Like a plot lifted right out of Shakespeare's volumes, two daughters were murdered by their own mother who was then killed when she refused to surrender. This isn't Elizabethonian England at the Globe Theater, though. It's 2016 in Fort Bend County, Texas, just outside of Houston. It's an election year and America keeps her fingers on the trigger of the political battle over the rights to own and use guns. Our republican candidate said in front of cameras that his supporters were so loyal he could go outside and shoot someone and they would still support him. Those in attendance cheered wildly.
My feed is bursting with opinions and sound bites twice the normal gun issue volume. The dead are the new face of gun violence and their tragedy more fodder for the fight to increase gun control laws. I don't assume the intent to be disrespect for the family, I think people say stupid things when they're afraid. I know judgements are already being made about their pro-gun position and I know the retort will, again, be, "Guns didn't kill those girls, their mother did."
And it's true. In a way.
I don't know if Taylor and Madison would be alive if the gun hadn't been there. Maybe they would, maybe it's even likely. I know that people don't need guns to kill and often do without them. But I also know that gun violence in American homes isn't rare and I know that in many cases, in this case, there's a decent chance it could have been prevented if hard questions had been asked.
They weren't. The police can't even tell us why they visited the residence on a couple of occasions before June 24th. The most recent reports don't mention prior law enforcement visits at all.
But there is a record of law enforcement visits to this home, much like the repeated visits to my childhood home for domestic disturbances. On one occasion, the police came out when one of my parents called 911 to report that they had, themselves, shot the other parent. I was 10 and so afraid but also relieved because I thought for sure someone would have to do something to help our family. It was a superficial wound, thankfully, but the vestiges of that incident on my psyche are not.
No charges were filed that evening. The gun wasn't confiscated. No further investigation took place. After sleeping somewhere else that night, my one parent took me home and we didn't talk about it beyond them telling me that the other parent was sorry and even cried when they said so.
From our return until the day I moved out, I had to sneak out of my home to get away when one or the other of them was angry and making gun threats, at least three more times. One day I missed school because it wasn't safe to leave my room and my parents assumed I already had, if I crossed their minds at all. Police came from time to time over the years and one of my parents had to take an anger management class at some point, which is laughable because they were equally inept at managing their anger.
Nobody ever questioned their right to own the impressive collection of guns they had, though. No matter how many times their violent and erratic behavior presented, my parents were not held accountable for their actions in any meaningful way at all. I've had to pick one of them up from the city jail for disturbing the peace and public intoxication two times.
In. One. Night.
Let that sink in. Officers arrested the same person two times in a span of five or so hours and both times the belligerent offender was allowed to go home.
People close to our family, and to me, those who absolutely knew of the toxicity and violence in our home, did little more than make bad jokes about how to avoid getting shot at our house. Maybe it was privilege that allowed the violence and chaos to continue in our home without legal consequence, but I'll tell you this, it wasn't a privilege to live there.
I can't know the history of the Sheats family or what details of their story may have been like ours, but I do know that as dangerous as guns are, the most dangerous weapon in their home and family was probably the same weapon most dangerous in mine.
Admittedly, my views on gun control are complex and quite conflicted. I avoid the discussion at times because I don't know where I stand and, obviously, I'm biased. Do I think it's too easy to purchase a firearm? Yes. But, I know that legislature won't do anything for how easy it is to buy them on the streets. Do I think more gun owners ought to lose the right to own them if they display certain types of behaviors or mental health inadequacies? Yes. But, I know that won't keep those people from having them if they want them badly enough. I really don't want to live in a world where only criminals and, sometimes incompetent or corrupt, law enforcement officers have guns.
However, I also don't want to live in a world where defending a person's right to own guns is more important than doing something about someone we know who shouldn't. It makes no sense that, by and large, we have no problem with revoking a driver's license but we come undone at the suggestion that some of us non criminals have no business being trusted with a gun. I can hear the outcry already, "Am I supposed to go raid my neighbors...blah blah. Who gets to decide...yada yada?"
Don't drown me out with bullshit.
I'm talking about the willingness to deal with people being pissed because we start telling the freaking truth. I'm not talking about your Facebook status or what you tweet. I am not taking about gossip or encouraging judgement. I'm talking about the people in our own lives who literally cannot handle the RESPONSIBILITY of keeping their homes minimally safe. I am talking about having uncomfortable conversations about hard things and committing to help people we love, all the way from supporting them in getting help to calling the police ANY TIME YOU ARE AWARE A SITUATION IS NOT SAFE by reasonable, common sense, standards.
I'm talking about refusing to keep secrets and hide OR excuse violent behavior.
