As the US Senate prepares to formally take up the gun debate this week, various aspects of gun control versus gun rights are very much on the minds of most Americans in the wake of the December massacre of 20 students and six education caretakers at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As theories on gun violence are spun, the body count daily rises from gun violence and political factions on the right and left dig in their heels for the debate, it may be instructive to the proceedings to hear a perspective from someone who actually survived a shooting-massacre scenario.
Karissa Marcum, a 28-year-old media professional, has lived half of her life with the memory of a fateful April day in 1999 in Littleton, CO when two of her school mates went on a shooting rampage.
On that day, Marcum was a 14-year-old ninth grader in her first year of public school, sitting in the cafeteria at Columbine High School with her elder sister and 480-some-odd others, mostly children, doing what most kids do at lunchtime in school.
The shooting conspirators, however, had earlier that day stashed their cache of weapons on the floor beside two tables near the Marcum girls, unbeknownst to them. The two duffel bags contained a TEC-DC9 assault pistol, Hi-Point 9mm Carbine, Savage 67H pump-action shotgun, and a Savage 311-D 12-gauge shotgun.
With no warning, the usual unintelligible din of a school cafeteria was interrupted by an odd sound from the front of the building, “pop-pop-pop!” There was a hush, then another report, “pop-pop-pop!”
There was a release of panic. Pandemonium erupted and then more “pop-pop-pop-pop!” crackled through the air. Hot metal cut through the flesh of children (and staffers) as hundreds of them screamed and scrambled toward the cafeteria exits—some running into the path of fire, some away from it—while others just froze in their tracks.
Marcum and her sister ran. They ran fast, but her sister fell, “oh no!” Marcum turned back to help her big sister back to her feet as the “pop-pop-pop!” of gunfire closed in.
Both girls managed to run to safety, shaken but uninjured. But by the time the shooting had stopped, 13 others (plus the 2 shooters, by suicide) lay dead and many others were injured.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said National Rifle Association President (NRA) Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre in December at a news conference in Washington, DC.
Marcum recalls there was an armed officer on duty at Columbine, who was quickly joined by a second sheriff’s deputy who was nearby, both of whom fired at one of the shooters, but both failed to stop him.
LaPierre has called on Congress “to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school in this nation.”
“That’s a tough one,” Marcum sighed. “I firmly believe that even if we posted a security guard at every school, grocery store and movie theater, it wouldn’t be a guarantee that a Columbine or Sandy Hook wouldn’t happen,” she continued.
“When someone is bent on destruction, a security guard who is outgunned is likely to be outmatched by a mad man, nine times out of ten…may we see God’s great mercy,” Marcum continued.
A spate of national polling has tracked public opinion on second amendment rights since the roll out earlier this month of President Barack Obama’s plan to stem gun violence in the United States:
A Rasmussen poll found that 65 percent [of Americans] see gun rights as protection against tyranny.
A CNN/Time poll says 55 percent of Americans say gun controls should be tightened.
An ABC/Washington Post poll says 58 percent back an assault weapons ban.
A CBS/New York Times poll says 63 percent support banning high-capacity magazines and 78 percent favor creating a database to track all gun sales in the United States.
A Johns Hopkins survey, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, says about 70 percent support bans on military-style semiautomatic weapons and more than 80 percent back measures restricting guns sales to people with histories of domestic violence or serious juvenile crimes.
Also in the Hopkins poll, 89 percent of all respondents, and 75 percent of those identified as NRA members, support universal background checks for gun sales. It also indicates a majority of NRA members support prohibiting people with recent alcohol or drug charges to buy guns and 70 percent support a mandatory minimum of 2 years in prison for selling guns to persons not legally allowed own them.
"Not only are gun owners and non-gun-owners very much aligned in their support for proposals to strengthen U.S. gun laws, but the majority of NRA members are also in favor of many of these policies," Daniel Webster, co-author of the Hopkins study and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research said in a written statement.
“Frankly, I'm surprised that some of the reforms weren't the norm already,” said Marcum. “For example, the provision that requires background checks for all gun sales, I would have thought that that was a given,” she added.
The Hopkins survey also indicates most Americans favor greater spending on mental health issues which is a plank in the president’s plan intended to curb gun violence.
“I was…happy to hear that proper attention is being paid to the mental health aspect, which is a critical component of these tragedies that we cannot afford to ignore as a nation,” said Marcum.
“One of the things that we've seen is that these mass shooters are often depressed, so, I also hope that more people will reach out to people they know who are depressed or hurting,” said Marcum.
“I don't know if that will prevent another Columbine or a Sandy Hook, but I know it couldn't hurt. I do know that good is the antidote to evil,” she added.
The FBI reports that the most background checks done in periods tracked since 1998 were done in the month of December. Gun sales also reached a record high last month.
Law enforcement officials who met with the president this week tried to steer him toward strengthening gun-purchase background checks and mental health systems, but were split on more controversial gun-control measures, such as bans on assault weapons.
"We're very supportive of the assault weapons ban," as police chiefs, said Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief J. Thomas Manger to The Associated Press. "But I think everybody understands that may be a real tough battle to win,” he added.
Top brass from larger metropolitan areas tended to be supportive of assault-weapons and high-capacity magazine bans, while, more often, small-town and elected sheriffs did not.
"I think what was made clear was that gun control in itself is not the salvation to this issue," said Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald of Story County, Iowa to the York Daily Record.
Reportedly, in that meeting, the president did not specifically ask anyone if they supported banning anything.
Unlike the Columbine, Virginia Tech, Gabby Giffords and the Aurora, CO movie theater shootings, the murder of first-graders and their teachers at Sandy Hook appears to have struck a different sort of national nerve and moved an emotional president to action, including signing 23 executive orders in January and urging the Congress to make new laws.
“I look forward to seeing how Congress handles this issue as advocates of the best interests of the people,” said Marcum.
Debate in the Senate begins on Wednesday.
Marcum has built a good life for herself. Her “story [is still] developing,” she says. She is warm with plenty of life in her eyes. Through it all, she is delightfully comical and upbeat.
“I believe, even after [surviving] Columbine, that there is more good in the world than bad and that evil doesn’t have the ultimate victory over us. Our world is just so broken…but this is not the end, I believe in a heavenly home,” added Marcum.