Cigarettes Don’t Kill People, People Kill People
Back in the 1980s when I was in high school, there was a fascination with “Valley Girls” . In fact, the fascination with the “Valley Girl” archetype inspired at least two hit songs. The first was written by Frank Zappa and performed with his then 14 year old daughter Moon in 1982; it was simply called “Valley Girl”.
The second was a song by comedian Julie Brown which hit the airwaves in 1983. It’s then funny and now ominous title was “Everybody Run, the Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun”. The accompanying video showed a “comedic” school shooting and the song contains these very disturbing lyrics:
An hour later, ,the cops had arrived
By then the entire glee club had died — no big loss
You wouldn’t believe what they brought to stop
Tear gas, machine guns… even a chopper!
Throw down your gun and tiara and come out of that float!
Debbie didn’t listen to what the cop said,
She aimed and fired, and now the math teacher’s dead!
Oh, it’s really sad, but kinda of a relief,
I mean we had this big test coming up next week…
Both the video and the song were viewed as moderately funny by most of my friends and acquaintances , and it was spun pretty regularly on the FM pop stations. It wasn’t viewed as alarming or even inappropriate even though in the 1980s there were 60 school shootings and 44 fatalities.
While joking about school shootings was certainly novel, school shootings themselves were not novel at all even in the 80s. In fact, between 1840 and 1999 there were 323 school shootings and 353 deaths as a result of them. I can’t explain why but nobody ever, ever thought of school shootings even though they were by no means rare. It just never occurred to students and faculty alike that someone would come blasting through a door intent on murdering us.
I think all of that changed on April 20, 1999 when the Columbine shooters brought murdering students and faculty to a whole new level. I was a teacher by then, and I remember the very next day a weird student I had came in wearing a trench coat in order to show solidarity with the Columbine murderers ( I will not use their names).
If Columbine marked a new era of fear and revulsion due to school shootings, it did so with good reason. In the 23 years since Columbine, there have been 371 school shootings and 349 fatalities. Think about that : in the past two decades plus three years, we have eclipsed the number of school shootings that occurred in the century and a half before that. It is absolutely terrifying. I think we really need to think about two key areas before another school’s hallways are drenched in blood:
1. What has changed in society in the past 23 years that has made school shootings so appealing to the deranged?
2. What are we going to do about it?
I don’t really have answers for these questions, but I do have ideas. In regard to what has happened in society, I think we have to look at mundane issues first. The American population in 1999 was 279 million and by the year 220 we were at 330 million. More people is going to mean more mentally deranged people who may be inclined to shoot up a school, but there has to be more than that. Perhaps I am looking at the past with rosy glasses, but society seems much more angry than it did back in the 1980s. There seems to be an inability for people to have a civil disagreement and therefore arguments get escalated to the level of personal attacks unnecessarily. I believe the internet and social media is to blame for some of this. Just for fun, try this — go to a board where you can post anonymously and write something about your dog dying. I can guarantee you you won’t have to wait long before someone writes back something along the lines of “Fuck you and fuck your stupid dog”. Mike Tyson may have hit upon a very valid point when he said “Social media made you all way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it”. We know that kids’ brains aren’t fully developed until they are twenty five, and yet we allow them to be exposed to all sorts of things on the internet and social media. I think that this has resulted in not only a desensitization to events and words that should be disturbing, but also an inability to react in a proper manner to such events and words. Kids say things over social media that they would never say to someone’s face and sometimes innocuous comments over texts or emails get viewed as insulting because they aren’t in proper context. So, I think a blossoming population and the pervasiveness of the internet and social media definitely share some responsibility. There are undoubtedly many other factors, but something changed in society and we need it to harness it and fix it- soon.
As for the second question- well, that is the more troubling one in that the answer is in front of us and yet we won’t force it to come about. We as a society have ameliorated so many ills such as drunk driving fatalities, the dangers of secondhand smoke, cardiac health problems due to transfats, infant fatalities due to not car seats etc. For each of these problems there was a ready solution: Reagan past the Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984 and drunk driving fatalities plummeted; smoking was banned in virtually all public areas and deaths related to cigarettes fell; transfats were removed from foods and people’s heart health improved, and car seats have become a billion dollar industry and have saved an unimaginable number of infants’ lives. To say “Guns don’t kill people , people kill people “ is akin to saying “Cigarettes don’t kill people, people kill people”. Sure, inanimate objects are not going to get up and hunt people down, but when they are tools of death and prove to be pretty damned good at killing people consistently they need to be better regulated. We must demand stricter gun regulations while not totally alienating those who are peacefully exercising their second amendment rights. However, in order for that to happen, we need civil discussions and a willingness to bend on both sides, and we pretty much suck in those arenas for the reasons I postulated in response to the first issue.
After Columbine, Julie Brown said she would never perform “Everybody Run, the Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” any longer. She said “ ‘ I can be very sensitive about whether I am doing something that will hurt people. So you are always drawing the comedy line of what you will or won’t do”.
It’s too bad that drawing the line about school shootings occurs in comedy, but not in reality because there is not a damned thing funny about our unwillingness to fix the problems.