April is National Poetry Month, so I wanted to celebrate it with some Black YA novels in verse.
Novels in verse are my personal favorite YA subgenre because they combine poetry with narrative storytelling to enhance the thoughts and experiences of the characters. As a teen, the first novel in verse I read by a Black author was Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, which was about a diverse poetry club at a high school in the Bronx.
Two decades after its publication in 2002, there are now a plethora of middle grade and YA novels in verse by Black authors old and new. Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, but I get excited whenever I see a new novel in verse. I love reading them and seeing different poetry forms used and experiences told. Here are some of the most compelling Black YA and middle grade novels in verse.
Legacy by Nikki Grimes
This is more of a collection of poems and visual art than a novel in verse, but I’m including this book because it’s become one of my new favorites. Using the Golden Shovel poetry form, Grimes takes one line or short poem from a Black female Harlem Renaissance poet and uses it to make her own poem. The book itself is formatted so you read the Harlem Renaissance poem first and then the poem it inspired Grimes to write. Each set of poems is also accompanied by visual art by Black women, including Vashanti Harrison and Shada Strickland. As a whole, the poetry and illustrations work together to bridge the past and present.
Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington
A novel in verse aimed at a middle school audience, this book tells the story of Keet, a young Black girl from Alabama who loves talking and tellling stories. When she moves away, she isn’t sure how to cope until a fishing trip with her grandfather teaches her how to listen before speaking. However, her grandfather suddenly has a stroke and that makes him feel further away from her. In order to reconnect with him, Keet must find her voice again through stories.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
In an elevator, a teenaged Black boy named Wil is on the way down with a gun in his waistband to take revenge for his older brother, who was murdered by someone in the neighborhood. But each time the elevator stops on a new floor, Wil is visited by ghosts who make him question everything he thinks he knows about revenge and emotions. Through a true-to-life cast of characters and powerful verse, Reynolds delivers a poignant tale of gun violence through both its victims and those left behind. This book lingered in my mind long after I read it because of how skillfully Wil’s conscience is represented and questioned through the characters and words.
Solo by Kwame Alexander
Filled with both music and poetry, Solo features the tale of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star named Rutherford. When Rutherford’s legacy threatens to overwhelm him, Blade finds a letter about his parentage that leads him to Ghana. From there, he undergoes a journey to find out who he can become outside of his father’s influence and whether he can live up to the expectations he has for his life. I really appreciated how Alexander wove together various cultural influences, such as rock music and Ghanaian culture, to shape Blade’s character development.
Every Body Looking by Candice Ihoh
A coming-of-age story starring a first-generation Nigerian American female protagonist, this book explores the impact of heavy familial expectations and the desire to break free and express your true self. When Ada attends a HBU, she finds herself following her passion for dance while exploring her sexuality. At the same time, she also comes face to face with past issues as she tries to claim ownership over her body and future. It is rare to see a YA novel set in a college space, so finding one that is also in verse is extra special.
The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.
Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.
The other day, as my wife and I drove north on Interstate 25 in our Mazda CX5 with our eleven-year-old daughter, Mitike, and our dog, Fable, in the backseat, I thought, “Why not get rid of all these safety features in our car?”
I mean, really, our car would have been so much cheaper without all these gratuitous extras—without the blindspot monitoring, without the brake assist or the traction control, without the air bags or the rearview mirrors or the windshield wipers or the daytime running lights. And if Mazda hadn’t been mandated to install seatbelts or spend its resources on IIHS or NHTSA safety tests, this car would be far more fun to drive.
I glanced in the unnecessary rearview mirror at Mitike, who bent over a book. What kind of world are we promising future drivers like her? All these regulations! These superfluous rules, like properly registering a vehicle, or paying for insurance on it, or passing vision and knowledge tests to get a license to drive. Fettered by decades of rules, we cannot enjoy driving. Someday, the government will probably just take away this right all together, and we will all be forced to take the public bus system.
“What are you writing?”
“I’m tired. Another school shooting, and no one’s going to do anything. I’m resorting to sarcasm.”
“But you’re not writing about guns.”
