Raising kids in America always means fearing they’ll be shot

WWhen my daughter was a newborn, I read an essay about a toddler who died after a loose brick from a building fell on her head. Devastatingly arbitrary, impossible to parse for meaning. i added loose brick to the litany of ways my baby could die.

The list kept getting bigger. As I bathed with her at night while she nursed at my breast, I imagined us drifting off to sleep, both of us slipping away in the warmth. As I swaddled her and laid her on her back in her crib, I imagined her hummingbird heart stopping between one breath and the next. When my husband or I strapped her into the car seat, I imagined having a T-bonk at an intersection. Hit by a drunk driver. Hit by an 18-wheeler on the highway. I imagined the car seat sailing out of reach of my crushed fingers.

I now know that these are called intrusive thoughts and that I was probably suffering from undiagnosed postpartum anxiety. I believe this because I haven’t experienced it with my second child, although he was born in the first year of the pandemic and heightened anxiety was arguably more warranted. At the time, however, I thought that this terror – hidden behind euphoric new love and relentless daily care – was simply what it meant to be a mother, driven by instinct and desire to protect vulnerable offspring from a world where a loose stone, thoughtless, unfeeling, could just fall.

Read more: Ralph Yarl, Kaylin Gillis and the Consequences of American Fearmongering

And somehow I was right. Loving a child and then entrusting them to the world little by little – letting them climb a park structure alone, send them to school, take a night trip –is bittersweet terror, always. Now more than ever.

In 2020, weapons became the leading cause of death for children and teens in the US

Notifications flood my phone: teens and young adults injured or killed for ringing the wrong door, pulling over at the wrong house, getting into the wrong car, and standing in the bullpen at a baseball game. Teens killed or injured in mass shootings at parks and parties celebrating prom and Sweet 16. Five members of a family, including a 9-year-old boy, were slaughtered in their own home by a neighbor who they asked to stop shooting in his yard because their newborn was trying to sleep. Five calls to the police, but no help came. Then the neighbor reloaded. He ran to their home, where the man told his wife to enter. “He won’t shoot me, I’m a woman,” she said. She was the first to die. Two other women were found dead on top of her baby and the 2-year-old they were protecting. The children, alive, covered in the blood of the women.

All this in the last month.

As I was writing this essay this weekend, I wondered what would surpass this horror in our collective memory. What would make us forget the young boy who picked up his twin brothers, the cheerleader, the 9-year-old, the weight and heat and blood of three women whose last actions were to put their bodies between a bullet and the children they kept?

Read more: A new gun law could make families less safe

I was shopping for a kid’s birthday present at Target when my husband texted: His brother had called from Australia, where my husband is from, to ask if we were okay. My husband said yes; Why? My brother-in-law, somehow before we did, had heard of the massacre at Allen Premium Outlets, which left nine dead, including the gunman, and injured seven others, including children as young as 5 – the same age as ours. daughter. My brother-in-law remembered an outlet mall we once took him to. He couldn’t remember the name of the town. It could have been there, he thought. It could have been us.

It’s not the first time our Australian family has called, almost delirious, afraid that one or all of us had been shot. They called last month when they learned that a Texas family had been executed by their neighbor. They called last year when they heard that a gunman killed 19 children and 2 teachers at an elementary school near San Antonio, where we live. This was Robb Elementary in Uvalde, where three friends of a friend lost their 9-year-old daughters. How? they ask. How can this keep happening? How can we keep letting it go?

An estimated 1.6 million firearms were sold in Texas by 2021, more than anywhere else in the country. Gun laws continue to be relaxed and gun deaths continue to rise. According to the CDC, the gun death rate in Texas per capita was 15.6 per 100,000 residents in 2021, compared to 10.7 in 2014. That year, more Texans were killed by guns than in car accidents. And we’re not even close to the deadliest state in the nation for gun deaths — that’s Mississippi, at 33.9 per 100,000. (Massachusetts is the lowest at 3.4.) According to the Pew Research Center, 48,830 people died from gun violence in the US in 2021, more than any other year on record. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 14,711 people have been killed by gun violence in the US so far this year, with 202 mass shootings and counting.

An incomplete list from where I imagined my children would be shot:

  • Their classrooms, bodies spread out on foam mats under laminated ducks with handprints
  • Target, where I always remind myself of entrances and exits, the aisle of laundry baskets where I could hide them
  • A restaurant, where I imagine we could tip a table, use it as a shield, but so many tables are fixed, and if wood could protect us, people wouldn’t get shot through doors
  • A movie theater, the kind my parents took us to every week as kids, one of our favorite family outings, but where do I think now: sitting ducks
  • Parades, which we’re not going to anyway, so maybe I can cross this one off the list for now
  • Later: prom, parties, bars, university, office buildings, banks, hospitals, convenience stores, wherever people gather in the course of their beautiful, ordinary lives

Are these intrusive thoughts? Or are they just thoughts, fearful but reasonable, given that we live in America?

The night of the Shooting Allen Premium Outlets, I comb Twitter for updates. Videos are circulating. One, from the dash cam of a car exiting the parking lot, shows the gunman emerging from a silver sedan and opening fire. A jacked up pickup rolls out of its parking bay and swerves away. The comments are ablaze with people saying the driver should have turned to the gunman and mowed him down. Everyone thinks they would be a hero in this situation.

Another video, graphic. I know what I’m about to see, but I watch anyway. I do not know why. Maybe to testify. That feels important. When my husband enters the bedroom, I tell him that I watched the video. “Oh, honey,” he says. “Oh no. Everyone on Reddit says to avoid Twitter. I wanted to tell you – there’s a kid – have you seen the kid? I nod and he holds me while I sob.

People pray at a memorial next to the Allen Premium Outlets in Allen, Texas on May 7, 2023.

Joe Raedle—Getty Images

The next morning, I’m taking our kids to a birthday party. A huge indoor playground, their faces wild with joy. They spin on foam teacups, jump on trampolines, scramble through net tunnels, fly down a slide. I smile and wave, helping my toddler when he needs it, giving him space when he doesn’t.

There is always a tension between what we know about the world and what our children know. My children don’t know our worries – no, our fear. They know school and birthday parties and picking flowers and “Can I have a toy?” They know nothing about guns, not really. They don’t know that people kill each other. They don’t know that adults kill children. Little does my daughter know that in three years, when she is in third grade, a Texas bill would require her to learn to use hemorrhage control stations to stop a hemorrhage during school shootings. (Currently state law only—“only”—requires seventh graders and above to know how to use these stations.)

Read more: “We won’t let these babies forget.” Close-knit Uvalde community mourns after primary school shooting

At the party, our children play and we mothers talk. One of them tells us about the new bulletproof glass installed at her child’s school. Another says her children have never been to a mall. Most of us grew up in homes with guns. Most of our husbands have guns. We don’t feel safe. None of us feel safe. None of us feel free. We numb ourselves, stop watching the news, draw our boundaries in the sand and make our concessions to normalcy, and we pretend that every step in a public space in America isn’t a leap of faith.

After the party, when the kids are full of cake and ice cream and my toddler is napping, I look for updates on the Allen shooting. There is an interview with a witness who was with the victims before the first responders. He describes seeing a girl – not a woman, a girl – squatting, covering her head in the bushes. He felt for a pulse, turned her around and ‘she had no face’. He describes how he found a child under the body of his dead mother, whose blood drenched him from head to toe. I can’t believe this is the second time in nine days I’ve read this description.

Sometimes I wonder what wars we are fighting should not wages if another country murdered nearly 50,000 Americans every year. But the bloodshed comes from within our borders, so we allow it. We are a snake eating its own tail. We unlock our jaw and open wide.

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