Category Archives: Weapons

Are We Better Than This?

People waving to a train carrying 1500 persons expelled from Los Angeles to Mexico in 1931. (Photo: NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Suddently everyone seemed to be saying it. Often in reference to the current presidency and its supporters. My congressman, Elijah Cummings, said it to Michael Cohen, formerly Donald Trump’s“fixer,” after testifying to the oversight committee that Cummings chairs:

As I sat here and listened to both sides, I felt as if we are better than this. We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this. I don’t know why this is happening for you, but I hope a small part of this is for our country to be better. If I hear you correctly, you are crying out for getting back to normal. Sounds to me like you want to make sure our democracy stays intact.

While Cummings was praised for his remarks, I wondered whether he, like me, recalled watching—both of us barely old enough to vote—John Dean’s televised testimony on the abuse of power by another president, Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1973 under the threat of impeachment. No doubt he had since he referred to Dean in calling for Cohen to appesr. Which meant that he knew as well as I did that there was at least one “watershed moment” in the relatively recent past when we were not much better than than we are today.

Something similar occurred when Senator Kamala Harris kicked off her presidential campaign in California. “America, we are better than this,” she said, citing a slew of current problems. She repeated it in a message aimed at immigrants after Trump threatened mass deportation raids. As an immigrant myself, I wondered whether she knew that we illegally deported 600,000 US citizens in the 1930s because they had Mexican ancestry or simply had Mexican-sounding names. Families were separated and far worse. “In Los Angeles,” Professor Francisco Balderrama states, “they had orderlies who gathered people [in the hospitals] and put them in stretchers on trucks and left them at the border.” Moreover, as an undergraduate who faced the impossible choice of a dangerous, illegal abortion—some five years before the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v Wade—and giving up her newborn for adoption—there was no respectable way to be what we now call a “single mother“—I wondered whether she had ever heard of the Jane Collective, which existed between 1969 and 1973 and taught ordinary women how to perform surgical abortions. An estimated 11,000, mostly for low-income women and women of color And, finally, as someone who lived in Boston during the violence of the school bussing crisis of the Seventies, I wondered whether she was too young to remember what that was like. Turns out, at least for this, she was not. And passionately said so to former Vice President Joe Biden during last week’s first televised Democratic debate.

While I respect Harris, there is also something to be said for a statement made by a less quslified debate participant, author Marianne Willioamson. “He [Trump] didn’t win by having a plan,” she claimed. “He just said, ‘Make America great again.’ ” I am convinced  that coming across as a policy wonk rather than an inspirational leader was a serious obstacle for the previous Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton. And that this could trip up Senator Elizabeth—”I have a plan for that”—Warrenin the 2020 election. To the extent that congressional incumbents such as Cummings and presidential hopefuls such as Harris use “better than this” in an purely aspirational sense, they could have a winning way to connect with constituents. But it could also sound too much like Trump’s mantra, positing an idealized past that never existed. When I wrote “It wasn’t Always Like This” in response to the Parkland school shooting, I never meant that we were somehow better in the Fifties, simply that the civilian-use semi-automatic AR-15 was not yet for sale. At some point, even inspirational leaders need to produce plans. Addressing those times when we, as a nation, were not one bit better seems like a good place to start.


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It Wasn’t Always Like This

Some of my silly classmates in Michigan in the 1950s.  (Photo: Ilse Jurgis)

Growing up in the United States was never easy. Certainly not during the decades following World War II. Not for displaced kids like me, at least, who were born amid foreign invasions and occupations. Whose families were forced to flee their homeland, leaving nearly everything behind. Including loved ones deported and imprisoned in godforsaken gulags. Nor for native-born American kids whose family members had served overseas and returned to a nation that knew almost nothing about armed conflict. Adults seemed all too ready to dismiss our difficulties. Parents responded by telling us how easy we had it compared to them, and healthcare providers responded by offering us platitudes and placebos. While young people these days have it better in these respects, they have also lost one important advantage that most of my generation took for granted: access to safe public places, particularly schools, where they could do dumb-assed kid things and still survive.

I remember the exact day that this started: 1 August 1966. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan and heard that someone had gone on a shooting spree at the University of Texas at AustinCharles Whitman, a former Marine turned engineering student, had murdered his wife and mother and then brought several guns—including semi-automatics—to campus, killing 14 people and wounding 32 others, mainly from the 28th-floor observation deck of The Tower. An intelligent 25-year-old with a history of being abused by his father, Whitman claimed in writings left behind that he did not understand his own behavior and requested an autopsy. The Connally Commission was convened and concluded that a brain tumor “conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions.” A aberration, we were conveniently led to believe.

