Sandy Hook School shooting: Could it have been prevented?

Can past tragedies reveal answers? Photo: A candlelight vigil in Newtown, Conn. AP

CHICAGO, December 16, 2012 — Now is the time to mourn. Now is the time to discuss gun control. Now is the time to discuss mental illness.

Why? Because innocent schoolchildren and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School died at the hands of a mentally disturbed person with easy access to weapons. Again.

In trying to make sense of tragedy, we naturally look to the past for guidance. What similarities are there? How did we get through this before? What could we have learned from the past that might have prevented this?

The shooting at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn. was not the first time innocents at a school have lost their lives. Most of us remember Columbine and Virginia Tech, which has recently been cited as the deadliest school rampage in U.S. history.

Except that they weren’t. The Virginia Tech tragedy, in which 33 people lost their lives in 2007, may be the worst loss of life to gun violence on school grounds, but guns are not the only weapons capable of killing. In 1927, as another school day was starting at the Bath Consolidated School in Michigan, an alarm clock detonated explosives that had been stashed in the basement. A farmer and school employee, upset that his farm had been foreclosed due to back taxes while a new school had been paid for by taxes, killed his wife, set fire to his farm, and then drove to the school he had just blown up.

As rescuers combed through the debris and mothers desperately searched for their missing children, the farmer fired a single shot into the back seat of his car, which he had packed with more explosives, setting off another explosion. In all, 45 people were killed, most of them children, and injuring 58 others.

Newtown residents gather to mourn AP

That was not a time to discuss gun control since it was not a white hot topic then. It might have been a time to discuss mental illness, if the public had been more aware. But it was a time to mourn.

The Bath tragedy in 1927, as awful as it was, was not the first time horror had hit schoolchildren. According to K12 Academics, the first known school massacre occurred in 1764, when four Lenape American Indians entered a schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, shooting the schoolmaster and nine children dead.

That was not the time to discuss gun control. There was no Second Amendment then. That was not the time to discuss mental illness. The Native Americans were not insane. They were a different culture and they acted in anger at the settlers who had encroached on their land. This may not have even been the first time we had to mourn innocent school children; it is only the first time for which we have a record.

On the surface, these two incidents do not seem to have much in common with our most recent tragedy. The K12 Academics website lists 102 incidents of violence in schools and acknowledges that the list is not complete. There must be a common thread somewhere.

Most of the killing was done with guns, but not all of them were. Most of the perpetrators were mentally ill, but not all of them were. Most of them were male, but not all of them were. Among others, there is a 30-year-old woman who killed two and wounded five, and a 14-year-old girl who killed herself and two others.

But if we consider the explosives and the sane and the females to be outliers in our quest for similarities, we are missing the point. Every one of the killers was an outlier. Killing schoolchildren is not something most people think about. It is not something we can truly predict or protect ourselves from. The world is a dangerous place, so we must do what we can to protect our children.

The most recent tragedies, however, involved both guns and mental illness. Now is the time to discuss, not fight over, gun control. Now is the time to discuss, not fear, mental illness.

If not now, when? Or do we wait another year or two, when we once again find ourselves saying “Now is the time to mourn?”


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Julia Goralka

In addition to her work at The Communities, Julia Goralka is a free-lance novel editor and has served as a volunteer board member or committee member for several local charitable organizations. Prior to writing and editing, Julia was the Division Coordinator for the interest rate derivatives marketing desk at a large financial institution based in Chicago.

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