Sandy Hook Shooting: “We Can’t Tolerate This”

How unthinkable tragedies became our new normal.

Don Emmert/AFP, via Getty

On a sunny Friday morning in an idyllic Connecticut town, we became a nation where a young man in combat attire armed with his mom’s guns allegedly gunned down 20 kids at an elementary school along with the school’s principal and five other adults before he took his own life.

We then became a nation where the surviving teachers gathered the surviving kids of Sandy Hook Elementary School in a nearby firehouse and made lists of their names.

Where panicked parents arrived at the firehouse and looked frantically for the little face they wanted to see more than they had ever wanted anything else and checked the lists for the name they prayed would be there.

“Mommy!” a little girl called out, and a mother shrieked with relief and joy.

Where parents who did not see the face or the name were taken aside and asked for their own name and the name of their child.

“A process of elimination unfortunately,” said Connecticut State Police Lt. Paul Vance.

Where those heart-torn parents who hoped—harder than they had ever hoped for anything before—to go home with their child were instead assigned a state trooper to assist them and ensure their privacy.

Where those parents no doubt kept hoping against all hope as the youngsters who had been pronounced dead at the school still lay there as the crime scene was processed and the formal identifications were made.

Where investigators have to devise a way to identify a 4-year-old who lies dead among other 4-year-olds who carry no ID.We must now become a nation that says ENOUGH and actually does something about the violence that has been escalating from the unbelievable to the unthinkable to a mass killing of kids for which there is no word.

President Obama was right to speak first as a parent and express the grief we all share. But now he needs to be a leader.Now he needs to do something.Now it has to end. Our president and all our leaders should have already been saying that as the sun began to sink beneath the hills beyond the Sandy Hook Cemetery just up the road from the firehouse late Friday afternoon. The sunset was cruelly beautiful and as dusk deepened the Christmas lights on the firehouse grew grimly brighter.The Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Co. was to have been conducting its annual Christmas tree sale, and no doubt families would otherwise have been coming by to pick one out. There were instead families minus a child continuing to keep vigil inside the firehouse.Nobody can fully accept the death of their child even when they see unmistakable proof. They could not be expected to accept it when it was not yet official.A couple emerged from the firehouse with faces devoid of all expression, trailed by a state trooper who walked silently behind them as they passed a flag that had been lowered to half-staff and started up the road past two colonial wood-framed houses. The houses had plaques indicating they had been built 1746 and 1764, respectively.That was back in the time of the Founding Fathers. The leaders of that era could not have imagined when the Second Amendment was being drafted that the nation they were building would see anything like what had just taken place in the school just beyond the trees.Just three miles from the shooting scene happens to be the headquarters the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry, and second only to the NRA in the “gun-rights” movement.No doubt the NSSF and the NRA would say that Nancy Lanza was only exercising her Second Amendment rights when she reportedly bought a Glock and a Sig Sauer.The NRA might also say that her 20-year-old son, Adam Lanza, was only exercising his own right to bear arms when he reportedly took the weapons in hand.He is said to have then done something his mother could not have imagined the guns being used for when she is said to have bought them. He allegedly proceeded from killing her to doing something nobody could have imagined anybody ever doing.

One leader who did speak out while the bodies of the children were still lying in the school was Rep. Carolyn McCarthy. She was a nurse until a crazed gunman shot her husband and four other innocents to death on a commuter railroad on December 7, 1993. She set a new course using her husband’s blood-stained datebook and entered public life determined to do something about guns. She is still trying, just as she is still grieving, having just marked the 19th anniversary her husband’s murder.

“These families are going to their homes and the trees are up, Christmas packages are hidden in mom and dad’s closet and there are horrible things these families are going through, and it’s only the beginning,” she said of those who lost loved ones. “It’s extremely painful and there’s never closure and every holiday brings back memories of your loved one and what would your life, their life be … I’ll be honest with you: I break down and I cry. I cry.”

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She goes on, “If you call the NRA they are not going to give you a comment right now. And people say this is not the time to talk about gun violence—I agree. It should have been years ago. Maybe Gabrielle Giffords wouldn’t have been shot … maybe Aurora wouldn’t have happened.”

In the days ahead, there will be funerals and stories detailing the grief of the families and the heroism of the teachers and whatever dark twists drove the gunman. And the challenge will be to make sure the 20 murdered youngsters did not die in vain.

“Listen, I’m not naïve to say we can stop every killing,” McCarthy says. “But we can say ‘we can’t tolerate this.’”