Ryan McAnnally-Linz reflects on the May 24, 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
When my daughter was in kindergarten, the teachers told them they were hiding in the closet to practice in case there was ever a bear roaming the school’s campus. That afternoon, she told me she had been very afraid until she remembered a line from a song her grandfather wrote based on Isaiah 11: “The wolf and the bear will no longer be wild. Little child, it won’t be long now.” She sang the words to herself as she cowered in the closet, and then, she said, “I felt better.”
Five-year-olds have incredible imaginations. They can imagine fantastical new species of dinosaurs. They can conjure entire worlds in the confines of their bedrooms. They can imagine wolves lying down with lambs and leopards with kids and lions with calves and a little child leading them.
One thing they would never think to imagine is that someone would come to their classroom and murder them and their friends. They would never imagine that the grownups would accept something so awful as a recurring part of life, that we would have a whole ritual rhythm around it: a few days of lament and outrage, frustration that “90 percent of Americans support mandatory background checks,” Republican officials looking grim and serious and talking about “mental health” and how this is a culture problem, not a gun problem, a torrent of thoughts and prayers, and then—nothing.
None of this would ever come to a kindergartener’s wild imagination.
But no imagination is necessary. We have given them the unimaginable as reality. Beautiful, messy, precious lives torn to shreds by high powered assault rifles, crowning achievements of humanity’s lethal ingenuity. The final minutes of joyful, playful, hopeful lives filled with horror and panic and screams, a revelation of the terror that thrives in our violence-loving, gun-glorifying, death-intoxicated society.
Today is Memorial Day, a day the United States sets aside to commemorate American military personnel who died at war. Today, it is imperative also to remember those Americans who have died in what we let pass for peacetime. These are the names of some of the children killed at school in recent days, months, and years:
Xavier Lopez, 10 years old
Jose Flores, 10 years old
Miranda Mathis, 11 years old
Ellie Garcia, 10 years old
Tess Marie Mata, 10 years old
Elijah Cruz Torres, 10 years old
Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez, 10 years old
Makenna Elrod, 10 years old
Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, 10 years old
Alithia Ramirez, 10 years old
Rogelio Torres, 10 years old
Jackie Cazares, 10 years old
Layla Salazar, 10 years old
Madisyn Baldwin, 17 years old
Tate Myre, 16 years old
Hana St. Juliana, 14 years old
Justin Shilling, 17 years old
Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15 years old
Dominic Blackwell, 14 years old
Charlotte Bacon, 6 years old
Olivia Engel, 6 years old
Josephine Gay, 7 years old
Madeleine Hsu, 6 years old
Catherine Hubbard, 6 years old
Dylan Hockley, 6 years old
Daniel Barden, 7 years old
To speak these names is a perilous thing. It risks publicizing the intimate, shattering loss suffered by these children’s parents and siblings and friends. It risks turning children into rhetorical props. It risks memorializing them, as we might memorialize heroes who sacrificed their lives for a worthy cause.
They did not die for anything. They died because of their country’s social and cultural ills and its political refusal to make any meaningful policy changes to prevent mass shootings. They may have been sacrificed for the cause of gun rights, but they did not give their lives. Their lives were taken.
My daughter is in third grade now. She knows that it is not bears who kill children at their schools. She knows that it is humans who do this. And that it is Americans who do nothing about it.
The morning after she learned about the Uvalde shooting, she was playing Wordle. She used “peace” as her first guess, even though it has two E’s. A silent, sincere, heartbreaking five-letter prayer from a little girl who desperately wants the world to change.
Prayer is enough for a child, and childlike prayer is essential for all of us. As Miroslav has noted, however, “there is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.” Prayer is not enough for us. Indeed, prayer alone is sacrilege, impiety, and blasphemy. We have to act.
And yet, what are we supposed to do?
America’s system of government and elections is perfectly calibrated to resist even popular change on gun policy. The filibuster means that a sixty-vote majority in the Senate is required to pass any serious legislation. Partisan dynamics mean that a sixty-vote majority is effectively impossible. Republican senators know that they are likely to lose in the primaries if they take meaningful action on gun control, even if large majorities of their constituents support that action. And they know that they are unlikely to lose in a general election, practically no matter what. The Supreme Court, for its part, is likely to strike down much of what little gun regulation states currently have in decisions this year. It is stocked with three justices appointed by a president who lost the popular vote. There are no foreseeable prospects for change in the court’s makeup.
What are we supposed to do? I don’t have any brilliant plans. We can start by telling representatives and officials how much real change matters to us. We can look for organizations with viable strategies for change at local, state, and federal levels. Like I said, I don’t have the answers.
But I can’t shake the deep sense that to have a gun in America is to sin. There may be places where that’s not true. There may be legitimate reasons to have guns and legitimate ways to use them. Not here and now. In America, guns are idols. They are insatiable, voracious gods of death.
I’m increasingly convinced that not buying into the worst of gun culture is no excuse for owning one of its talismans. Imagine an ancient Canaanite who protested, “Oh, but I don’t believe in it. I don’t worship it. It’s just a carved piece of stone, after all,” while his neighbors brought child after child to die on the altar of Moloch. This is still our idol. We as a country still worship it. And the gravity of that collective sin demands renunciation.
So here’s something that might lessen the hypocrisy of your prayers: if you have a gun, destroy it. Render it unusable. Smash the idol. And then ask, “What next?”
The way the ritual works is that we all let other concerns—often very real, legitimate, serious concerns—eat up our attention after a few days. It’s completely natural, especially when, as Elizabeth Bruening points out, we have so little hope in our political culture. We need to resist this tendency. The prospects for policy change may be dim, and the prospect of cultural change dimmer still, but they entirely cease to exist unless we keep imagining a country where this doesn’t happen and imagining the actions we can take to slowly—over days and weeks and months and years—make that country ours.