What I learned from living through the unthinkable

When I was in college decades ago, I found myself feeling a similar mix of grief, shame and disbelief.

Of the dozens and dozens of press releases that enter my inbox each week, this one was different.

It was from a lawyer representing the family of the 19-year-old who opened fire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on July 28, killing a young boy, a girl about to turn 14 and a 25-year-old man.

In a statement the family apologized and shared their grief. “We are heartbroken that he committed this violence in his hometown, at a family event meant to celebrate the tight knit community we have been a part of for twenty years,” it read. “Our son is gone, and we will forever have unanswered questions as to how or why any of this has happened.”

When I was in college decades ago, I found myself feeling a similar mix of grief, shame and disbelief. A 21-year-old close, hometown friend had just shot two of my friends to death. One of them was not much older than the 13-year-old girl who lost her life in Gilroy.

Several hours later, he too, was found dead, having killed himself with a kitchen paring knife.

Even now, decades later, I can call up the profound sadness, shame and paranoia that followed: if this could happen to my friends in our sleepy New England suburb, it could happen to me, to anyone. Even now as I try to fathom his motives, when I say them out loud, they make no sense.

I knew my friend had issues, and even sought psychiatric help at the urging of another friend. I never imagined that he would actually kill his own friends.

He came from a family wealthier than my blue collar one, he charmed the high school teachers who scolded him for parking his purple Jeep in the staff parking, and his family’s summer house was where we all went to celebrate after the prom.

But he had a dark side, and he had a gun.

And after the killings – which technically do not qualify as one of the mass shootings that have since become ubiquitous in America – some people used a broad brush to demonize anyone associated with the shooter.

Still, his funeral was standing room only. Those who loved him still loved him even after all the bodies were buried. His gravestone reads “Beloved Son.” We were angry at him, and at ourselves as we played the questions over and over again. Why did he do it? What more could we have done to stop it?

Following the recent mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton, I see our nation once again asking similar questions, but now the list of possible explanations for such tragedies is even longer: There are guns, of course.

But add racist rhetoric, gamification of mass shootings, a lack of mental health care, normalizing of violence, and the growing list makes it even more overwhelming to sort out. And, at a time when every question becomes a divisive debate in which there is no capacity or will to hold two opposite thoughts simultaneously, we are pretty lousy at finding solutions.

In a column written by Sally Stephens today, she explains that the killers in mass shootings, have commonalities, according to research by the Violence Project, which has created a database of every mass shooting in America since 1966.

Most of the killers – nearly 80 percent — were suicidal. Nearly all were male.

Beforehand, these shooters studied other shootings, noting what others did to gain notoriety.

The latter fact is why news outlets such as ours walk a fine line. We are cautious about devoting too much attention to the killers, but nor do I think we can we ignore them. As Stephens noted in her column, research shows that most shooters in mass killings gave clear warnings that were either missed or ignored.

My friends and I, most of whom I have lost touch with over the years, have had to reconcile with ourselves whether we failed to take the warning signs seriously enough.

But if there is one thing I learned from living through this unthinkable time in my life, it is that until we as a nation seriously discuss, dissect and address what transforms these shooters from beloved sons into cold-blooded killers, there will be more shootings to come.

Deborah Petersen is the editor in chief of the San Francisco Media Co. which publishes The Examiner, SF Weekly and SF Evergreen. You can reach her at askeditor@sfmediaco.com

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