By Chunyan Song
March 30th Thursday was a regular teaching day for me at Chico State. After I finished the last class of the day, I went back to my office and checked my emails. My son Lucas’ 4th grade teacher Mr. Pembroke had just sent a really odd email minutes before. “Folks, I want to assure you that your children were always safe today and that, in fact, we had a good day of learning. Your children’s safety is always first and foremost for all of us that work at school. Today was handled very well and we carried on, business as usual.” The email attached a note from the school’s principal, Ms. McLaughlin, with similar message to the parents. In the principal’s note, it also said that Chico Police Department was working on “this case”.
I immediately checked my cell phone to make sure that I hadn’t missed any important calls from the school or anyone else. No missed calls. I opened Facebook. On the top of Facebook feeds, it was a news story from Action News Now. The first line of the story made me almost scream, “CHICO, CALIF. – Around 11 a.m., Chico Police received a call from authorities at Parkview Elementary, to report a small handgun had been safely removed from a student.”
This happened at my son’s school while I was teaching! According to the news report, an “unidentified” 7-year old second grade student had brought a loaded .380 caliber Ruger handgun to class. Fortunately, the teacher found the gun in the student’s desk and called the police. The news also said the kid obtained the gun from “an unlocked and unsecured location inside his mother’s bedroom.” He was a good student with no behavior problems. And his mother was a “law-biding citizen.” It seemed that he brought the gun to school as a “show & tell” to impress his friends.
I was mad that I had to learn all of these through Facebook. Later at home, I found that the school had left two computer generated messages at my home phone, with the first saying “weapon was found” at the school and kids were safe. In the second message, it emphasized no need to pick up kids from school and the school was not in lockdown. The words “gun” or “loaded gun” were never mentioned in either of the messages.
Besides the initial shock, I am deeply grateful that nobody got hurt or killed. However, above all, I feel furious that something like this could even happen in an elementary school. As an immigrant from a country where guns are strictly prohibited, I find the gun culture in America sick and incomprehensible. I am appalled at the government’s inability to implement necessary gun controls even after so many gun related catastrophes. It is high time for Americans to face the reality and do some serious self-reflection on gun violence. Let’s look at some statistics and studies together.
The population of America currently stands at 311 million, accounting for less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Approximately 300 million weapons or 35 to 50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns are kept by Americans. It is close to one gun per person in America! This firearms per capita ratio is the highest in the world!
With such an alarmingly high gun ownership, and plenty of negligent parents, Americans have witnessed one tragedy after another with either children as the victims, or the perpetrators of gun violence. A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 5.4 percent of students nationwide had carried a weapon (e.g. a gun, knife, or club) on school property. In another study by the National Association of School Psychologists, 7.5 percent of students in the Washington, D.C., reported having brought a gun to school. A third of Americans with children under 18 at home keep a gun on the premises. And what I find especially disturbing is that nearly a third of households with children younger than 12 fail to lock up their guns. Parents of adolescents in particular appear to be more likely to keep guns unsecured in the home.
The United States also has the highest homicide-by-firearm rate among the world’s developed nations. More broadly, America ranks 4th for the highest number of deaths from guns, only superseded by Columbia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Based on the CNN report from June 2016, from 1966 to 2012, nearly a third of the world’s mass shootings took place in the U.S. In the first 164 days of 2016, we’ve seen a total of 136 mass shootings in the United States. The three deadliest shootings in the U.S. have occurred in the past 10 years. The Orlando attack on June 12th, 2016 was by far the deadliest shooting in the U.S. history with 49 killed. The 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting killed 32 lives. The third deadliest shooting, the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, claimed 27 lives among which 20 six- and seven-year-olds and 7 teachers.
My own two kids were recently about the same age as the kids killed in Sandy Hook. I was so sickened by the news that I could not bear to read, watch, or talk about it for a long time. I cried for the lost little lives and for their mothers. I was mad then and still mad today. How could it have happened? After it happened, how could any human beings with warm blood still be able to find excuses after excuses not doing anything to change? Yes, guns don’t kill and people do. Yes, the criminal was mentally ill. We need to fix that. Yes, we couldn’t have prevented a mentally ill person from killing. However, my stubborn gun loving American neighbors, don’t you agree that it is much harder to kill forty nine or twenty seven people with a knife, a sword, or a baseball bat? Don’t you agree that a strict gun control or even ban will discourage criminal-minded sick people from going through all the trouble to acquire a gun before killing at impulse? Study after study shows this is the case, as do comparisons with so many other developed countries where gun controls are stricter, and death rates lower.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama stated,
“We can’t tolerate this anymore.”
“These tragedies must end and to end them we must change.”
Five years have passed. No changes have been made. The Sandy Hook kids have died in vain. What a national shame!