“Yes, I am. If guns could be regulated like cars are, we’d have far fewer deaths. Did you know that when states started requiring people to get driver’s licenses in the 1930s, they dramatically reduced accidents on the roads? And that after most states started requiring seatbelts in the 1990s, people’s injuries in car accidents decreased by half? And that when car companies started putting in air bags in the late 1990s, they reduced the mortality rate by 63 percent? A few rules, and we’re safer. I’m trying to argue that—”
“Mom, let me try.”
“Let me write your column this month.”
“Would you mind?”
Stop This NOW! A Guest Column by Mitike Iris Campbell, Age Eleven
Why do you keep letting this happen? You grown-ups are exasperating sometimes. You would not hesitate to protect your children and your family, but you hesitate at this, at choosing the safety of your family over your precious guns? The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This does not mean that everyone just has the right to bear arms. It means we have the right to bear them in a well-regulated way. Technology like guns is always advancing, so laws must always be made and changed to protect us. Children are losing lives they have only just begun. Our future is being destroyed by your inaction here and now. Decide. Unregulated guns or continued tragedy? Danger or safety? Violence or peace? Injustice or justice? Death or life? Hatred or love? Please remember that the choices you make will affect the future as well as the present.
A question-and-answer session with the guest columnist, Mitike, who is in fifth grade and loves reading fantasy novels, considering fashion styles, playing volleyball, and relaxing with her family.
SHC: So, Mitike, why do you think school shootings are happening?
MIC: Because of guns.
SHC: Does hearing about a tragedy like the one in Florida make you feel afraid?
MIC: Yes, it does when I think about it, but most of the time I’m so focused on my work, I don’t think about it.
SHC: What does your school do to prepare for emergencies?
MIC: We do lock-downs, lock-outs. In art class, we do a lock-down drill in the kiln room. And we do have talks about this kind of thing a lot. They talk about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to bring to school, and how you should report it if you see anyone with anything unsafe.
SHC: What’s an example of something that is inappropriate to bring to school?
MIC: Guns, knives, swords. I don’t know if swords really exist, but, you know. Daggers, bombs, but they don’t really talk about those. That’s mostly it.
SHC: What would you say to someone who says that if we allow the government to regulate guns more, the government will take them all away?
MIC: Well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if they do. If that’s the only way they see fit to keep us safe, then it’s probably a good choice.
SHC: Like what Australia did?
MIC: Yes, I think that’s great. They’re having a fine time down there—except they do have lots of poisonous animals threatening their population, instead.
SHC: What do you think of the idea of requiring licenses for everyone who owns a gun, as a place to start?
MIC: I think that is a good idea because if we had that, then we’d be able to trust that we lived in a little bit safer country, and a little bit safer schools. Kids should not have to worry that we’re going to die.
SHC: What are some other things you worry about?
MIC: Well … I hate snakes, komodo dragons, snakes in a pit, snakes chasing me on top of a cart that wants to run me over, finding out my house is on fire in the middle of the night and not being able to run away, losing my dog. I’m worried my cousins will get me in trouble. I worry that my cousin Ryland will break his head open because he’s not being careful. I worry about doing terribly on tests. I worry that I’m not getting enough information from the books my teacher wants me to read. I worry about forgetting my homework.
SHC: Wow, that’s a lot of worries. What would a peaceful life look like for you, then?
MIC: It would be a life where I would only worry about little things I have no control over, not about my life being threatened. Not in school, anyway, where I’m trying to learn.
NOTE: Call your senators now. Tell them to support the assault weapon ban and to push legislation that requires strict licensing and regulation of guns. Donate to and join Moms Demand Action. Please. Let’s allow our kids to worry about poisonous snakes, instead.
top photo by Jose Alonso on Unsplash
Trump, in a speech on Friday, February 23, 2018, to the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C.:
“Well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches [should carry firearms in schools]. I mean, I don’t want to have a hundred guards with rifles standing all over the school. You do a concealed carry permit. This would be a major deterrent, because these people are inherently cowards.”
Saturday, February 24, 2018, Trump tweet:
“Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them. Very smart people. Must be firearms adept & have annual training. Should get yearly bonus. Shootings will not happen again — a big & very inexpensive deterrent. Up to States.”
It’s March 24, 2020.
