The New Normal of Gun Violence in My America

Jens Lelie on Unsplash

I live in a small town an hour from Chicago. It is peaceful here. Quiet.

But yesterday morning, the clear spring sky was buzzing with helicopters. Access to the high school was cordoned off by police squad cars and SWAT vehicles. Someone with a rifle, it was reported, had entered the school at 6:30 a.m. By 9:00 a.m., the school had been thoroughly swept, the culprit found: a young man with a baseball bat.

Even after the all-clear, many parents chose to keep their children home. Inside. Not because something did happen, but because it could have.

As I walked my neighborhood yesterday morning, I noted the empty streets and eerie silence that had fallen on the stunning April day. And I wondered about the conversations that were taking place between parents and children behind my neighbor’s locked doors. Conversations, thankfully, I never had to have with my own children.

Last summer, the grade school down the street saw similar activity. The school was not in session. No children were on the grounds. But somewhere in the woods surrounding the school, there was a man with a gun. Ominous armored vehicles roared into the parking lot. Helicopters fluttered overhead. SWAT teams spread out, while police kept curious onlookers a safe distance away. After hours of tension, the body of the man with the gun was found, the apparent victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

This past winter, just a few blocks away from the grade school and high school, someone was shot at while in the late night drive up at our local Steak and Shake. Not long ago, our AT&T store was robbed at gunpoint. And last summer, as I stared into a star-filled night sky from my upstairs bedroom window, I heard the distinct tat, tat, tat of gunshots.

By yesterday afternoon, the sound of children’s voices filled the air again. Skateboards scraped on the asphalt. Backpacks slumped over their shoulders, those who had gone back to school passed those who were already in shorts and t-shirts, enjoying the last of their “gun day.”

Event over, the world had returned to normal. It is this new normalcy that disturbs me.

Yes, yesterday’s event at the high school was a false alarm. Yes, the city, first responders, and school administration are to be commended. Regardless of the outcome, they followed the familiar drills. Everyone acted just as they should.

But I can’t escape the feeling that one day soon, in my quiet town, another incident will require the full spectrum of police presence. Maybe it’s a guy with a gun wanting a new cell phone. A burger at three in the morning. A student who has issues with fellow classmates. A case of road rage or domestic unrest.

As a community, we’ve done everything right. Like other small towns across America, we’ve adapted to the rise in gun violence. Drills are practiced, precautions are in place. We teach our children well. Our first responders are top notch.

And then we wait. Plan escape routes in our heads, in case we should need them. Make small talk on the street, even jokes. Pretend everything is fine.

Submit to the complacency of the new normal.