The gun culture in America is firmly entrenched in an outdated Second Amendment of the American constitution from 1791. More than two hundred years have passed. The society has changed. Guns have changed. Isn’t time for Americans to change the law like they did when slavery became out of date, presidential term limits were needed, the income was needed, and 18 year olds were allowed to vote? But it turns out that it is almost impossible to change that pesky out-of-date 2nd amendment. A number of gun advocates consider ownership a birthright and an essential part of the nation’s heritage. Many Americans live in the paranoia that everyone wants to attack them, even though that is clearly not the case. In addition, they do not trust the police to protect them in the extremely rare case of such an attack.
In all, fewer than 20 states have enacted laws to hold adults criminally liable if they fail to store guns safely, enabling children to access them. In opposing safe-storage laws, some gun rights advocates have argued that a majority of accidental shootings of children are committed by adults with criminal backgrounds. The Times’s review found that was not true — children under the age of 18 were most often the shooters — and that the families involved came from all different backgrounds.
The day after the gun incident at Parkview Elementary School, Lucas was invited to a classmate’s birthday party for some archery fun at the Down Range Indoor Training Center. I drive by Down Range daily on my way to work. I have zero interest in supporting any business, including this one, promoting guns. Every single holiday, Down Range puts up an oversize poster next to the freeway. For Christmas, the poster had Santa Claus holding a rifle with an obnoxious message saying, “Pew! Pew! Pew! Merry Xmas!” Right now in the last week of March, the poster has already taken on the Easter theme. It features a pink-eared bunny with a provocative solicitation message, “Need an AR? Hop On In!”
The party was scheduled right after school. I decided to take my son to the birthday party for the sake of a quick peek towards the journalism writing paper I had in mind. Right at the entrance to the left side of the facility, a dozen heavy duty gun safes were for sale. Hunting clothing and gears on display shelves occupied most of the middle section of the large open space. To the right, the rifles and handguns were for sale behind the counters. My son’s friend took us directly to the party room next to the archery facility. Most of the kids at the party were from his class. Over soft drinks and pizza, the topic of the incident at school from the previous day naturally came up. One girl said that her brother was in the 2nd grade class where the gun was found, and that her brother actually saw the gun before it was taken away by the teacher. Another kid mentioned how his mom freaked out after she heard about the gun. A few kids knew the name of the 7-year old who brought the gun to school. There were already rumors about him getting expelled from school, as if a seven year old was personally responsible for the negligence of his parents and for the larger gun culture.
After snacks, an employee looking barely a kid herself brought the kids out for masks to get ready for the archery shooting. The kids were divided into two groups and were then led into the archery room. A ceiling-to-floor net separated the entrance area from the archery obstacle course. In the middle of the large room were a dozen obstacles. The employee gave them a brief instruction and gave the kids a trial run. The goal of the game was for the two teams to shoot “arrows” at each other. The team with more “survivors” at the end of the game would be the winner. At the order of “go,” the kids scrambled to the middle of the room to grab as many “arrows” as they could. Some kids got a hang of the game right away. They successfully shot a few kids from the other team while seeking protection from behind the obstacles. Some unlucky ones got shot at the very beginning of the first round and were taken out of the game right away. Amid the innocent giggling and laughter from the little kids, in the background, loud gunshots echoed from the shooting range facility next door, “Bang! Bang! Bang!” I wondered whether any of the kids paid attention, or if they did, whether they knew what they were.
Later that night during bedtime, I lay down with Lucas and asked whether he was scared about what happened at his school. He said not really. They had gone through drills before and he knew what to do if someone tried to kill them. I told him I was glad to hear that. He lost interest in this serious topic quickly.
In the dim night light next to the bed, Lucas reached his left arm above his head and showed me his bare armpit, “Mama, when will I start to grow armpit hair?”
“Why do you ask? You don’t have to worry about armpit hairs for a few more years.”
“I can’t wait to wear the deodorant,” my 9-year old son said with a sense of eagerness.
I promised him that I would let him try some deodorant tomorrow morning if he goes to sleep now. With that, Lucas stopped talking and closed his eyes.
A wave of overwhelming joy and gratitude filled my heart. I could feel the warmth of his rhythmic breathing right next to my face. His little hand rested on my arm, feeling warm and heavy. But my heart simultaneously was filled with a vast emptiness and sorrow for the Sandy Hook mothers. For them, the opportunity to talk with their little ones about armpit hairs was violently taken away from them. This was the worst pain no mothers should ever experience.
 A few days later, my daughter participated in a self-defense training class with a group of 12- to 13- year-old girls. When the coach asked the group whether anyone had fired a gun before, one third of the girls raised their hands.
 April 10, 2017, the day when I finished this essay, a murder-suicide shooting in a special needs classroom in San Bernardino, California claimed three lives including an 8-year-old boy.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.