In Denver, Colorado, a certain English teacher with streaks of silver in her brown hair completes her final “Armed Educator Training,” which her school district has mandated for all educators, in compliance with SB1999 passed after Colorado endured another mass shooting, this time in a Colorado Springs high school in May of 2019. This time, nearly fifty students and educators died. This time, finally, enough Colorado legislators stood up to demand alternatives. Thus “Armed Educator Training”: six courses all K–12 teachers are required to complete before the end of this 2020 school year. Former military personnel or teachers who can demonstrate similar arms certifications are exempt if they complete the appropriate paperwork. Upon completion of the six courses of the Armed Educator Training, each K–12 teacher receives a standard-issue M&P 9, with a Picatinny rail under the muzzle. On this day, March 24, 2020, a stern army colonel with wire spectacles perched on her nose hands this English teacher her M&P 9. The English teacher holds the gun on the palms of her hands and does not look away.
Behind her, a kindergarten teacher breaks into quiet tears as she is handed her gun. A middle school math teacher accepts his grimly. A high school chemistry teacher grabs hers a bit too eagerly. The room is silent. No one says thank you. No one laughs or jokes with each other, as they have been doing in the dreariness of these evening classes and at the shooting range, where learning how to hit the targets felt more like a sporting competition than anything real. But now. They fit the new guns into the blue plastic holsters they have been issued, and they accept the paper certificates that confirm their completion of Armed Educator Training.
At home, the English teacher sits in her car in the driveway for several minutes, trying to grasp this brave new world. She will leave the gun in her glove compartment and transport it to school tomorrow, in the clear plastic bag (all bags and backpacks at her high school must be clear now) that currently holds her students’ research papers, three books she needs to skim to prepare for tomorrow, and various spoons and forks she has neglected to return to her kitchen. She refuses to bring the gun into the house. Not with her child in there. But then she shudders: her child’s teachers all carry guns now, too. Every teacher in Denver is required to, now.
She sits in the driveway, and outside the March wind pummels her car. The car rocks. Mentally, she lists all that she still does not have as a teacher, though she now has a gun:
- she does not have whiteboard markers
- she does not have the students’ attention, since they are staring at their cellphones
- she does not have a key that works in both classrooms in which she teaches
- she does not have enough desks for all of her students when all of them attend
- she does not have time to use the bathroom
- she does not have a printer or a projector that work reliably
- she does not have a reasonably sized class
- she does not have enough books, or paper, or pencils
- she is not paid enough to live in most of the neighborhoods in her city
- she does not have adequate healthcare
- she does not have regular assistance with her students’ mental health issues
- she does not have reassurance that the district has invested adequately in her retirement
- she is not paid enough to save for her own child’s college education
But she has a gun. On the passenger seat beside her, the gun in its ridiculous blue plastic holster, inanimate but not innocuous, waits for her to do something with it. She remembers other times she has held and fired a gun: as a child, when her father had reached around her and held the rifle with her so they could point and fire at clay pigeons the machine threw into the air over their cornfield. And she remembers the time in Alaska. In Alaska, where she trained to be a teacher, her program required all urban education students to do a one-week intensive in a rural school. She had flown to Kodiak Island, to a village of fifty, where two teachers led a K–12 school for eighteen students, lived together (though they were not a couple), drank tequila, and shot guns. For the entire week, the teacher had become increasingly dismayed by the ferocity with which the other two teachers wanted to finish the day so they could go shoot guns. Every afternoon, the three of them walked the short distance to the town dump, set up rusty cans on stumps, stepped back, and fired. Bang. Bang. BANG. The teacher wanted to know if they could hike instead. Ha, said the man teacher. Hike? There are Kodiak bears out there. THIS is all there is to do safely here. He lifted his pistol again, a little shakily, since he had been drinking. Bang! The other teacher, the woman, laughed bitterly, examining the pistol she held. Yeah, they say you have to be insane or be running away from something to come out here to teach. I think I’m doing both. She leveled the pistol at the man a moment, and they both laughed crazily. Bang! A tin can exploded in the distance, out by the dump where only the bears and the bald eagles could hear.
Until the mandatory Armed Educator Training, the teacher had not fired a gun since that moment in the Alaska. Some of the teachers in the training had reminded her of those two teachers on Kodiak Island: desperate, fierce, angry. Give me that gun, an eighth grade social studies teacher had said, his teeth gritted. No active shooter will think to bother my classroom, ever.
