we keep life sacred.

I don’t need those memories to lobby my state representatives about gun laws. They aren’t the reason I support stronger regulations for gun ownership. And perhaps it’s the emptiest gesture in the world that I collect knowledge about lives that never should have been lost to a gunman’s impersonal motives or random aim. But I wish we all would do it. I wish the ritual would translate to legislative action. I wish all gun deaths were regarded as something more than rhetorical devices or as admonition against ambivalence. In the meantime, I will keep to my routine, as often as tragedy necessitates.