Gun Culture

School Shootings: My Son Was at the Virginia Tech Massacre

As the mother of a Virginia Tech student who hid as his classmates were massacred, I can sum up the proposals to flood our schools with more guns in one word: madness. By Azar Nafisi

01.13.13 9:45 AM ET

I will not forget April 16, 2007. It was a calm spring morning and I was making coffee, getting ready to go back to my writing. The news was on and I kept hearing a voice repeating: gunman on campus. It took me a while to digest the fact that the gunman was on the campus of my son’s university, the only university he had applied to because, from the very start, he knew he wanted to go to Virginia Tech.

It took us hours before we could finally reach him on his cellphone. He, along with his classmates, had been locked in the building adjacent to the one where his fellow students and teachers were being massacred. Having experienced a war and a revolution, I knew how the immense relief you feel upon discovering that your loved one is not among the victims is accompanied by immense guilt, because you also know that someone else is mourning even as you are celebrating. 

Dara returned home as soon as he could, unable to tolerate the invasion of his beloved campus by media, and by intruders who prevented him from the solitary space needed to somehow come to terms with the tragedy. I could not help reminding myself that our children had survived a war and a revolution only to be so near death in a small friendly town called Blacksburg. In Iran the only people with guns, the only ones we were afraid of, belonged to the regime. Over the 18 years I spent in the Islamic Republic, I was filled with anxiety about the Revolutionary Guards raiding our schools, universities, malls, movie houses, restaurants, and coffee shops. Never in those years did I or anyone I knew worry about ordinary people going on killing sprees.

This new tragedy—26 individuals, 27 counting the shooter’s mother, and 20 of them children—has brought back all the horror of the tragedies before it. It is the anger and helplessness that makes me write, the intolerable rage as I listen to the NRA chief blaming videos, movies, media, mental health, every element that exists in other democratic countries and yet has not led to the scale of violence America has been experiencing because of guns, and brazenly suggesting that good guys with guns will solve the problem of bad guys with guns.

As we so cavalierly cut funding for music, literature, and art from our classes, closing more and more spaces where our children will, in an atmosphere free from fear or suspicion, learn about curiosity, empathy, beauty, and tenderness, some recommend we protect schools with armed guards. What democratic country arms its teachers and has armed guards in its schools? And after we arm the schools, what will we do about our churches, movie houses, theaters, transit stations, restaurants, malls—in fact, our streets?

Maybe instead of mandatory health care, we should make it mandatory that each American carry at least one assault weapon? Maybe now that our children are going to be less exposed to fiction and poetry, art and music, now that exercising their imaginative and intellectual powers is deemed frivolous, we can hold classes in how to use a gun, and teach our children why guns don’t kill people? Can we also claim that drugs don’t kill people, people kill people?

Whatever causes the NRA chief and his supporters to cite as responsible for these tragedies videos, games, and mental disorders, that doesn’t change the fact that they all have one thing in common: guns. We need to reopen the debate on the Second Amendment, on its application within today’s context and its relevance to our citizens’ lives and liberty. But one thing is sure: the founders did not find the protection of our children’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in arming the population during peacetime, in forcing teachers and staff to carry guns, or in having schools pay for armed guards. Rather, they agreed time and again with George Washington that “Knowledge in every country is the surest basis of public happiness.” Laws need to be updated to suit the changing times, but there are certain laws that will endure because they articulate the spirit of a country.

I cannot think of a better way of saying this than John Adams did: “Laws for the liberal education of the youth, especially of the lower class of the people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”