Almost 52 years have passed since that day. And 19 since carnage occurred at Columbine High School in suburban Denver, where 13 people were shot and killed and 21 others were injured. And about five since 20 children between the ages of six and seven as well as six staff members and the shooter’s mother were slaughtered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. And only six weeks into the start of this year since seven multiple-casualty school shootings have occurred. Including the one last week at a high school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were shot dead and 15 more taken to hospitals. Over those 50 some years, the  frequency and scale of such shootings has increased to such a degree that no one can, in good conscience, call them “aberrations” anymore. They have become so common  in the States—as opposed to anywhere else in the world—that a recent  Los Angeles Times headline read, “Here’s a morbid exercise: Can you keep track of which school shooting was the last before Parkland?”

So common that I needed a reality check. Had our schools ever been as safe as I remember them being back when I was growing up? And, if so, what changed in 1966? Not surprisingly, I had trouble finding definitive data. The federal government does not study gun violence in the States because The National Rifle Association has opposed any measure to fund research on or accounting of America’s gun epidemic. But I did find a list that I could pare down for my purposes. Here it is, with a brief description and number of casualties for each instance:

1 July 22, 1950; New York City, New York. A 16-year-old boy was shot in the wrist and abdomen at the Public School 141 dance during an argument with a former classmate.
1 November 27, 1951; New York City, New York. A 15-year-old student was fatally shot as fellow pupils looked on in a grade school.
1 April 9, 1952; New York City, New York. A 15-year-old boarding-school student shot a dean rather than relinquish pin-up pictures of girls in bathing suits.
1 July 14, 1952; New York City, New York. Bayard Peakes walked into the offices of the American Physical Society at Columbia University and shot and killed secretary Eileen Fahey with a .22 caliber pistol. He was reportedly upset that the APS had rejected a pamphlet he had written.
1 September 3, 1952; Lawrenceville, Illinois. After 25-year-old Georgine Lyon ended her engagement with Charles Petrach, Petrach shot and killed Lyon in a classroom at Lawrenceville High School where she worked as a librarian.
1 October 2, 1953; Chicago, Illinois. Fourteen-year-old Patrick Colletta was shot to death by 14-year-old Bernice Turner in a classroom of Kelly High School in Chicago. It was reported that after Turner refused to date Colletta he handed her the gun and dared her to pull the trigger, telling her that the gun was “only a toy.” A coroner’s jury later ruled that the shooting was an accident.
1 October 8, 1953; New York City, New York. Larry Licitra, 17-year-old student at the Machine and Metal Trades High School, was shot and slightly wounded in the right shoulder in the lobby of the school while inspecting a handmade pistol owned by one of several students.
3 May 15, 1954; Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Putnam Davis Jr. was shot and killed during a fraternity house carnival at the Phi Delta Theta house at the University of North Carolina. William Joyner and Allen Long were shot and wounded during the exchange of gunfire in their fraternity bedroom. The incident took place after an all-night beer party. Long reported to the police that, while the three were drinking beer at 7 AM, Davis started shooting with a gun obtained from the car of a former roommate.
1 January 11, 1955; Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. After some of his dormmates urinated on his mattress, Bob Bechtel, a 20-year-old student at Swarthmore College, returned to his dorm with a shotgun and used it to shoot and kill fellow student Holmes Strozier.
3 May 4, 1956; Prince George’s County, Maryland. Fiftheen-year-old student Billy Prevatte fatally shot one teacher and injured two others at Maryland Park Junior High after he had been reprimanded by the school.
1 October 2, 1957; New York City, New York. A 16-year old student was shot in the leg by a 15-year old classmate at a city high school.
1 March 4, 1958; New York City, New York. A 17-year-old student shot a boy in the Manual Training High School.
1 May 1, 1958; Massapequa, New York. A 15-year-old high school freshman was shot and killed by a classmate in a washroom of the Massapequa High School.
1 September 24, 1959; New York City, New York. Twenty-seven men and boys and an arsenal were seized in the Bronx as police headed off a gang war resulting from the fatal shooting of a teenager at Morris High School.
2 February 2, 1960; Hartford City, Indiana. Principal Leonard Redden shot and killed two teachers with a shotgun at William Reed Elementary School before fleeing into a remote forest, where he committed suicide.
1 June 7, 1960; Blaine, Minnesota. Lester Betts, a 40-year-old mail-carrier, walked into the office of 33-year-old principal Carson Hammond and shot him to death with a 12-gauge shotgun.
2 October 17, 1961; Denver, Colorado. Tennyson Beard, 14, got into an argument with William Hachmeister, 15, at Morey Junior High School, during which Beard pulled out a .38 caliber revolver and shot at Hachmeister, wounding him. A stray bullet struck Deborah Faith Humphrey, 14, who died from her gunshot wound.
23 School gun casualties between the start of 1950 and 1 August 1966 (13 fatalities, 10 non-fatal injuries with suicides excluded)

