By Dan Bryant
The newspaper said that I choked back tears as I addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Another said I “broke down.” In truth, the tears came later.
It rarely is a good thing when you see your hometown in the news in a foreign country. I was invited to serve as an international delegate to the Scottish assembly, one of two from the U.S. and about 60 from various parts of the world. Sure, it meant five days of church meetings, but who could turn down a chance for an expense-paid trip to Scotland? And so it was that my spouse and I found ourselves sitting in an Edinburgh café in March of 1998 when I noticed “Springfield, Oregon” flashing on the TV screen high above the tables.
We watched in horror as the story of the shooting at Thurston High School unfolded before our eyes. Our first reaction was to rush to our bed and breakfast and call home to check on our children under the care of my mother. Though only in grade school and in Eugene, not Springfield, we still had this immediate need to hear their voices and to assure ourselves all was well with them. It was either that or take the next plane home.
That night was a restless one. I feared for the safety not only of our children, but every child for whom school should be a place of safety and learning, not a place of terror and violence. When we arrived at the assembly hall the next morning, the hall that would be taken over the following year by the newly formed Scottish Parliament (meeting for the first time since 1707), I passed a note to the assembly moderator asking for a point of privilege.
I didn’t save my hastily written notes and hardly remember what I said to the thousand delegates gathered that morning. Unbeknownst to me, there was a press room full of reporters furiously taking notes. Turns out the Church of Scotland has a sizable following in the media and connecting the Thurston shooting to the Scottish church was prime news.
“When I was preparing to come to Scotland, one of my congregants who had recently visited related the bloody Scottish history,” I evidently said. “The irony is I found this country to be very peaceful and loving — it’s my own home that is filled with blood.” And then I made my appeal connecting time and place: “I ask you not to let this tragedy affect your homeland. As you acquire new powers through your Parliament, I pray that you use these powers to keep your children safe.”
After a grilling by the Scottish press on gun culture in the U.S., a delegate from the Scottish Churches House (SCH) in Dunblane found me and invited us to visit. As it turned out, we already had it on our itinerary, though for an entirely different reason. My mentor in seminary, and member of the Eugene church where I was a pastor at the time, insisted that we visit Dunblane because of the ecumenical work being done there. We learned from the warden at SCH that their most important work of late was of an entirely different nature.
Two years earlier, a man with four handguns and 743 rounds of ammunition walked into the primary school of Dunblane and massacred 16 children, ages 5 and 6, and their teacher. For the next two years, the families of those lost children gathered at SCH to process their grief, find what healing they could, and work for change in British law.
And change the law they did. Handguns became mostly illegal in Great Britain as a result.
We spoke with one of those parents, Charlie Clydesdale, whose five year old was one of the victims. Mr. Clydesdale, with a Scottish accent so thick I had to listen hard to understand him, offered to come to the U.S. to “talk some sense” into our politicians. Those politicians have not listened to the parents of American children, so I doubt they would have listened to Charlie, but God bless him for wanting to try.
As a result of the ban on handguns, the number of gun deaths in Great Britain has dropped from 0.42 per 100,000 in 1996 to 0.17 per 100,000 two decades later. In the U.S. it is just under 4 per 100,000 — more than 20 times higher.
A year after Thurston, another school shooting drew even greater outrage and calls for action: Columbine. Since then, there have been 16 mass shootings in U.S. schools with four or more deaths, a total of 178 students and their teachers killed on school grounds. Most telling, out of the 28 such massacres that have occurred in the U.S., all of those with 10 or more deaths have occurred since Columbine with the exception of the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966.
Perhaps the most troubling statistic I have heard of late is that somewhere between 4 and 8 million children have been subjected to lockdowns in their schools due to an active shooter. Ponder for a moment the impact that has on our children. How is it that the right to buy any gun I choose became a higher priority in this country than the lives and safety of our children?
Perhaps, writes Thomas P. Crocker, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, we have reversed the meaning of the Second Amendment, placing the second clause, “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” above the first clause: “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State.”
If guns enhance security, why is it that this country with more guns per capita than just about any nation of the world lacks security for its most vulnerable and innocent citizens?
Crocker argues in a recent edition of The Atlantic that the Second Amendment requires the opposite of our current practice, namely that “It empowers a free people to regulate weapons as necessary to maintain their security and to protect their freedoms from fear and violence.”
Indeed, what we have today is the opposite of a “well regulated Militia,” contrary to the Second Amendment. If we are not going to ban certain weapons, the very least we can do — indeed that we are required by the Constitution to do — is to regulate them. If not for the sake of the Constitution and our free state, then please, for the sake of our children.
On our way out of Dunblane, we stopped by the cemetery on the north side of town. A sign at the entrance requested no photographs as a show of respect, and so I took none. We walked silently past the 16 grave markers, many with pictures of a happy child, a teddy bear and other cherished items. Each also with a name, date of birth and the same date of death, and a verse or saying of some kind, all arranged neatly in two semi-circles, as if for class. At one end is a stone under which lies Gwen Mayor, their teacher, lying for all eternity with her young pupils. It reads, “Died 13th March 1996, protecting the children in her care.”
It was there that I sat down and wept.
Dan Bryant is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a resident of Eugene since 1991.The opinions of this article are his own and do not represent any organization with which he is affiliated.