clock menu more-arrow no yes
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

I’ve never known a world without mass shootings

I’ve been here before. I’ve seen shootings on the news, seen the casualties tick higher and higher, seen the crying families. I’ve seen it far too often now. I wish I hadn’t. I wish this were shocking.

I was born in 1991. Two years after the Cleveland Elementary School shooting in Stockton, California (six dead, 32 injured). Less than a month before the University of Iowa shooting (five dead, one injured). I was 4 years old when the Frontier Middle School shooting (three dead, one injured) happened in Moses Lake, Washington — my hometown.

My whole childhood, I heard about Barry Loukaitis and his victims. My parents talked about it, my sister, my teachers. Everyone had different opinions, too. What caused it; whether it was handled correctly; capital punishment, life in prison, or psychiatric care.

The only thing anyone could ever agree on was that it happened and it was awful. Which it did, and it was. But I didn’t get to understand it, because it saturated the entire town. The echoes of the shooting were just another part of my childhood.

A memorial for slain students and a teacher outside Frontier Middle School in Moses Lake, Washington. (AP Photo/Amy Sinisterra)

Now, Moses Lake isn’t a small town, but it’s definitely got a small-town vibe, and something so big stuck for years. It’s only recently that people are finally moving on. Just in time for the state laws to change and bring up resentencing the shooter, of course.

I can’t say if this happens the same way in more metropolitan areas. Maybe the pain of it all disperses faster. I just know that it didn’t in my town. If you know where to look, you can still see signs of the damage.

Look at the high school. A few years after the shooting, they tore out the lockers. No one ever said it directly, but they did it so students wouldn’t have lockers to hide guns in. The school counselors approach students they think are having problems, in the hopes that they could help someone having the same issues. I was pulled out of the hallway once or twice when they thought I was having personal problems.

And of course, there’s the cops. They station local cops, not security officers, in the commons during lunch. Too many students in one place. It’s a risk. Subtle scars, but definitely there.

Columbine went down when I was in first grade (15 dead, 21 injured). After that, Rachel’s Challenge started touring schools across the country, telling the story of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the Columbine victims. About how her simple kindness impacted people, even stopping one boy from killing himself.

That was so powerful to me that I still talk about random kindness as a way to brighten the world. It was tragic, but beautiful, and I signed the pledge. More than a thousand of us did, in fact. We promised to stop prejudice and bullying where we saw it, to be compassionate, to help our fellow students if they were in trouble. And we promised to be kind.

But I still knew, in the back of my mind, that the pledge started because Rachel got shot, along with too many others. That’s why we got to hear her story. A bunch of dead kids led to that pledge. Kids like me.

And I remember very specifically looking around and noticing that, for the most part, my classmates weren’t appropriately horrified. And neither was I.

I was 13. Old enough to understand everything that had happened. Old enough to sympathize. But the actual killing? The reality? It barely registered.

It saturated the entire town. The echoes of the shooting were just another part of my childhood.

I was raised with mass shootings and violence already a part of the American zeitgeist. And to me, it looks like there are more shootings every year. Bigger shootings. Worse shootings.

Virginia Tech comes to mind (33 dead, 25 injured). That was my freshman year of high school, the same year we had two bomb threats in as many weeks. The next year? A stabbing, someone curb-stomped, and a second attempted stabbing — all over the course of two days.

They didn’t close the school or lock us down. People laughed about how crazy the school was. I joked about it. I wasn’t scared. How could I be? It was one person, not 30.

In 2012, there was the Aurora, Colorado, shooting (12 dead, 70 injured) and Sandy Hook Elementary (28 dead, two injured). It doesn’t seem like it was four years ago to me, but facts are facts. And these are just the shootings that stand out to me personally. I don’t dare go through every single event. What I’ve covered so far is hideous as it is.

I wish I could say it was slowing down. It would make my heart so much lighter to be able to say that. But no. According to Mass Shooting Tracker, the shooting in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015 (14 dead, 17 wounded), was the 355th mass shooting of 2015. (Mass shooting is defined as a shooting incident with four or more victims.)

