Psychologically speaking, it’s easier to dehumanize each other than not. A service industry employee who stands behind a counter is more likely to be treated poorly by customers than an employee whose entire body is visible—fragmentation leads to objectification, the reduction of a complexly lived human experience into isolated parts. Empathy, then, becomes a choice. Our brains are looking for ways to break other people into smaller, more manageable pieces. Into abstractions of humanity.
This, I think, is why our government is still allowing children to die by gunfire on a near daily basis.
17 dead in Florida. 58 in Las Vegas. 49 in Orlando. Numbers that, when added up, become staggering in their scope—but they’re all pieces of an equation that will never end with a solution. We can’t calculate a final toll when people are killed by guns in this country, in this state, every single day. More than that, though, humanity can’t be effectively quantified. 58 dead concert goers or 20 dead elementary schoolers won’t get the laws changed because we don’t connect through data—our emotional bonds are built upon shared experiences and storytelling.
So here’s the story of what one bullet can do.
“After being struck in the back, the round coursed through the woman’s body, ricocheting off a rib and perforating her left lung before stopping between her eight and ninth vertebrae.”
Last week, Huffington Post shared the autopsy results of the Mandalay Bay victims while arguing that Americans no longer deserve to be protected from the carnage of mass shootings. Though they didn’t label it as such, they’re abandoning numbers to make room for narratives—to fight the dehumanization borne from showing smiling portraits of the dead and immediately moving forward with the news cycle. Those portraits are two-dimensional in every way, fragments that are too easily ignored. The interior damage of a bullet is not.
“‘These [bullets] do more than just bore holes through people. They tumble and they create cavities, and that tears at tissue.’”
Congress won’t listen to us when we beg them to save the 13,000 Americans who are killed by guns every year. Perhaps we need to be more clear, to remind them that those numbers actually mean something. That they’re the difference between being someone and not.
My own stories have left me completely uninterested in mere regulation. I wish the gun that killed my uncle was never built. I wish the police, who are supposed to protect all of us but often only protect the privileged us, didn’t have the tools to shoot a 17-year-old African American boy just yards away from me when I was seven. I wish I didn’t have to call the same police I feared when my mother’s partner threatened to kill her as soon as he found where she hid his pistol. I wish I knew a single person who wasn’t directly affected by the Aurora shooting. I wish the people who could save us would see how gun violence is wounding the American psyche as significantly as it is the American body.
And I wish any of this prevented me from being desensitized to the most recent mass shooting in Florida when it was first reported. It took me days to think about it as solemnly as its predecessors—until I could draw a line from my own experiences to Parkland. Until my friend, a grad student at Purdue who’s in his first year of teaching, told me he had to show his students the Run, Hide, Fight video that same week. It was a video we’d grown up as students and now have to think about as future educators, a reminder that there’s always a new way to be afraid.
“I expected my students to have trouble code switching back into engaged human beings capable of learning after the micro trauma I had put them through, but it was very much business as usual,” he told me. “I remember most the ember glow of iPhones on the faces of too-slouched students. That’s really the most terrifying part: the normalization of it all.”
These are students who experienced all 10 of America’s deadliest mass shootings as children (and for perspective, Columbine no longer ranks on that list). They’ve undergone active shooter drills since they were in kindergarten. They don’t know another way exists.
If we have any morality left, we have to show them they’re wrong.
“That bullet might exit his body, turn in flight and hit you. Or it might be tumbling in the guy’s body, hit his femur or some other major bone, eject a bone fragment and it hits you with a bone fragment. That’s just common.”