Now she sits in her car beside the gun, and outside, it has begun to rain: large drops splash rough-edged circles on her windshield, which is cracked. Where is she safe, if not in her classroom? Where is her daughter safe? She thinks of a cartoon she saw once, of a boy on a playground holding a stick. The teachers gathered around him, staring down at him, debating. Should we arm all the other children with sticks? Or should we take away his? The cartoon teachers frowned in their indecision.
The front door of the teacher’s house opens, and her wife steps out, peering through the gray rain. She wraps her sweater around her body and walks out onto the porch, down the two steps, across the driveway. She doesn’t hesitate: she opens the driver’s-side door and grasps the teacher’s hand. Come on, sweet wife, she says. Come inside. She glances at the gun on the passenger-side seat, but mostly she keeps her gaze focused on the teacher.
Shivering suddenly, though she is not cold, the teacher begins to cry. I don’t want this—I just want to teach writing—I hate living in America—I—
Her wife pulls on the hand she holds and guides the teacher out of the car. She shuts the car door, and the car, smart, locks itself with the gun inside.
Dinner’s ready, the teacher’s wife says quietly. Let’s just go inside.
Inside, dinner is already on the table, and the women’s daughter sits waiting, her dark eyes round with concern. The fireplace is on, and the dog greets them, wagging happily, as he does every day. The teacher lets her shoulders relax. Her daughter springs up from the table to hug her, and the dog wedges himself happily between them.
And the teacher gives herself permission, as she does every afternoon, to forget the world outside this one, to forget guns and inept politicians and deep gun lobby pockets that refuse to ban even semi-automatics and bump stocks and fear and students who jump at any loud noise and lockdown drills and lockout drills and the flashing red and blue lights of America.
Her wife locks their front door. Here, by the fire, the three of them settle into their chairs at the dinner table, and the dog stretches out at their feet.
But it is not enough. The teacher knows it: it is not enough.
top photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash
Feedback on Donald’s final semester research paper, from his English teacher:
Donald — While you have some interesting, unique ideas here, you have not always organized them in a way that makes your agenda or your principles evident. Also while you argue for change in the United States with great passion, you have not proved that any of the sources you chose to use in this paper are credible or relevant. You fall often into non sequitur, into sweeping generalizations and into ad hominem. Finally, you overuse the simple-sentence construction, and your frequent repetition is not often effective. Note my comments throughout your paper, as well as the rubric and the original outline for this research-based position paper. You have until noon on December 22 to revise this paper. If you do well on the reading/language portion of the final, you have a chance of passing this course with a D. Please do this! I look forward to reading your revision. — Ms. C.
The vocabulary list Donald refuses to study for his finals:
- climate change
- Paris Agreement
- emissions reduction
An email exchange between Mrs. Mary Trump and Donald’s social studies teacher:
Dear Mrs. Trump,
Thank you for your email. Donald is fortunate to have such a supportive parent in his life. I hear all that you are saying about your concerns about the school and about Donald, but I can only speak to the concerns you have shared about my U.S. History class. I’ve responded to your specific comments below:
Donald needs extra time on all assignments. He does not have one of those special plans, but his father has always paid his teachers to make allowances for him. His father would like to know what amount would be sufficient.
I cannot take bribes. Donald has turned in most of his assignments on time, but he has not met the expectations. When I’ve asked him to revise, he has said, “It’s not important. My GPA is already bigly. It’s the best GPA, ever.” Have you and Mr. Trump considered having Donald tested? He might benefit from additional support.
Donald feels nervous and afraid when he is surrounded by people who look and act different than him. He tells me that your class is full of immigrants from South America, Africa, and Asia. Can he be switched to a class where he will be more comfortable?
No. It is too late at this point in the semester (the last week) to switch classes. Also, I must point out that Donald is surrounded by students who bring fascinating stories from their lives; he could learn quite a bit from them. I know from a passing comment Donald made that you are an immigrant from Scotland, Mrs. Trump. If Donald could see that the immigrant students who sit beside him in my class are immigrants just like you, he might relax and begin to get to know them. Maybe you could encourage this mindset at home?
Donald told me that you encourage the students to criticize our great country. I would like to request that Donald be excused from these uncomfortable conversations.
