I Was Haunted by Kent State Then. It’s Worse Now.

The only thing I could think: "I'm going to be killed in a hail of bullets when I grow up."

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Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway, screams while kneeling over the dead body of Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller in this Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken May 4, 1970. Credit: John Paul Filo.

Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, Sandy Scheuer. The four Kent State University students shot dead by the National Guard on May 4, 1970. By most accounts, all were innocent bystanders, cut down while on their way to class.

I did not look up those names (OK, maybe I did after I typed them to check the spellings), but I didn’t have to. This roll call of the dead Kent State four have been indelibly engraved in my memory since that horrific day. I was only eight years old and terrified that the same fate would befall me when I grew up — that I, too, would be shot dead by the National Guard on my way to class.

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As a child, I was not fully aware of the circumstances that led to the bloody attack on unarmed students: how the shooting was the culmination of four days of protests and rioting and the burning of the local ROTC building by students against the escalating US involvement in the Vietnam War; how the mayor of Kent, Ohio, LeRoy Satrom, frustrated by his inability to contain the “situation,” contacted Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, who called in the National Guard; how many members of the National Guard claimed that they were afraid for their lives; how no one, to this day, knows exactly who gave the order for the guardsmen to shoot and whether they did it of their own volition. In the end, it didn’t matter. The only thing I could think was: I’m going to be killed in a hail of bullets when I grow up.

Gun control laws are a joke.

I don’t remember if it was the black-and-white newspaper photos of the four fresh-faced Kent State victims that deeply affected me the most or the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by John Filo of 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio screaming as she knelt over Miller’s dead body. It was probably a combination of the two, compounded by the vivid Life magazine pictorial on the shootings and their aftermath.

In college, and as I got older, my fears of being shot dead dissipated. I reassured myself that what happened at Kent State was an aberrant occurrence. It would never happen again. (I didn’t think much about the 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas — just another anomaly.)

Why do I bring up this tragic blemish on US history? For the last 15 to 20 years, we have had an epidemic of shootings in our country. It’s so commonplace that we are desensitized to its frequency. Whether it’s in a classroom or on a campus, in a workplace or church or directed at an open-air crowd from a Las Vegas hotel room, a few times a month, at least, we hear of yet another incident, more carnage. A crazed gunman (always male — never female) is driven by vengeance, insanity, God knows what. Who cares what the motive was. The outcome is always the same.

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How many innocent civilians have been murdered randomly by gun-wielding lunatics during the last 15 to 20 years? Plenty of websites give us the statistics. And, after each episode of a mass shooting, we hear the same nauseating platitudes from our politicians:

The people of [fill in name of town or venue] have our prayers.

Prayers? The real solution would be enacting stringent gun control laws that keep firearms away from the mentally ill.

But thanks to the Second Amendment, which enshrines the right to bear arms, guns will probably never be outlawed in the US. Guns and gun ownership is too deeply ingrained in the fabric of American society for the Second Amendment to be repealed. Grudgingly, I accept this, though I’m pretty sure that when our forefathers drafted the Second Amendment, it was meant to give the citizenry the right to defend themselves from hostile invaders not as a pretext for Americans to declare open warfare on each other.

The real culprit is the NRA.

Yes, I do know quite a few people who own guns for various reasons. I understand why they do and I don’t feel uncomfortable with them. They’re not insane, trigger-happy maniacs. But the gun control laws in our country are a joke — and they have made us the laughing stock of the world, which rightfully cannot understand the scope and breadth of our fixation.

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The real culprit behind these unending shootings is neither the Second Amendment nor law-abiding gun owners, of course — we know perfectly well it’s the National Rifle Association. It’s the most powerful lobby in the country. It has literally bought legions of Republican lawmakers to do their bidding. No matter how many people get shot at a mall, at a school or even if it’s members of Congress being shot (Democrat Gabby Giffords, Republican Steve Scalise), gun control legislation will never be passed so long as the NRA plies politicians with millions of their dollars in donations.

To underscore the frightening ubiquity of these constant shootings, I recently finished taking a 20-minute active shooter on site virtual training program. It was ordered as a requirement by my company. The training focused on educating workers on how to conduct themselves when an armed assailant is on the premises, shooting the place and everyone in it to ribbons. Not too long ago, we had fire drills. Now it’s come to this. It’s sickening.

I’m off to the Dollar Store. I hope I don’t get cut down by a crazed gunman while I’m at the register. Pray for me. On second thought, the heck with that. Maybe it’s time for me to buy a bulletproof vest.