Relay: Thank You for Not Shooting Me

Must a Sunday service in small-town America be guarded by a trained professional?

The title, a quip from the filmmaker Michael Moore in his 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” came to mind again, this time as the bus rolled past the East Hampton Presbyterian Church late on the morning of New Year’s Eve.

Why? Because of the once incongruous, now sadly normalized scene. Outside the church on snowy Main Street, alongside the worshippers’ many parked cars, stood what looked to be a policeman, clothed in uniform and reflective vest. Must a Sunday service in small-town America be guarded by a trained professional? Was he armed? Was he even a police officer? I was unsure.

One week earlier, on the morning of Christmas Eve, my mother, brother, sister-in-law, nephew, niece, and I crowded into a sedan and drove to a church in southeastern Massachusetts. As we neared, I saw not one but two reflective-vest-clad, uniformed men, directing cars into and out of the church’s parking lot. They were still there when we left. 

The scenes outside the two churches just weeks after 26 were shot and killed during Sunday morning services at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., were disconcerting. On Saturday, I sent an email to my brother, a pastor at the church in Massachusetts. Were they just directing traffic, I asked, or did their presence start after the shooting at the church in Texas, or in response to the countless other mass shootings in recent years?

“They are volunteer parking attendants,” he replied. “They wear the reflective gear for safety.”

“As far as security goes,” he continued, “we have some protocols in place and a trained volunteer team that isn’t in uniform. We wanted to have security due to recent violence against churches and violence in general, but not visible where people would feel nervous because of it. Hopefully something we never need.”

It’s such a routine occurrence now — mass shootings, that is — that what was once ghastly beyond description is now quickly forgotten, or supplanted, in the mind, by the next one. The Mass Shooting Tracker — yes, that is a thing — counted 429 such incidents in 2017, almost 1.2 per day.

A crowd-sourced, unfunded resource, the Mass Shooting Tracker sidesteps the F.B.I.’s definition of mass murder (three or more people killed in a single event). “We believe this does not capture the whole picture,” according to its website. “For instance, in 2012 Travis Steed and others shot 18 people total. Miraculously, he only killed one. Under the incorrect definition used by the media and the F.B.I., that event would not be considered a mass shooting! Arguing that 18 people shot during one event is not a mass shooting is absurd.” Instead, it defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are shot.

How grotesque that such statistics are compiled, and the numbers so very large. But they are, after all, only numbers, staid and clinical, bereft of the horrific impact on sentient beings and the lasting trauma visited on the dead, the wounded, and the countless souls each of them has touched.

The anniversary of a few such statistics occurs each December, as another calendar’s conclusion draws near.

Dec. 14, 2012: 20 children, 6 and 7 years old, and six adults killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. One child suffered a single bullet to the head. Another was shot in the neck. All of the others were shot multiple times by the 20-year-old killer, shortly after he shot his mother four times in the head.

Dec. 8, 1980: John Lennon is shot four times in the back and left arm as he returns to his Manhattan apartment building after a recording session. The aorta ruptured, a lung pierced, bones shattered. As fast as new blood was pumped into his body, in a nearby emergency room, it poured back out.

Now, we can add Dec. 6, 2017. That was the day the House of Representatives passed the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would require all states to recognize any other state’s concealed-carry permit. The bill, co-sponsored by our own congressman, is a top legislative priority of the National Rifle Association, from whose collective hands gushes a never-ending geyser of blood. 

“Something is wrong in this country when a child can grab a gun so easily and shoot a bullet into the middle of a child’s face,” the father of a student murdered at a Littleton, Colo., high school in 1999 said at a rally shortly after that massacre, as depicted in “Bowling for Columbine.” 

Cut to Charlton Heston, still movie-star handsome then at 75, addressing a meeting the N.R.A. convened just days after, and only a few miles from, that incident, in which 13 were killed and 21 wounded. “We have work to do,” he told his brothers in arms. “We may have differences, yes, and we will again suffer tragedy almost beyond description.” He didn’t know the half of it.

That bus, on the morning of New Year’s Eve, rolled all the way to Manhattan, where, thankfully, the murder rate dropped steeply in 2017, unlike in Baltimore or Kansas City. In the late afternoon, aiming to cast off all of 2017’s negativity, I stood at the Mahayana Buddhist Temple and thought of this passage from the Dhammapada. 

“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life.”

“See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”

“He who seeks happiness by hurting those who seek happiness will never find happiness.” 

“For your brother is like you. He wants to be happy. Never harm him and when you leave this life you too will find happiness.”

Christopher Walsh is a senior writer at The Star.