As Maine inches toward ending another legislative session with little to no progress on the deadly issue of gun violence, even as 12 more people are dead from a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, a student-led movement should be forcing us all to confront our own complicity.
Twenty years after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, students there have started the “My Last Shot” project, a tragic, desperate effort to force all of us to understand the deadly consequences of our national fetish with guns.
Here’s the gist of it: The students are placing stickers on the back of their IDs, urging the media to publish images of their bodies at the time of death if they are gunned down.
They believe that the truth of the images – likely horrific and shocking – would force political leaders and the rest of us to pay attention to the toll gun violence and its threat are having on our children.
Emergency room and trauma doctors have been talking about the devastating impact weapons, such as the AR-15, have on the human body for some time, with spikes after mass shootings. Designed for war, these weapons are designed to kill and maim.
“Americans are shielded from death in general,” Dr. Stephen Lu, a trauma surgeon at the University of New Mexico Hospital, told The Huffington Post, adding that it’s one reason for the lack of compassion and empathy in the gun debate.
The kids of Columbine are hoping to break that shield and bring the country back into reality where our political failure is measured in bodies.
As a reporter and editor for 17 years, there have been many times that I have struggled with the appropriateness of publishing graphic photos, no matter how well they told the story of a tragedy.
The general rule is to err on the side of caution, to take into consideration how the person in the photo and their family would react, and to remind ourselves that our job was not to shock people or scare them, but to give them important information.
I wrote the first draft of this column Friday morning. By the end of the day, I had to update it because there had been a new tragedy. This type of violence doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.
I’m glad I don’t have to make those types of decisions today because I agree with Dr. Lu: Americans are shielded from death, whether it comes in a classroom or a battlefield. And that distance – that safety barrier between us and our political decisions – creates a fake reality where the truth of gun violence is obscured.
We imagine the impact of a high-velocity bullet on the human body through the soft-focus lens of movies and TV shows. We are able to put blinders on to what we are allowing to happen.
According to KUOW reporter David Hyde, the My Last Shot campaign was inspired by the images of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was viciously murdered after he “offended” a white Mississippi woman in 1955. Images of his death were published around the country, changing the nature of the debate about lynchings.
Time Magazine describes the impact of the photo this way: “For almost a century, African Americans were lynched with regularity and impunity. Now, thanks to a mother’s determination to expose the barbarousness of the crime the public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see.”
One expert that Hyde talked to, Sarah Sentilles, said that by demanding the publication of the pictures the students are taking agency at a time when they feel helpless. “They’re forced to go to school and the adults taking care of them can’t guarantee their safety.”
Whether to publish graphic photos of gun violence is a hard question and there are real risk that survivors and the friends and families of victims would be further traumatized. I don’t know the answer. But I do know that when kids feel so threatened at school by the specter of gun violence that they actively prepare for their own deaths, we have failed.
We should not tolerate a world where our children are forced to learn defensive tactics for the school day, to map out the best places to hide in case someone attacks them with a weapon or where we bury young heroes who have traded their lives for the lives of their friends.