Skoog: No more heroes

Encouraging martyrdom in stories of gun violence depoliticizes the gun control discussion.

Caroline Skoog

According to the Gun Violence Archive, 387 mass shootings have occurred in the United States in 2019. With more shootings than days in a year, media saturated with bloody headlines seems to discourage some of us from reading it. It’s depressing and familiar. When we hear about a mass shooting, it seems that the only detail we’re interested in hearing is the location. It’s no longer a matter of what is happening, but how many deaths this time and where.   

However, some media outlets have circulated stories of thwarted school shootings, extending a hopeful lens over a dark reality. 

Authorities in Los Angeles County say they prevented at least two potential school shootings in a news conference last week. After students reported hearing threats from a 13-year-old boy at Ánimo Mae Jemison Charter Middle School, police investigated and found an AR-15-style rifle, ammunition, a list of named targets and a map of the school’s layout at the boy’s home. This incident upholds the “see something, say something” principle, and it’s exceptionally fortunate. Exceptional, as in “see something, say something” is a flimsy method of protection. It shifts the responsibility of keeping children safe onto the students. That’s a lot to ask of seventh graders.

Surveillance footage of a high school coach disarming a prospective shooter earlier this year has also made its rounds on social media. The video shows football and track coach, Keanon Lowe, taking the gun out of the student’s hands and embracing him in a long hug. Two students reported the suspect’s concerning behavior to school officials prior to this incident. Nobody was physically hurt. Still, I wouldn’t call this ‘heartwarming’ or a best-case-scenario. Best-case-scenarios aren’t almost-school shootings. 

Adding protagonists to stories of gun violence not only diverts attention away from gun control but also encourages a sense of martyrdom in civilians. This year Riley Howell, 21, lost his life attacking a school shooter. His actions, undeniably brave, likely saved numerous lives. The New York Times covered the story: 

“WAYNESVILLE, N.C. — He kept charging. A bullet to the torso did not stop Riley Howell. A second bullet to the body did not prevent him from reaching his goal and hurling himself at the gunman who opened fire last week inside a classroom at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.”

When deeds like Howell’s are sensationalized, it could encourage martyrdom in active shooter situations. Rather than calling for deliberate policy action, we can celebrate brave lives cut short on behalf of the government’s inaction. 

There’s also been cases of false saviors, such as David Briscoe, who claimed to have valiantly barricaded his classroom’s door and instructed students to lie down as a shooting took place at Santa Fe High School in 2018. Following this statement, the school district discounted the claim and announced no one by that name had been employed by the school. 

The U.S. doesn’t need martyrs. It needs gun control. There is no protagonist in a mass shooting. However successful an individual may have been in stopping one tragedy, there is no hero that can ensure this won’t happen again. 

Preventing mass shootings is good but only in the context of a society where this is commonplace. Stories championing an individual or police force for obstructing mass violence are a distraction from the fact that mass shootings shouldn’t be happening in the first place. These are not ‘heartwarming’ accounts, they are insidious anecdotes normalizing domestic terrorism.