Last night I dreamed my son was a Sandy Hook victim.
He’s six years old.
In my dream, I’d returned to Sandy Hook Elementary School for the first time since the shooting. I walked in the front, and there were photos of the victims, along with flowers and wreaths and pictures and poems. I approached the shrine set up for my son, and I felt my grief overwhelm my reason for a moment. Then I backed away, and I remembered why I was there.
Outside that front hall, school life had returned to normal. Children were in their lessons, or should have been. I spent some time there, wandering the halls, waiting in vain to see my son’s smile or hear his voice raised in laughter or argument.
I found myself on the grounds of a nearby high school. Much in the way of dreams, I don’t know how I got there. But I approached a young woman sitting at a table on her own. She would have been thirteen, and had dark curly hair and dark eyes. Ear-buds were jammed in both ears. She was reading a magazine.
When I stood next to her, she took out her headphones and looked at me. We exchanged pleasantries, and then I showed her a picture of my son. “This is Big Brother,” I said. “He died just down the road at the elementary school.”
“That’s sad,” the girl said. Then she shrugged. “But at least it wasn’t me.”
“No, you’re right,” I said. “It wasn’t you. You’re safe. But wouldn’t you rather it hadn’t been anyone?”
Her look turned guarded. “You’re one of those anti-gun crazies,” she said. “My Dad told me about you people. But guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Then she put her earbuds back in and turned away.
Last week in Kentucky, USA, a 5-year-old boy was playing with a child-friendly rifle he’d been given as a gift. He pulled the trigger. And in that simple action, he killed his 2-year-old sister.
When I read the story, my children were 5 and 2 years old. I tried to imagine handing my eldest boy a rifle. But I couldn’t do it.
I tried to imagine letting my eldest boy play, unsupervised, with a rifle. But I couldn’t do it.
I tried to imagine the grief of losing not just my youngest child, but both my children in a moment of negligent parenting. Because make no mistake, the little girl may be the one who died, but the 5-year-old is at least as much as victim in all this, if not more. But in this case, I didn’t want to do it.
Whether that poor boy is physically removed from the care of his parents or not, he will never be the same joyful, innocent child again. He’s too young to have understood what he was doing, and what it would mean, when he shot his sister, but exactly old enough to remember and regret it for the rest of his life.
I was driving Big Brother home from school two weeks ago when he asked me a question out of the blue. “Mummy,” he said. “If guns are so bad, why do policemen have them?”
A pause. A moment to gather my thoughts. And then, “Why do you think guns are bad, sweetie?”
“Because today at school I drew a picture of a hero shooting a bad guy, but my teacher told me we’re not allowed to draw pictures of guns at school.* And we’re not allowed to pretend sticks are guns and shoot at each other either.* So guns are bad.”
(* This is not uncommon in Australia, where most schools and child-care facilities won’t allow toy guns, and discourage gun-based pretend play. The majority of urban households won’t have toy guns at home for young children either.)
“Guns themselves aren’t bad,” I said carefully. “Guns are just pieces of wood and plastic and metal that have been turned into a tool. In some places, guns are very important and do a lot of good: like in the country where farmers need to protect their cows and sheep from predators.”
“Then why aren’t we allowed to play with them?”
“Well, you tell me what guns are used for.”
He thought for a few seconds. “Shooting people.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “And what happens if you shoot someone with a gun?”
He thought again. “They fall down.”
“Yes. And what else?”
“Yes,” I said. “Guns are used to shoot people or animals so that they die.”
There was silence for a good few minutes. “But, Mummy. After they die, do they get back up and be alive again?”
“No, Sweetie,” I said. “I’m afraid that when you shoot someone and they die, they stay dead.”
“Forever?” he asked in a tremulous tone.
Another moment of silence. “But… But we don’t have real guns at school. It’s only pretend guns. And it was only a picture of a gun.”
“I know,” I said. “But do you think pointing a gun at someone is a very friendly thing to do?”
“And it’s very important that we’re nice to our friends, isn’t it?”
“So that’s why there’s a rule about guns. Because it’s not nice to pretend to kill someone.”
“Okay,” he said. And then, “But why do policemen have guns?”
That was a trickier question to answer simply, especially on the spur of the moment. But I did the best I could. “Well,” I said. “Policemen have guns because it’s their job to protect people from criminals. Sometimes criminals have guns, so policemen have to have guns, too. But they don’t like having to carrying a gun and they really, really, really, really don’t like having to shoot at someone.”
“But if it’s a bad guy, then it’s okay.” Pause. A little less confidence in his voice. “Because it’s a bad guy. And you’re allowed to kill bad guys.”
“No, Sweetie. Policemen don’t even like to kill bad guys. Bad guys are still people.”
A long pause. “So… Are guns bad or not?”
“No, Big Brother, guns aren’t bad. But the only thing they can be used for is hurting and killing. They’re good for farmers to protect their animals from dingoes and other wild animals, but guns aren’t toys. And it’s never okay to point a gun at someone, even if it’s only a pretend one.”
I woke up this morning shaky and trembling all over. The dream left me feeling traumatised. Not, strangely, because of the death of my son. Rather, I was traumatised by the uncaring and dismissive reaction of the young lady I encountered. By the way she shrugged off an entire tragedy because someone else told her not to listen to the crazies. By the way that maintaining the status quo was more important than even acknowledging that lives had been lost.
Because she’s right: Guns don’t kill people without someone to pull the trigger.
But killing is the only thing guns are good for.