Every street in America is vulnerable to violence. We all have neighbors who are a threat to our safety (not to mention their own) whether we know about it or not. It's easy to focus on the neighborhoods and demographics that we associate with crime because crime IS happening there. And let's talk about the code of silence in high crime neighborhoods, can we? Not to mention the code of silence in the upper class communities where crime is ALSO happening. Failure to address danger happens everywhere and we are all guilty.
Our culture encourages this kind of silence and the proof is in the number of children who are easily groomed and abused every single day. Our kids know that snitches get stitches and end up in ditches before they can tie their shoes. We hold school assemblies to counter bullying but later in the classroom teachers shoo 1st graders back to their seats with, "Don't be a tattletale." We perpetuate this toxic mentality well into adulthood and then stand over the dead bodies shaking our heads pretending we had no idea.
This isn't political or about guns or guns laws so much as it is about the reality that we are a nation of people with zero integrity. I know that many of us don't tell the truth about others because then we would have to face the truth about ourselves. Yes, it sucks. It cost me a lot to not allow my parents to subject my own children to their behaviors because I had benefitted from the silence in my own ways. Most of us do. But when my four year old told me my parents promised to teach him how to shoot a gun and then threw his hand over his mouth because he'd remembered he wasn't supposed to tell me, I woke up to the reality that if something happened to him because I was afraid to address it, I was no better than a mother who would murder her own children. That's right, ignoring danger is endorsing danger at the very least.
Who wants to admit that we much prefer blaming victims than admitting we have no control over awful and devastating tragedy sometimes? It's terrifying to realize that some people are alive today because they had the dumb luck to pick September 11, 2001, to call in sick to work. In January of 2013 my father had too much to drink one night and fell down and broke his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic until he died. I know it likely wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been drunk, but I also know that multitudes of people were drunk that same night and a good chunk of them may have even fallen down, but how many of them woke up paralyzed? Yes, sometimes bad things happen and sometimes those things cannot be reasonably anticipated.
But, sometimes they can. Sometimes we can do the hard work of really being involved in the lives of those we love and doing what stronger people are supposed to do: protect those who are incapable of protecting themselves, even from themselves.
Checking in on Facebook isn't going to cut it, either. Some of the most distressed people I've known would never indicate such a thing on Facebook. Christy Sheats didn't. Facebook isn't a private intimate conversation, folks. It's as much being in public as being in Walmart is and nervous breakdowns don't often happen in public. Not even in Walmart.
In fact, forget about your Facebook "friends" altogether. Think about the people you SEE and HEAR on a regular basis. Neighbors, family, church friends, classmates, coworkers, baristas....anyone and everyone you have actual contact with counts. If something seems wrong, be the kind of nosey weirdo who asks about it and gets help. Ask the hard questions and act if need be. In fact, go on ahead and overreact.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, teach your kids not to keep secrets. If your family has a code of silence, break it and go first by confessing your own mess to let them know you mean it. Our kids were raised to know that it's NEVER ok to keep secrets. That means dealing with the fact that kids tend to tell the truth in the most inconvenient situations. It means not telling them to lie for us and believing when they tell us they've been hurt even if it's hard to believe. Almost every day we tell them, "If someone tells you not to tell, that is ALWAYS when you tell."
If our family cannot stand in the face of the messy truth being told then let it fall. No right, nor reputation, nor privacy, nor privilege is worth the nightmare that Jason Sheats will never wake from. I cannot fathom that there isn't anything he wouldn't have done or given up if he knew what he knows now. God have mercy on his mind and let us remember how precocious our safety actually is instead of blaming him to avoid looking at ourselves.
I imagine a good number of people didn't want to believe that something might be very wrong at the Sheats home. I've heard it so many times, we don't want to believe hard things about people we admire. But admiral people do hard ugly things sometimes and sometimes that means they need limits other do not.
Frankly, I don't trust some people with a paper spork. I support passing an exam before being allowed to use Twitter and microphones (I'm talking to you, Kanye). Most of us can think of people we'd like to see any number of petty restrictions imposed upon. Yes, you too, NRA members. Nearly all of Texas once boycotted the Dixie Chicks, remember that? Americans aren't exactly known for good manners and subtly when it comes to our adversaries. It can't continue to be ok to say any ugly thing we want about people we don't agree with while we aren't willing to lovingly address the dangerous shortcomings of those we do.
I pray every day that my merciful and loving God would soften our hard hearts and turn us away from raging against our ideological enemies and instead towards humility and empathy for them. I pray our necks don't have to be broken for that to happen.
I don't know of a tidy way to wrap this up. I think that's because there isn't one. Death isn't tidy, particularly not when it looks like this.
*Disclaimer: I know full well that in using the pronoun "we" I am making a statement that does not reflect every gun owner or non gun owner. I use "we" to mean that, generally speaking, people would rather lie than have to sacrifice what we love, including, but not limited to, our love for the approval of others. If my thoughts do not apply to you, assume that they aren't directed at you.