Of course everyone at the reading knew there would be another school shooting.
That is our national reality – our shame – laid bare in the pages of a new book, “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You,” which shares the fearless narratives of school shooting survivors.
It’s a reality in Philadelphia, too. There’s barely time to mark, let alone mourn, one shooting before there is another and another and, before we realize it, more than 300 people gunned down this year alone.
So yes, of course, the dozens of people packed inside the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mount Airy – sharing one collective gut-punch after another as passages were read aloud – knew it might not be long before another school attack.
But less than 24 hours later? Who imagined that? Who wanted to?
On Thursday morning, news broke that two students were dead and three wounded at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., after another student opened fire in the quad.
More children dead. Another community shattered while legislators continue to sit on sensible gun legislation. This time, a universal-background-checks bill blocked by Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi just as news of the latest school shooting reached the Senate floor.
Sen. Hyde-Smith said her colleagues need time to debate the legislation, as if there is anything left to debate about the trail of blood leading directly from gutless politicians’ feet to every shattered community in our country.
The book begins with Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18, 2018, and moves back in time to the 1966 University of Texas at Austin tower sniper. There are more than 60 voices, including that of Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jaime, was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018.
“I think about her final seconds every second of my life,” he wrote.
“Do you know what it’s like to be shot at?” wrote Hailey Case, a freshman during the Marshall County High School shooting: “It’s panicking and freezing. It’s running. It’s stepping over people you’ve gone to school with your entire life, not knowing if they’re dead … knowing you wouldn’t be able to stop even if they were. It’s wondering what made you so special, that you get to live and they don’t. It’s worrying you will never, ever, feel safe again.”
Abbey Clements was teaching second grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012: “No active drill, no lockdown drill allowed us to escape. He turned left and we were on the right.”
Kent Kirkley was on campus at the time of the tower shooting at the University of Texas at Austin: “To my knowledge it had never happened before and probably wouldn’t happen again.”
“How wrong I was.”
The editors of the book sent it to every U.S. senator. Other than a few stock responses, they were mostly met by silence.
I’d wonder if maybe the agonizing stories of survivors rendered them momentarily numb, but we know better. If any bother to read the stories, they should not be able to rest until they do something, knowing that every death is on their hands until they do.
At the book signing on Wednesday night, Jami Amo, a Columbine survivor who lives in the Philadelphia area, read a passage that would prove to be even more heartbreaking the next day.
“It is difficult to put into words what I feel when there’s another school shooting, ushering some other community into our survivors’ collective,” she said. “I wonder if they resent us for having been unable to prevent it from happening. I wonder how long the nightmares will plague them, and I think about how they will manage to send their own children to school one day.”
After news broke of the California school shooting, I called Amo and Amye Archer, one of the editors of the book who was also at the reading.
Were they planning a second edition? I asked.
They knew what I was really asking:
What is it going to take? Just how much and whose bloodshed will it take for those who have the power to save lives to finally step up and do it?
Amo, a tireless advocate, knew only one thing for sure.
Giving up is not an option. “I need to be able to look my children in the eyes and say that I did everything I could.”
And that response, echoed by so many other survivors, gives Archer hope. It should give us all the hope, and strength, to keep fighting.
“If you can’t take down Goliath,” Archer said, “you help David get bigger.”
Helen Ubinas is an award-winning metro columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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