By Rini Jeffers
This essay was written on November 7, 2017, the Tuesday following Devin Patrick Kelley’s shooting spree that killed 26 people at Sunday services in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.
It didn’t feel right, speaking to my best friend that first Sunday of November.
I started to say “Hey, did you hear about Texas?” — but then shifted to the storms we were having. We were facing a tornado watch along the shore of Lake Erie. November was howling in on the tail winds of one of the strangest, hottest Octobers we’d ever seen.
It felt too raw, too soon, to talk about the dead while lightning was cracking and the windows were shaking.
I was not speaking of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, but it sure seemed God was.
The first reports that afternoon said “more than 20” dead. And here is where it gets remarkably numb when you’re a reporter: Those initial figures don’t register to you. Your shock and horror don’t kick in until later in the evening, when the magic qualifier “confirmed reports” start showing up. You know what it’s like trying to make sense in chaos, scrambling for some number to put in a story or to work into a headline. It’s a placeholder. It’s not people, not yet.
Later, when the bodies are counted and the ambulances leave and — God willing — you know the fate of the shooter, you will feel.
It’s not callousness. It’s scar tissue. When you look too long and too often into the abyss, your senses develop coping mechanisms of their own. Absorbing too much of that at once can kill off your living cells.
But it isn’t endemic to journalists. I believe this is what it’s like for all of us Americans now. We could now have daily desk calendars with our mass shooting stats:
Day 307 of 2017: Sutherland Springs. First Baptist Church. Notable as the first shooting in America discussed in terms of what percentage of the town’s total population was killed.
Our leaders were still in mid-sentence, announcing their plans to stop ISIS terrorists from driving rental trucks into crowds, when Devin Kelley entered the church heavily armed. A white guy. American. With a gun fetish and a history of violence, paired with insufficient conscience and a driving rage.
One family – one family – lost eight members. Three generations, wiped out. The sole survivor, the 86-year-old patriarch, echoes my heart: I will soon join them in the hereafter. I will hope on that, because I know this will not be fixed here below.
My heart is broken for Sutherland Springs in ways I don’t understand.
Barely a month past the Las Vegas shooting where 58 died, what happened at that little white Texas church somehow horrifies me more. Maybe it’s because I’ve never experienced the decadence of Vegas, but I know in my bones what it is like to sit in a tiny steepled building on a warm morning, waving a paper fan with a funeral home on one side and Jesus on the other.
I am beyond argument for gun control. I suspect my opinion would carry no weight: I own a gun. Mine is registered, and I passed my required background check, and it is stored apart from bullets, and I’ve shot it onlyat a target. And nearly everyone I know has a gun, likewise registered and safely kept and used only for hunting or sport. So, I do not argue against the right to own them, but for the sake of God I cannot understand why we cannot have sane and reasonable gun laws.
The Texas shooter owned his gun illegally. His previous convictions for assault — including beating his first wife and cracking the skull of a toddler — should have precluded him, but someone in the Air Force did not properly file the paperwork necessary to flag him in databases.
Even so, there would have been ways around it. Ask any gun owner and they will tell you: Gun sales at convention-center and VFW-hall gun shows skirt background-check laws. This is your avenue if you don’t take to the streets, that is. And did you know that when you legally register a gun, you’re merely asked if you have a background of mental health issues? If I had a history of suicidal tendencies or had been hospitalized multiple times but did not volunteer that info, no agency would have known.
But the question of legal ownership vs. back-alley means is moot when one considers the actions of the deranged Las Vegas shooter. He carried an arsenal into a hotel, with nothing on his record to stop him.
That, I say, is the crux of the matter.
We cannot legislate against the evil inside.
At best we can – and should – limit access to anything that can be made into a dangerous weapon capable of destruction on a massive scale. That is the point of government, right? To save us from ourselves?
But the problem of humanity is that not all will play by the rules. Name one thing that began with a rightful purpose — the Second Amendment, say — that cannot eventually be twisted in on itself by the ways of society.
Evil intent is the sorrow of man. No law has ever been created that will stop the darkest ways of our hearts — neither by God nor certainly us lesser beings.
You will find no pragmatic ideas here. Those more valiant than me will tilt at that windmill. I also refuse to post my thoughts and prayers for (fill in the blank). This is, and should have always been, bigger than a hashtag.
I’m just tired of stopping myself short when I say “Have you heard about Texas? Charleston? Newtown? Orlando? Las Vegas?...” and deciding, instead, to talk about the weather.
In my America, where we’ve weaponized hate and discord, they both seem about as inevitable.