April 12, 2016

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Loaded Gun

My mother was called for jury duty a few months ago. I don't remember the details, but I believe she had been at the courthouse, waiting to be interviewed by lawyers.

"I can't go back," she told me over the phone. "I have a terrible migraine. How am I going to get out of it?"

"Mom," I told her. "You're having post traumatic stress symptoms. Tell them. You shouldn't have to sit on a jury again."

How do you feel about jury duty?
Over twenty years ago, my mother was on the jury for a postal massacre. She had to view photographs of the crime scene. Then the jurors made a visit to the post office in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where a former postal clerk -- after killing his supervisor and the man's girlfriend in their home -- murdered two postal employees before turning himself in to police. (Read a NY Times article, written at the time of the 1991 murders, here.)

I have been thinking about my mother's experience ever since Saturday, when a 19-year-old boy showed up at our local mall with a shotgun in his backpack. He killed two young people at the store where they worked, then killed himself.

I wish I could express -- as a transplant to Howard County, Maryland -- what it is like to live in this community. The central township of our county is Columbia, where the mall shooting took place. Columbia is famous for being a planned community, the vision of developer James Rouse. His commitment to building an ethnically and socio-economically diverse, welcoming suburb was idealistic, but it still acts as a foundation for the place where we live today.

Columbia's "People Tree" sculpture is a symbol
and celebration of community.
Midway between Washington, DC and Baltimore, our area is not without crime. However, public spaces are valued here as a way to maintain Rouse's inclusive vision and small-town feel. We have free open-air movies at the lakefront every summer. Columbia's mailboxes don't stand at the end of individual driveways, but rather in a central group -- encouraging residents to meet and have a daily chat. And then there is the mall. Until now, it was a safe place for families and newly independent teens to meet for a meal or a movie and window shopping.

I was surprised by how deeply Saturday's shooting affected me. We were scheduled to hold the launch reading of Little Patuxent Review's new issue that afternoon -- right around the corner from the mall. My co-publisher gave our event the go ahead. We would celebrate as planned.

I'm glad we did. More than 60 people came to share poetry, fiction, our love of literature and art. We all -- Columbia residents and out of town visitors -- took comfort in gathering as a community just hours after the shooting.

In the last few days, people began to share stories: a friend of mine was shopping for a birthday present at the time of the shooting. She sheltered in place in a jewelry store. On Monday afternoon when the mall reopened, my friend went back to thank the store clerk whom she now knew by name.

For many, like me, the crisis in our town has triggered memories of other violent events: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the DC area sniper shootings in 2002, the postal massacre that still affects my mother.

A member of the non-profit Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America noticed my shooting-related posts on Twitter. (Visit their website.)

I joined the group after reading their response to the Columbia Mall shooting.

During Saturday's reading, I felt that poetry was a light we shared to dispel the darkness. Emily Dickinson's poem "My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun" is not an easy read. It's given me something to think about, though, as I struggle to understand how guns have taken on a life of their own in this country.

The final two stanzas of the poem speak to the issue of gun violence. 

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun (764)

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master’s Head -
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I’m deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -


Margaret Simon said...

I mourn with you as I do every time one of these tragedies happens. A close friend of mine lost her mother to gun violence. When will we realize that while it is the person who pulls the trigger, if there was no gun, there would be no trigger?

Linda B said...

I'm sorry for the loss to your community, Laura, for your sad feelings and for the loss of innocence to your mother. It's never been the same here in the Denver area since Columbine. Many, many fight for stricter gun laws, & I am with them, but I still think that there is such need for better work in mental health, for both adults and children. And, the need for more who will stand up and say 'something is wrong here; we have to do something'. In our recent high school shooting, people have "now" stepped forward saying there were signs that this boy was in crisis, but sadly they said nothing before.