Best I could tell, more people were killed and injured in the Parkland high school incident alone than in the first 15-some years that I was in school. Many instances occurred in urban areas, with New York City and Chicago being overrepresented. Most resulted in single casualties, frequently non-fatal ones. And none involved the use of assault weapons resembling the ones used by Whitman in 1966. Which is why I believe 1966 can be considered a turning point, not only for me but also for countless students that followed. And for other victims of gun violence, including the troubled young people whose ill-considered acts could have concluded so differently had they not had such easy access to weapons designed for use by our well-trained soldiers.

On a positive note, I came to conclude that Parkland could be a turning point of another sort. Amid the all-too-familiar images of frightened kids collapsing in the arms of relieved parents and tearful teens carrying flickering candles in the dark, some images emerged that I had not seen in any meaningful way since I came of age in the Sixties. Students as angry activists, and for similar reasons. Many of my generation felt betrayed by adults in positions of power and decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. Particularly when it came to life-and-death issues. Back then, young men were forced by law to fight and die in a war that many felt was immoral by a government that many considered corrupt. Through mass protests and other means, they helped bring about (1) the end of the draft and the establishment of an all-volunteer armed forces, (2) the resignation of President Richard Nixon and (3) disengagement from the Vietnam War.

If my generation could effect such far-reaching change, imagine what a generation endowed with a wealth of technological resources could do. Particularly if mine uses these resources to keep reminding everyone that there was a time when classrooms were not killing fields and that, with leadership from today’s students, it could be like that again.


Note: To see what being a teen in the Sixties was like for me, read my short story “Winter Wonderland.” To see why Sandy Hook affected me on a personal level, read my essay “So You Know About Guns?” To learn about upcoming student-led gun control events that you can support, click here. And, if you happen to be a young person, feel free to take what you need from the past. I recommend that you start with “The Port Huron Statement,” written in 1962 by Tom Hayden, a University of Michigan student,


So You Know About Guns?

Melrose Street in Bay Village, a charming neighborhood in Boston, MA.

I moved to Melrose Street in the May of 1983. I was in a PhD program at Boston University and was working in a research laboratory at the Boston Medical Center, so I was delighted to find such a surprisingly lovely and seemingly safe but still affordable—albeit barely—place to live. On my own, no less. I had left my husband, then finally decided to dispense with roommates that I thought I needed to make ends meet.

Apart from the usual hassles, there had been two break-ins at the last place, a striking tri-level apartment on Cortes Street that I shared with two professional women. I was not at home for the first one, later learning that the intruders had gained access by squeezing a small boy through a gap in one of the patio-level grated windows we left for ventilation. Although seriously upset by my losses, I assumed a cavalier attitude, saying, “That’s just the price you pay for city living.” I had, after all, resided in various parts of the Boston metropolitan area for nearly a decade without having even the slightest cause for concern.

I was, alas, the one to discover the second break-in there. When I returned from BU in the early darkness that fell during winter, I saw the lights blazing and a huge hole in the hallway. Having failed to force our solid metal door, the burglars apparently took a crowbar to the adjoining plasterboard. “Come on in, the wall is open,” I quipped to worried neighbors who stopped by. But, privately, I knew that I had to find another place to live, and soon. It was a peculiar area: the elegant old rowhouses on the other side of the street had all been demolished to make way for the Mass Pike, which roared far below.

In similar winter darkness the following year, I returned to Bay Village from the medical center. I stopped at the corner grocery store, where I ran into my upstairs neighbor. Arms full of purchases, we walked to our building and stopped to pick up our mail. Busy locking mailboxes and unlocking the front door, we did not notice a large man approach until he shoved us into the foyer. Out of sight of passersby, he brandished a gun and ordered my neighbor to hand over his wallet and watch. After he, frozen with fear, complied, and the gun touched my ribs, I knew that I had to put some distance between me and both unpredictable men. Without hesitation, I feigned a fainting spell and tumbled down the basement stairs.That allowed my neighbor to run for help and the gunman to get away with only my posh shoulder bag.