Donald regularly quotes from sources like Breitbart and Fox News in his papers for me, and he argues regularly in class discussions that the U.S. should build a wall on our southern border and that we should obliterate North Korea with a nuclear attack. As his history teacher, it is my job to provide other perspectives; it seems particularly important for Donald. However, he usually puts in his earbuds or watches Netflix videos on his phone when he does not like the topic of discussion. It is not criticism of our country that I am encouraging, but responsible civic engagement. I’d love to see that in Donald.
Thank you again for your email, Mrs. Trump. If you have any more questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Transcript (from the video) of a restorative justice conversation between Donald Trump and five girls who have accused him of inappropriate behavior with them after a football game. To protect the girls’ privacy, we will call them by the randomly selected pseudonyms Jessica, Ivana, Jill, Kristen, and Lisa. Note: after this session, the mediator, Mr. Jones, recommended the administration expel Donald, file a Title IX complaint, and get the district legal involved immediately.
TEACHER: Okay, guys, we have brought you in here because you five girls want Donald to hear something, right? And Donald, you want the girls to hear something, right? Okay, you’re all nodding. Good. So let’s start with Donald, okay? Donald, why do you think we’re sitting here together this afternoon?
DONALD: Because my father’s lawyer made sure we did it this way.
TEACHER: Ah. That — might be true, but this is also one way we solve conflict in this school, and —
LISA: This is not a conflict. Donald stuck his head right underneath their skirts. How is that a conflict? It’s a crime. Donald should not be sitting here right now. He should be in juvenile detention, or wherever.
TEACHER: I hear you, Lisa. Look, let’s back up, everyone. We are doing this through restorative justice, okay? So Donald has two minutes to tell his side of the story, and then you girls are going to repeat back what he said. Okay? Go ahead, Donald.
DONALD: Well, we were all hanging out after the football game, in the parking lot, right? I mean, Mr. Jones, you did that, too, right? Hung out with girls in the parking lot after football games?
TEACHER: Um, yeah.
DONALD: Right, this is just locker room talk, right? I mean, I was hanging out with these five beautiful ladies in the parking lot, and we were dancing to some good tunes someone was playing, you know? And that’s it. I went home after that.
TEACHER: That’s it?
KRISTEN: Mr. Jones. Donald touched my vagina through my underwear. That is not what kids do when they are just dancing.
JILL: And Mr. Jones? Donald pushed me up against a wall, and had his hands all over me, and tried to get up my dress. I screamed, and luckily these girls came running to help me, and to pull me away. Luckily, we weren’t alone in the parking lot. Because you know what would have happened. Right?
TEACHER: Wow. Okay, let’s slow down a little. Donald, what did you hear Jill say just now?
DONALD: Honestly? I wasn’t listening. I was thinking about how I should have just grabbed her by the —
TEACHER: That’s enough. You’re supposed to listen. That’s how this process works. Please listen. Let’s hear what Ivana needs to say. Ivana?
IVANA: I was still finishing up with the other cheerleaders that night. But three weeks ago? To my friends, I referred to what happened that night as a ‘rape,’ but — we were dating at the time — I don’t know.
DONALD: She says we were dating at the time? I can never remember which of these blonde hotties I’m dating when.
JESSICA: You do see, right, Mr. Jones? I mean, that night of the football game? Donald was like an octopus. His hands were everywhere. People have definitely been expelled from this school, with criminal charges brought against them, for far less.
DONALD: Are we done here? I’m meeting my buddies for lunch at Chick-Fil-A, and they’re texting me.
Documentation in the high school’s online records system, by Donald’s physics teacher, Ms. Sheridan:
December 15: Emailed Donald’s parents that Donald will receive a zero on the physics final, as he was 1) standing in the hallway during passing time and proclaiming loudly, “I could stand in the middle of this hallway and shoot someone, and they would still pass me in physics!”; and 2) boasting on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat that he had paid two students to allow him to copy their answers on the final exam; and 3) physically copying answers from the student sitting at the desk in front of him (in the video a classmate took, Donald stands at his desk so he can adequately see the other student’s scantron bubbles).
December 18: Called Donald’s parents, per request of the principal, to explain my reasons for giving Donald a zero on the physics final. Father asked how much it would cost for Donald to re-take the final, then explained he will sue the school. Mother said, “What kind of son have I created?”
