When I was a little girl, my mother and I prayed together every night:
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
And then I would ask God to bless a list of people who were on my mind.
Every night I spoke about my own death, but death was not real. It never occurred to me that I would die or that my parents would die.
One day when I was in the fifth grade, we heard gun shots outside our school. Our teachers did not let us go outside for recess that day because a woman had been killed, caught in the crossfire of a domestic dispute between her son and his wife. By the time school was out, the body had been removed; there was no yellow crime scene tape. There was still blood on the ground to mark the spot of this tragic death. The next day it would be washed away.
That night I said my prayers as usual, but I had a hard time sleeping. My mother stayed with me until I fell asleep. I was not afraid that I would die, that the Lord would take my soul during the night. It was a moment when the reality of my parents’ mortality became real.
The next few days when my friends and I walked past the place where the woman died, I felt a strange sensation. I did not have words to describe my feelings then, and I barely have them now. There seemed to be a mysterious energy living on the concrete and in the air. A presence. A holiness. But, with every passing day the sensation was less. The ordinariness of books and boys and bands erased the holiness, the sanctification of the place. The laughter of my little girl life replaced the presence of death.
Time passed. The night I graduated from high school, my mother cried. When I asked her why she was in tears, she told me that this graduating group would never be together again. She was right. The next day one of my classmates was shot to death.
I am now an adult, and I still remember how that death in broad daylight made me feel. I imagine it is worse for the children of the Sandy Hook School because death from gun violence came into their school and took their friends. It must be worse for children who hear gun shots in the night every night.
If I ruled the world, I would outlaw guns. Every last one. But, I do not rule the world, so my compromise position is to outlaw semi-automatic assault type weapons and high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 shots, require background checks for all gun purchases, restrict the number of guns per purchase and the frequency of purchases, require mandatory gun training and proof of gun proficiency before a person can legally own a firearm, and require registration of all firearms.
My first encounter with violent death as a child showed me that we are all powerless in the face of death. Children feel especially powerless. Yet, they are still citizens who are paying attention. I applaud the parents who give their children a voice in the public discourse by allowing them to write letters to the president and to their congress members. They have the power to help change our laws and our attitudes toward guns.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She is author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love and the Public Conversation. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.