December 2 was the 336th day of the year. And this right on the tail of the Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs (three dead, nine injured), which was right on the heels of the tragedy in Paris (130 dead, 386 injured).

And, of course, now we have Orlando (50 dead, 53 wounded). It’s an attack that skirts a little too close to home for me. Shooting up a gay nightclub. My people, my community. Across the country, but connected.

It’s too easy to see it happening closer. What if the shooter had been in Seattle or Bellingham or the Tri-Cities? Gay bars I could be in, or my friends? It’s entirely too close for comfort.

Thankfully, the same thing didn’t happen at West Hollywood pride. They stopped that guy a few hours after the Orlando shooting. Hours. How many people would have gotten killed at an event that large? We don’t have to know, but we can imagine.

Think about that. We can actually imagine what it might have been like for a bunch more people to get shot dead.

I’ve never seen a world without gun violence. Millennials in general haven’t. And it’s true there have been recorded mass shootings since the 19th century. But the scale we’ve been seeing it at is unprecedented. And as a millennial, I can’t see an end to it, because so far, this sort of violence has been nothing but escalation my entire life — all 25 years of it.

Now, when the next shooting comes up (because how can there not be a next? That’s life), I know there’s nothing I can do. I can feel bad. I can be indignant. I can swear to be as peaceful as possible. I can scream. I can rant on Facebook and Twitter. I can change my profile picture. I can donate money to try and help.

But when all of that’s done and it’s just me, a single millennial lying in bed alone, staring at the ceiling … there’s nothing. Just that mixture of guilt and luck, because it wasn’t anyone I knew.

This time.

We millennials get accused of an awful lot. We don’t connect to people anymore. We’re too emotional and not tough enough. We’re violent, and damn those video games for doing this. What’s the world coming to? We’re lazy. And to one degree or another, you could say that any of those things is true.

I’ll add something else, though, an observation from the inside. A lot of us are pretty damned jaded. Cynics before 30. Hell, cynics before graduation. I was, and I was proud of it. Not so proud now, though.

These days, I try to choose sanity. I change the channel if violence comes on the news. I play with the dog if a friend brings up the latest horror at a party and pretend I can’t hear every single word that’s being said. Not that I don’t know them all anyway by that point.

I ignore it as much as I can, because I don’t want to feel powerless. Nobody wants to feel powerless. No one likes getting sucked into the evils of the world when it’s avoidable.

As a millennial, I can’t see an end to it, because so far this sort of violence has been nothing but escalation my entire life — all 25 years of it

But eventually, it’s not avoidable. When things are absolutely at their worst, when too many have died and too many events have been swept under the rug and I can’t fit anymore, when I realize just how many victims there have been and how many more there are bound to be, I have to confront the real horror of everything. And then it starts to show through my jaded, cynical little shell.

It’s different for different people. Some start sobbing uncontrollably. Some punch walls. A lot of times, as tends to happen with my generation, people rant on Facebook. I’m one of the criers.

Because it’s hard to live with this, to be fully aware that the world is so full of horrors and feel so utterly helpless about it. And it’s hard to know that the pain of living in a world like that is nothing compared to the pain of the victims and their families.

I’m a millennial; gun violence is my normal. Ignoring gun violence to try to keep from breaking is my normal. Focusing on the smallest flicker of positivity is my normal. And on days like today, when I can’t remember the spaces between shootings, when Sandy Hook feels like it was just a few months ago, crying is my normal.

Voss Foster writes science fiction and fantasy. He is the author of the Evenstad Media Presents series, the King Jester Trilogy, The Mountains of Good Fortune, and the Immortal Whispers series. When he can be pried away from his keyboard, he can be found singing, practicing photography, cooking, and belly dancing, though rarely all at the same time. More information can be found at his website.

This essay was adapted from a post that originally ran on Medium.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

The Goods

The supply chain crisis, explained by Adele

Culture

Red Notice is a huge hit for Netflix. But what does that actually mean?

Politics & Policy

Kyle Rittenhouse and the scary future of the American right

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.