A National School Walkout Day is planned for March 14, 2018 at 10 a.m. and will last 17 minutes in honor of the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. The heart of the nation has seemed to shift overnight regarding the debate on guns, but this change has been almost two decades in the making. United and Delta Airlines pulled their support for the NRA, Dicks’ Sporting Goods will not sell assault-style weapons, and Walmart plans to raise the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21 years old.
I am a pediatrician. I treated the Columbine kids.
I have sat on the sidelines for far too long. I watched from a front row seat as frightened, grieving children who survived the shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 struggled to put their lives back together. My pediatric internship began June 23, 1999, at the Children’s Hospital in Denver, Colorado, approximately 20 miles north of Columbine High School. Up until that time, a mass shooting inside the walls of a high school had been almost unimaginable. Many students who had survived by hiding under a desk in the library that tragic day crossed my path over the next three years.
As a physician I am bound by strict patient confidentiality laws. For that reason and out of respect for the survivors, I cannot tell you their names. I cannot tell you the stories they told me. Or the awful things I read in their charts. I will let your imagination fill in the blanks.
I can only leave you to guess at what they saw and the nightmares that haunted them. In reality, every student and teacher inside Columbine High School was irreparably damaged forever; they lost a huge part of themselves on that heartbreaking day.
Why has so little changed in almost 20 years since Columbine?
I don’t know. Why has so little changed since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook where 20 children and 6 adults were gunned down in cold blood? I cannot understand. Why has the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida galvanized the nation? Because now, it is our innocent children leading the fight for meaningful change.
I do know the brave teenagers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have inspired me. And left me feeling a little ashamed. Could I or somebody like me have done something?
Were there warning signs that were ignored? A referral to a mental health provider? Or a quick call the local police station? Shouldn’t there be a little checkbox or something in my EHR to send a clever automated warning to somebody somewhere who could do something?
I know there are many like me. As a physician, guns are a topic I know I am not supposed to talk about with patients. Why? Again, I’m not really sure. It wasn’t always this way. Doctors talked about guns in the same way they talked everything else. But at some point, thanks to the lobbying of powerful interest groups in Washington, things changed. It became politically unacceptable to talk about gun safety, just like it became politically unacceptable to talk to patients about their weight, their bad personal choices or other difficult subjects.
As a pediatrician, I have spent over two decades acquiring knowledge on adolescent growth and development. I studied children’s bodies, the diseases that afflict them and strange and wonderful changes they go through as they transform magically from little people into grown adults. I do not have the heart to give you a detailed clinical description of the damage a projectile fired from a military class assault weapon like the AR-15, the weapon used at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, does to the body of a child or the exit wound it leaves on the way out. Again, I will leave it to your imagination. Trust me, once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” These are the immortal words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, who was executed for his anti-Nazi beliefs in 1945. Unspeakable damage is being done to our children and it is time we, as parents, teachers, administrators, and community members stand with them.
At Columbine High School, it took only six minutes to kill 10 and wound 12. At Sandy Hook Elementary, it took a mere five minutes to kill 26 and wound 2. At Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, it took just 7 minutes to kill 17 and wound 14.
These statistics are sobering. What will they look next time?
While there are no easy solutions, I support the efforts of every student participating in National Walkout Day as they endeavor to bring much-needed attention to gun violence inside our schools. Our children are actively engaging in a form of civil disobedience for likely the first time in their lives about a critical safety issue they face every day. Young people are depending on the courage of the nation and our lawmakers to do what is right, which includes enacting bipartisan common-sense gun safety regulations that could literally save their lives. Please join this generation of motivated students from Parkland, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and many other schools across the country to support their efforts, on March 14, National School Walkout Day. While I may not agree with every idea or proposal of these young people, I respect them, I salute them and I validate their strong stand against what they see as injustice.
Niran Al Agba is a pediatrician practicing in Washington State.