Mourners outside the local civic centre after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Texas.” It was said with incredulity, by one parent to another, outside my children’s school at pickup. On the east coast of the US on Tuesday night, where I live, the after-school clubs were letting out just as news of a mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, was unfolding. At that point, 14 children were confirmed dead, a number that has since risen to 21 children, and two teachers. Before the obscenity of it began to sink in, the shock: another massacre foretold, its sheer inevitability somehow deepening the horror. Other parents arrived, phones in hand, rattled and fighting off mental images. “This fucking country.”
Over the next 24 hours, the same questions, with the same answers, would roll around again: “What has to happen?” In the 10 years since the Sandy Hook massacre, when 20 children and six educators were murdered in an elementary school in Connecticut – during which there have been, in the United States, hundreds of further school shootings, 27 this year alone – this question has attained a rhetorical force divorced from its actual utility. That the US is a country in which decisive political action to curb gun ownership will never follow a mass shooting requires, at this point, no further evidence.
Nonetheless, the question remains necessary; a howl of pain that, on Tuesday night, was heard in various forms across the country. “What are we doing? What are we doing?” asked Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, his voice breaking on the floor of the Senate. In a much-viewed clip, Steve Kerr, an NBA basketball coach speaking at a pre-game press conference, reeled off a list of recent shootings in Buffalo and southern California, before slamming the desk and shouting, “When are we going to do something?”
On Tuesday night, President Biden addressed the nation. It was a combination of unnerving – the president seems increasingly frail, always on the cusp of losing the next word. But it was also one of those moments in which one is reminded of Biden’s gift for unscripted humanity. The president spoke from experience of losing a child, the sense of “having a piece of your soul ripped away”. His voice, loaded with pain, was startling in its authenticity. “There’s a hollowness in your chest,” he said, “and you feel like you’re being sucked into it and [are] never going to be able to get out.”
And he let his anger show. “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” he said. “Where in God’s name is our backbone?” Several times he repeated it: “for God’s sake”. If this was cathartic for those watching, it was also bizarre; that a man with the most powerful position on Earth could be reduced to this state of frustration. It never gets less insane, the power of the National Rifle Association and the relationship of millions of Americans to their guns, alongside the consequence of that irrational force. Late Tuesday night, local ABC news anchors in Uvalde were still reporting the sounds of screams issuing from the civic centre, as families were notified that their children were among the dead. On Wednesday morning, Americans woke to social media timelines filling with the photos of dead teachers and children.
“What has to happen?” Everything that has to happen has happened already, if what we mean by that question is how many people have to die. Huge networks of gun-law reformers are working, and fundraising, and lobbying local and national government to effect a shift in consciousness at the legislative and electoral level. If we’re waiting for Ted Cruz, the senator for Texas – who in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, doubled down on his position to put armed law enforcement in schools; if we’re waiting for Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, who once chastised the people of his state for falling behind California in gun purchases; if we’re waiting for the congressman for Uvalde, Tony Gonzales, a “proud supporter of the second amendment”, to have a Damascene moment, then hopelessness is indeed justified. Given the history and psychology of the United States, it seems unlikely there will ever be a Dunblane moment, in which the mass murder of children triggers an overnight change in gun laws. These people – Cruz, Abbott, Gonzales and their ilk – can never be shamed into doing the right thing.
And yet, the work continues. After every mass shooting, someone like Fred Guttenberg emerges. The 56-year-old father of Jaime Guttenberg, a 14-year-old who was murdered in 2018 during the Parkland school shooting in Florida and in possession of a mental toughness that is hard to compute, was on the news shows last thing Tuesday night and first thing Wednesday morning. Putting the Uvalde shooting in terms the president couldn’t use, he said: “They fucking failed our kids again.” There is nothing to be gained from saying things will never change. Guttenberg works on the assumption things can, and will. If he can do it, the rest of us surely can.
We walked down the hill after school, our second-graders bounding ahead of us. I thought of their teachers, the horror of them turning up to work on Wednesday, imagining their peers in Uvalde. Self-soothingly, we said to one another, “Statistically, you’re more likely to get run over on the way to school.” We said school shootings were a largely suburban phenomenon. In New York City, we said, you’re more likely to be shot on the subway.
And, while the most pressing project for parents in the wake of these massacres might seem to be to keep their children from harm, protecting them from fear is the greater requirement. I recently asked one of my seven-year-olds what happens during their frequent lockdown drills at school. Oh, she said, their teacher puts a piece of paper over the glass in the door and turns the lock. Then they practise sitting very, very quietly. “Why do you do that?” I asked. “In case of a burglar,” she said, cheerfully.