Screenshots Taken of Donald’s Snapchat Story on December 22:
[image of a Mexican girl standing alone in front of the wall, looking up]: Ha ha ha can’t get in!
[image of five men in Chad trying to fill a plastic jug with brown water]: Why America is BETTER!
[image of ten dancing women bent over, backsides to the camera]: Yeah I’ll grab THAT!
[image of dead Sandy Hook teacher]: What I’d like to do to my English teacher
[image of a cat licking another cat’s anus]: JK! What I’d like to do to my English teacher
Email to Donald’s parents on December 22 (using mostly language from Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which explains the reasons for which a president can be impeached) from district superintendent’s office:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Trump,
He may be entitled,
he had a choice: stay eligible? Or endure removal?
and he has devolved
he may have power
to fill up all vacancies that may happen,
But today he shall be removed
his crimes and misdemeanors.
Again: today he shall be removed.
— The Superintendent’s Office
top photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash
At eleven p.m. on October 1, Meredith and I crouched behind a four-inch-wide metal partition in a boutique in the Aria, a casino-hotel just under a mile north of the Mandalay Bay Casino where, evidently, tens of people had just been shot by a mass murderer.
We had learned this news in a women’s bathroom in the Monte Carlo from two panicked cleaning women who had been instructed by security to tell no one, but who felt it was their duty to tell everyone who would listen. For a while, Meredith and I hid in the bathroom with others, and rumors flew: there were multiple shooters; the shooter was heading this way; people were dead everywhere on the Strip; there was a car with a bomb.
Meredith shakily told one of the cleaning women, whose name tag read “Julia,” that we just wanted to get back to our hotel room in the Vdara. Julia nodded firmly and led us through the casino, where she pointed the way to our hotel through the tall glass walls of the Aria. Flashing red and blue lights illuminated the world, and security guards stood at all doors barring our exit. They couldn’t tell us when it would be safe, they said. The area had not been secured yet. No one knew where the shooter was, and they’d heard twenty people had been killed, fifty injured.
From our hiding place in the boutique, we watched as people rushed in all directions toward safety, though no one—even the authorities—knew where safety was.
I whispered to Meredith that we needed to be wary of every lone white male.
A white man in a bulky jacket strode into the boutique, and I pulled Meredith to the floor with me just as he called to a woman behind him, “They have champagne. We might as well drink while we wait.”
Two women in black sparkly dresses hurried into our corner carrying their strappy shoes. Their faces were streaked with tears, their long hair tangled and wild. “Do you sell mascara?” one woman asked me, pleading. “I need some.” She peered more closely at me. “Oh. You don’t work here, do you?”
Meredith kept the Las Vegas Police Department’s Twitter feed open on her phone, but we learned only that a mass shooting had indeed occurred at Mandalay Bay, where we had wandered a couple of hours before, searching for the best place to celebrate Meredith’s birthday.
I planned. If the shooter appeared on the floor above us, we could pull this partition down on top of us as a shield. If the shooter broke through the line of blue-coated security guards at the Aria’s front doors, we could dive for the cleaning closet just behind us. If…
The adrenaline that pulsed in my blood made me nauseated. I tried to close my eyes and imagine a golden bubble surrounding me and Meredith; I prayed, pleading that Mitike still needs her two moms.
At two a.m., when the LVPD lifted the lockdown in our area, we scurried with others across the street to the Vdara, where we rode the elevator to our room and locked our door behind us.
But still, days later, we are not safe.
None of us are safe, not yet. Six hundred people are either dead or injured today because they wanted to attend a country music concert. One hundred people were either killed or injured at the Pulse in Orlando in 2016 because they wanted to go out and dance. Nine people were killed in their own church in Charleston in 2015 because they wanted to pray. Twenty first graders were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 because they wanted to learn.
These Americans just wanted to go to school, or attend a concert, or gather for Bible study, or dance with their friends, or eat at a restaurant, or walk in a park. They believed they lived not in a wartorn country but in the golden bubble of America. But they died.
They died, and many more of us will die until enough of us rise to resist the NRA and its myths about guns in America. Many brilliant writers are waxing eloquent about this right now, including Adam Gopnick for the New Yorker and James Fallows for The Atlantic. Late-night talk show hosts, major newspapers, bloggers, and country music singers are all shouting the now too-familiar refrain: When will this stop? When will America finally control its guns? When will we feel truly safe in this nation again?
