Featured Historians December 17, 2012 Beverly Gage: Things Can Change on the Sandy Hook School Shooting

FEATURED HISTORIANS

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HISTORY OP-EDS

Things Can Change

A century ago, there were forms of brutal violence considered so thoroughly American that they could never be banished. Today, they no longer exist.

Source: Beverly Gage, Slate, 12-17-12 

Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded.

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People gather at a memorial for victims near the school on the first Sunday following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 16, 2012 in Newtown, Conn.Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

In 1985, when I was 13 years old, a woman suffering from schizophrenia brought a semiautomatic rifle to our local mall and began shooting. This was the mall where I picked out clothes from the Gap, where I sat for photos with Santa Claus as a toddler, where kids my age were just starting to hang out and flaunt their independence. The woman, 25-year-old Sylvia Seegrist, killed three people, including a 2-year-old child, and shot several others before being subdued by a man who thought she was shooting blanks. When asked why she had done it, Seegrist said, bizarrely, that “my family makes me nervous.” In other words, there was no reason at all.

As a middle-schooler, I registered the event only in the haziest terms: I knew something terrible had happened, I was glad it hadn’t happened to me, and I figured the adults would take care of the rest. Now, as an adult, what seems shocking is just how little was done. There were calls for keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, for better treatment and commitment laws, for more restrictive gun control, for greater community vigilance to identify people prone to violence. But none of it, apparently, mattered quite enough. Fourteen years after the Springfield Mall shooting came Columbine, then Virginia Tech, and now Sandy Hook Elementary.

Like millions of other heartsick people, I am inclined to despair at this list, to think that though all of this must change, it never will. But as a historian I am reminded that change often comes slowly, and with great pain and effort. A century ago, there were forms of graphic, brutal violence considered so thoroughly American that they could never be banished from the national landscape. Today they no longer exist. In the story of how these changes happened, there may be a model—or a least a bit of hope—for the present….READ MORE

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