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The Quinnipiac Chronicle

The Student News Site of Quinnipiac University

The Quinnipiac Chronicle

A Sandy Hook survivor’s perspective on redefining gun violence

Peyton McKenzie
The Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial in Newtown, Connecticut, honors the 20 children and six educators who were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.

On Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza entered my school, Sandy Hook Elementary, with an AR-15. As the shots erupted, I sat in a closet, knees to my chest. I watched in silence as my classmates wrote goodbye letters to their parents. They did not know my mother was a substitute teacher just down the hall.

Everyone thinks, “that’s not going to happen to me.” Until it does.

Gun control is paramount to keep our communities safe, but bans on assault weapons aren’t enough. The way we define gun violence, collect data on particular incidents and publicize shootings in the media distort reality.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the U.S. defined “mass killing” as “3 or more killings in a single incident” via the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012.

Additionally, the FBI defines an active shooter as “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” Further, the FBI says that “implicit in this definition is the shooter’s use of a firearm.”

There are problems with these definitions. There is no information on the weapons used, the number of perpetrators or how the location of the shooting — occurring in a school, for example — impacts its categorization.

The FBI’s definition of mass murder, which accounts for four or more murders in one event with close geographic proximity, isn’t specific enough either. In this definition, there is no place to account for those wounded.

For effective legislation to combat mass shootings, and school shootings specifically, we need terminology that is inclusive and representative. When there is a consensus on what is a mass shooting, data can then be collected and used to form policy.

Platforms such as the Gun Violence Archive catalog data on gun violence. At first glance, the numbers are overwhelming, with multiple incidents happening every day. The archive records instances of children bringing guns into school, gang violence, domestic violence and psychological crises.

If any of these situations are located near a school, it’s categorized as a “school shooting.” The media directs our attention to the idea of a school shooting, glossing over other devastating — but different — occurrences of gun violence.

According to Brady, 327 people are shot every day and 117 of those people die. In 2021, 54% of those deaths were suicides and 43% were murders, reported Pew Research Center.

Gun violence can take on many forms. When collected as data reflecting a generic number, we view them uniformly.

To address suicide, healthcare services — like social services or therapy — need to be provided at an earlier age, starting in schools.

When discussing gun violence motivated by white supremacy, we need to have a system that holds leaders accountable for fueling polarizing and hateful messages. We need to amend programs and institutions — like policing — that perpetuate and continue to prioritize whiteness.

To address school shootings, schools need more practice with lockdown drills. We were prepared at Sandy Hook because our administrators knew what to do, but that did not stop the shooting.

All of these instances of gun violence are horrific and real, but they require different efforts and a common way of organizing what they are. Shootings are not all the same, but we treat them the same through data and media because gun violence is sensationalized and misunderstood.

The most recent example of this sensationalization was an April 2 shooting in Finland. A 12-year-old boy opening fire and killing a classmate is different from what happened at Sandy Hook based on who the shooters are and their intentions, yet both were covered the same way.

These two shootings require different approaches, but that does not detract from the simple truth that these incidents are both horrifying and heartbreaking.

Media has a fascination with gun violence because it attracts an audience. When a viewer sees “mass shooting” on the television, they’re drawn to it. Once they hear the basics — death toll, who the shooter is and where it happened — they move on.

Before Sandy Hook, I watched accounts of school shootings on the news. My first memories include watching the aftermath of both the massacres Virginia Tech University in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008. I felt disheartened, but I moved on.

Once I was involved, my experience with gun violence changed, and now I can’t move on.

When I hear about school shootings now, I notice the attention to the heinous details and the egregious shooter. I see pictures of people crying, holding on tight to their children. I’m brought back to where I was, being photographed while I was held by my mother that day.

The media does not do justice to the lasting impression of gun violence on families and communities.

Reporters want to please their employers and they want a good story. This leads to uncomplicated accounts that give the perpetrators what they want: attention.

Reporting on school shootings also enhances public perception, leading people to believe they happen more than they actually do. My experience is the least common, yet the most publicized. Reporters should be conscious of how they portray these events while prioritizing the needs of those affected.

Publicity on mass shootings is designed to raise emotions like fear, anger and frustration. Sensationalist accounts of violence do not center victims in a meaningful way, nor do they create a pathway for change.

Change begins with common definitions, attention to data and unique, proactive solutions so that our leaders can understand the severity of gun violence in all of its forms.

I get the fascination. People are intrigued and they desperately want to understand. I, as a survivor, don’t want you to understand. I want change more than I want your sympathy.

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Peyton McKenzie
Peyton McKenzie, Creative Director

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