Gopnick wrote on October 2, “Gun control acts on gun violence the way antibiotics act on infections—imperfectly but with massive efficacy.” Columbine, Aurora, Orlando, Charlotte, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas—and every day in 2017 so far, someone with a gun has fired at four or more people.
However, there are those who insist—their fingers on the triggers of .44 Magnums or Glock 19s or AR-15 rifles—that this American sickness, this propensity for crowds of people to suddenly fall dead to the ground, is definitely, definitely, definitely not caused by guns. Let’s name this.
These people nod at the Second Amendment, at that claim for a “well-regulated militia” written by men who never imagined semiautomatic weapons made automatic by bump stocks—because they do not want to give up their guns.
These people point to our need for more mental health service providers, for better diagnoses, and for more mental health care facilities—because they do not want to give up their guns. They shrug, shaking their heads sadly, offering prayers, noting that Stephen Paddock must have been deranged—because they do not want to give up their guns.
They insist that gun control takes the guns from the good guys and puts them in the hands of the bad guys, though Stephen Paddock was, according to his clean record and his successful passing of background checks in gun shops, a “good guy” until he fired at a country music concert from a thirty-second-story window—because they do not want to give up their guns.
They argue for travel bans and crackdowns on inner-city crime, though the worst mass shootings in contemporary American history have been committed by white male Americans named Eric, James, Dylann, and Stephen—because they do not want to give up their guns.
They shake their heads sadly and say, “Gun control just won’t work. It can’t prevent these kinds of tragedies. That’s what the data says”—because they do not want to give up their guns. They elect and support senators and representatives who have shut down gun violence research at the CDC for twenty years—because they do not want to give up their guns.
When some of us point to Australia or Scotland, and how those nations responded swiftly to mass shootings, they shudder, saying mandatory buy-backs, twenty-eight-day waiting periods, extensive background checks, and tight regulation would never work in America—because they do not want to give up their guns.
The solutions are not simple, but this is true, gun lovers, NRA supporters, “super owners”: guns caused these deaths. Stop telling me that now is not the time to talk about gun control. Now is the only time to talk about gun control. Now is the only time to see you lay out your collection on your living room floor and tell us all exactly why you should not be licensed, registered, and policed with these deadly weapons just as we are all required to be licensed, registered, and policed to drive a car.
I do not necessarily want you to give up your guns. I want you to admit that it is a problem that we do not know who has them, or who has a hundred, or who has a bump stock on their semiautomatic and plans to fire it tomorrow into a crowd.
The members of Congress who refuse to protect us, who pocket thousands from the NRA, walk through metal detectors into the Capitol Building each day. Every day, I walk into a large public high school in Colorado that, in spite of Columbine and Aurora, lacks metal detectors and stations only one police officer at a front table. Every day, my wife walks into an unprotected office to provide mental health treatment to her patients. Every day, millions of Americans walk vulnerable, exposed, in public spaces of all kinds.
The unwillingness to talk about gun control is criminal. And the unwillingness of many of our lawmakers to act—even to ban semiautomatic weapons, high-capacity magazines, silencers, or bump stocks, all of which a shooter only requires if he has ill intent—reveals those lawmakers are choosing money over the lives of the people they claim to represent.
For the hours my wife and I took shelter in the cosmetics section of the Aria boutique, I mostly worried about how to protect us. I did not think about universal background checks or waiting periods or bans on semiautomatic weapons. I just wanted us both to live. But today, alive, I’m livid again. Enough!
Just after the June 2014 shooting at an Oregon high school, President Obama noted in a press conference, “If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change.”
Organizations like EveryTown for Gun Safety (to which Meredith and I donated this week) are fighting for that shift in public opinion. Some people are calling their U.S. senators; some are turning to their state legislatures to ask them to enact the laws the federal government refuses to.
It is not time to throw up our hands, again, and say we can do nothing to prevent the next inevitable public shooting. It is time to demand that Congress choose our lives over their pockets. It is time to insist that each of us has an inalienable right to live our lives in this country in pursuit of happiness, free from fear that a white man with a gun will kill us. It is time for a great wave of us to say to Congress: “Enough.”
top photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash