Is it dangerous to lionize the heroes of school shootings?
There was another mass shooting this week, on Tuesday, at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado. Eight people were wounded at the K-12 public charter school, and 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo was killed while lunging for one of the shooters. He saved lives, said classmate Brendan Bialy, who was able to pin the gunman. "Kendrick Castillo died a legend," Bialy said. "I know he will be with me for the rest of my life."
Exactly a week earlier, a 21-year-old senior at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte named Riley Howell charged at a gunman in his class, taking two bullets before a third shot to the head killed him. He still managed to tackle the gunman, and he saved lives. He was one of two people who died in that shooting.
Howell was given a hero's burial. Castillo is being lauded by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, USA Today, The Denver Post, and other news organizations and TV networks. These students are heroes. They sacrificed their lives to save others, and they deserve these accolades. But they deserved so much more — they deserved to live. By lionizing them, might we be encouraging our nation's young students to engage in unnecessary and unfair heroics?
As we have learned in the 53 years since a lone gunman took 17 lives from atop the University of Texas tower, there is a blurry line between shining a klieg light on mass shootings and inadvertently encouraging them. Just last month, police said an 18-year-old woman from Miami was planning an homage shooting at Columbine High School — eight miles from STEM School Highlands Ranch — because she was "infatuated" with the two students who had murdered 13 fellow students and a teacher there 20 years earlier.
Indeed, in recent years, law enforcement has started taking the position that we shouldn't use the names of the mass shooters, the murderers, in order to deprive them of the infamy some of them seem to crave. We don't want to create anti-heroes. But I also think we need to tread carefully with regard to how we speak about the young heroes who emerge from these terrible events. Castillo and Howell were following the new advice for school shootings: Run, hide, fight. But "fight" is last on purpose: It is not the job of our students to confront people with guns and murderous intent. They are not trained for that. They shouldn't be trained for that. They are children in 21st-century America.
If we're going to be honest, the problem is guns. It has always been guns. Most people in America recognize this and many countries outside the U.S. actually do something about it. As Nicholas Kristoff writes at The New York Times, "when New Zealand experienced a mass shooting in March, it took the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern just 26 days to tighten gun laws and ban assault rifles." Australia did something similar in 1996. Many developed countries have always had stricter gun laws. Kristoff gives some statistics for the U.S.:
Since 1970, 1.45 million Americans have died from guns — suicides, murders, and accidents. That's more than the 1.4 million Americans estimated to have died in all the wars in American history going back to the American Revolution.
This should also make us all cringe: In a typical year, more American children ages 4 and younger die from firearms (110 in 2016) than police officers do in the line of duty (65 in 2016).
Every day in 2017, the last year for which we have figures, an average of 107 people died in America from guns. We're not able to avert every shooting, but we can save some lives. We need not have the courage of the students who charged gunmen; we just need to demand action from our members of Congress and state legislators. [Nicholas Kristoff, The New York Times]
The NRA, that great bulwark against new gun legislation, has a point that guns can't shoot by themselves. But it is much easier to regulate guns than regulate people. Locking up illegal weapons is simpler, cheaper, and safer than incarcerating people. Few would mourn a melted-down AR-15 that has been modified to shoot faster than legally allowed. But even an inmate executed after he — and it's almost always a "he" — already murdered several people, even he had a mother and father, or someone who cared at some point, before and maybe after the killings.
"Riley was deservedly given a hero's funeral, and presumably the same will happen with Kendrick," Kristoff writes. "But their parents didn't want martyrs; they wanted children and grandchildren. And it is appalling that we as a society have abandoned American kids so that they must die to save their classmates."
Nate Holley, 12, was also in class at STEM School Highlands Ranch as the shooters roamed the halls on Tuesday. His dad said this was the third time the school was locked down during Holley's time there. In a heart-wrenching interview, the sixth-grader told CNN's Brooke Baldwin on Wednesday: "I had my hand on a metal baseball bat just in case, 'cause I was gonna go down fighting if I was gonna go down."
We need heroes, we need people to look up to, to remind us we have better angels. But we don't need them to be 12-year-old boys clutching metal baseball bats, planning to "go down fighting."