I could not sleep that night, knowing that the gunman not only had my checkbook and credit cards but also my keys and identification. The next day, I took care of much of that but still could not sleep. The obvious next step was to get a gun. Which I dismissed, using the same common sense that helped me escape my assailant. I reasoned that even if I had obtained enough training and practice (a big “if,” by the way), there was no way that I could have removed a weapon from my shoulder bag before someone with an already-drawn gun could react. And there was no way, in such tight quarters, that I could have been sure that I would hit the gunman instead of my neighbor. And even if I had hit the gunman, there was no way I would be able to live with the knowledge that I had maimed or killed a human being.  Which meant that there was no way that I could seriously consider buying a gun.

Something else stopped me: much as others expected me to, I did not despise my assailant. You see, there was a housing project about two blocks over. The police had already tied the break-ins to some people living there, and it was likely that he lived in the same place. The project represented the worst of public housing: highly concentrated poverty, with all the predictable sequelae. Which were exacerbated by racial segregation that was so bad that the NAACP finally initiated a class action lawsuit against the Boston Housing Authority in 1988. And management incompetence so bad that the court placed the BHA into receivership from 1979 to 1990. Before the mugging, I gave this little thought, except to note that I thrive on diversity and that proximity to such a project had likely lowered my rent a lot; after the mugging I wondered whether living so close to concentrated affluence might prompt project residents to commit crimes. And whether my family and I, as former displaced persons who had left behind everything that we had, could have ended up in the same situation.

After another attempted break-in, this time in the middle of the night while I was in my apartment, and several months of circumventing a stalker, I gave up and moved into an apartment on the 19th floor of a secure doorman-controlled high-rise overlooking the Boston Common. But still I had no desire to purchase a gun. Even when, while still living on Melrose Street, I accepted a position at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. You see, my unwillingness to arm myself had nothing to do with any unwillingness to support my adopted nation’s Armed Forces. And nothing to do with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which clearly states, “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.” [Italics mine.] You see, the Soviet threat to the security of my own native land, Latvia, is why we had to flee, first to Austria, then to the States.

My area of expertise became the behavioral and medical countermeasures to NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) weapons, which I had a hard time explaining to most until the Gulf War started and the term “weapons of mass destruction” (“WMD”) was popularized. Even harder to explain was that I did not work for war mongers. And that some of the strongest advocates for peace could most reliably be found within the Armed Forces. Because these people—unlike many members of Congress and the Administration—had actual experience with the consequences of the waging war. And using weapons against fellow human beings. In fact, the first compelling external evidence I had that I was right about not wanting to own a gun came from seeing soldiers try to defend themselves in a simulation of ambiguous real-life situations: almost none of what was learned in the controlled environment of a shooting range translated into any effective action.

I was reminded of that simulation several decades later when ABC News broadcast “Proof That Concealed Carry Permit Holders Live in a Dream World” in 2010. By that time, though still very concerned about urban crime—I had moved to the Baltimore area, and the rate there exceeded the national average—I was more  appalled by the madness of the mass shootings that were staring to occur nationwide with a frightening regularity that the rest of the world could not comprehend. Moreover, I was dismayed that, instead of pushing for tighter gun control, the response from all too many private citizens was, as it had been to crime, of wanting to arm themselves. In either case, I could not believe how deluded people who had never felt a gun thrust against their ribs, as I had, or operated under conditions of armed conflict, as many of my colleagues once had, continued to be.

So, on the day after President Barack Obama faced a room filled with parents and relatives of gun violence victims and wiped away tears for the 20 first-graders who perished in the 2014 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the many others in his hometown of Chicago, I had nothing to add about how it finally became necessary to take executive action after it had become abundantly clear that nothing would be forthcoming from Congress. I did, however, have more to say than I could put down here about my strong belief that, even with way more gun control than our president could ever hope to enact, guns will remain a problem for Americans as long as a large number remained clueless about what it takes to effectively use a firearm outside of an artificial environment—a mugging, an active-shooter situation, a terrorist attack or outright war—and still stubbornly insist that they know all that they need to about guns. Perhaps I could at least induce a few of them to watch that ABC video: