I Have Been Terrified of an Active Shooter Situation Since I Was 11
Spring has always been my dad’s favorite season; he says it’s because everything is green and new and fresh. In the Willamette Valley, that’s especially true.
On May 21, 1998, I was two days shy of my 11th birthday. The rural Oregon spring was in prime condition; the deciduous trees were lush and green and the lilac bushes turned the air purple. The sky was exceptionally clear in the morning as my siblings and I—brother in middle school, sister and I both still in elementary—bustled around the dim house, waking up and getting dressed.
Most mornings, dad came home from his night shift as a deputy sheriff with plenty of time to help brush hair, make toast, and get us out the door. This morning, he did not; he’s working late, we figured. Happens all the time.
We undertook the unusual but not impossible task of waking mom and on to school we went.
Later, while we studied the salmon cycle and learned about the native trees of the state, a pale aide entered my 5th grade classroom with a brightly-colored sheet of paper in her hand.
My teacher went white.
Students were to be informed, it said, that a tragic incident had occurred in the next town over, at a local high school where many of us had attended plays and sporting events. A young man had entered the school with a firearm; several students were believed to be deceased and dozens more were injured. Relatives were being notified, but if the children had questions, the teachers were instructed to be careful in their answers.
Oh, I thought. That must be where dad was this morning.
Dad was often the first responder at serious situations, so this was nothing new. He was the kind of man you could rely on in an emergency; the kind of man that women who’d survived domestic violence situations trusted implicitly with their stories. Often, when he was missing in the mornings, we knew it was because he was doing something important.
But it wasn’t usually this bad.
As the day and the week went on, I would do two things—I would turn 11 years old, and I would learn the name Kip Kinkel.
Kinkel, just a handful of years older than I was, was a freshman at Thurston High School when he murdered both of his parents in their home and then proceeded to drive to his high school, where he’d been expelled the day before for bringing a handgun. Upon arrival, he would open fire and kill two students and wound 25 others before being tackled while he was reloading. That detail will matter later.
Sure enough, my dad was a first responder at the scene of the Kinkel house. If you watch the Frontline documentary about it closely enough, you may see him stringing up police tape in the B-roll.
That morning, after murdering his parents, Kinkel entered the cafeteria of the school with a semi-automatic rifle, two pistols, and a hunting knife. He carried, according to reports, 1,127 rounds of ammunition. All things told, Kinkel fired just 50 of those rounds.
By comparison, Omar Mateen fired 202 rounds inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
If the lack of an AR as part of Kinkel’s arsinal strikes you as unusual, recall that the assault weapons ban was still very much in effect in 1998 and would not expire for another six years.
Kinkel was tackled by a fellow student when he stopped to reload—an opportunity that would not have existed if he had been carrying and using a higher-capacity weapon.
Kinkel was apprehended alive and is currently serving a sentence of more than 110 years.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, our city became obsessed with the story; what had driven this boy—really just a child at the time—to murder both of his parents before driving to school with numerous firearms and a vendetta? What was the matter with him—or perhaps, what was the matter with all of us for minting a child who was so disturbed? Was it video games, violent films, satanic music, or bullying which drove him to it?
Years later, we’ve stopped trying to find arts and culture to blame and begun focusing on firearms themselves. It has changed nothing, aside from the conversation.
If you haven’t heard of the Thurston High School shooting, don’t feel guilty; it happened almost a full year before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School and began what we think of as the era of school shootings. It took years—and several more shootings in schools—for our district to add a third emergency drill; some time in the early 2000s, we began practicing fire, earthquake, and active-shooter.
Four years after the Thurston shooting, Gus Van Sant released Elephant, a visceral, beautiful, wrecking film about a school shooting based on Columbine but which definitely bore shades of Thurston. I saw it at the independent theater in Eugene; for weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The scene in the library where the shooter stares directly at a couple. The near miss. The silent hallways. This was what I had feared the absolute most since I was 11 years old.
Which is to say, I have never not lived in a world of gun violence.
People react differently to this fear; some opt to carry firearms, believing that they will someday be the Good Guy With A Gun. Me, I’ve bent the other way; I don’t believe that more guns make us safer (a belief which is backed by some research but which still creates arguments between those with opposing views on gun laws).
However you cope, the fact is that many of us—and certainly many of us under the age of 35—simply live with the persistent fear that it could happen.
It happened again last weekend; five people, shopping on a Friday night, were murdered where they stood in a mall just a few dozen miles from me. It happened again this morning; commuters and shoppers in Houston were sprayed with bullets. It happens in America more than every day. It happens more than you see on TV because it happens so much.
Even just writing this is controversial; even just expressing my own fear is political. But the truth is that I have no fear of religious terrorists. Despite rampant Islamophobia in the United States, it is not the threat of terrorism that makes me nervous when I hear a loud sound in a shopping mall. To me, in my life, in the closest possibly proximity to me, one of the scariest boogeyman has been a man, often but not always white, with a firearm in a public place.
And still. Still. Despite mountains of evidence which suggests that the simplest solutions may be curbing toxic masculinity, teaching greater empathy, and passing policies which keep firearms out of the hands of violent and dangerous people without penalizing responsible gun owners or turning individuals with mood disorders or mental illness into the enemy, we refuse to act.
It has been nearly 20 years since I was first made aware and afraid of gun violence. And with every mass shooting that occurs, I remember that first spring morning when my own father arrived at a home to find two deceased people. I remember the fear I felt crouching behind a desk during an active shooter drill. I remember the sheer panic, years later, when our school was locked down and my little sister was somewhere in the building.
Every single time we send our hopes and prayers but not our actions, I am 11 years old again and I am forced to confront the fact that in my entire adult life we have done next to nothing meaningful to end the very real problem of gun violence in the United States.
It has been a lifetime that I have been afraid of the kind of thing that happened at the Cascade Mall this weekend. It has been a lifetime that parents have sent their children into shopping centers and restaurants and movie theaters and nightclubs and health care clinics and fucking schools and we have dragged our collective feet. And every time this happens again—and it has happened plenty of times—I am reminded of just how many of these we have wrung our hands about and then answered with nothing.