When Gun Violence Hits Home

by Laura K. Garrison

Garden State Plaza, a home away from home.

On Monday night, I sat in the local Applebee’s with my family, basking in the waning days of Fall Break. As I dug into spinach and artichoke dip, I heard my mother gasp across the table, followed by an uncharacteristic “Oh my God.” I spun around and peaked over the booth to look at the television behind me, and my heart sank as I read the breaking news banner beneath Anderson Cooper’s serious face: Shooting at Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey. My blood ran cold: I was approximately three miles away from the terror unfolding on television and had visited the mall earlier that day. In fact, prior to dinner my family had gone shopping though we decided at the last minute to go to another mall instead of Garden State Plaza. For the first time, the large-scale gun violence that frequently occurs across America had come to my sleepy suburbs in northern New Jersey.

Miraculously, no one was injured or killed in the shooting at Garden State Plaza, though the shooter took his own life in a secluded part of the mall. While the incidence was thankfully devoid of mass tragedy, it was nonetheless tragic: a troubled young man committed suicide without the intent of harming others. As if this story couldn’t hit any closer to home, he lived in a neighboring town, was my age, and probably put the same social importance on Garden State Plaza that most teenagers growing up in Bergen County do. And after no injuries were reported and the countless first-responders had cleared out of the parking lot, I still couldn’t shake what had happened.

Like most young people born and raised in New Jersey, much of my adolescence unfolded within the corridors of a mall, in my case Garden State Plaza or GSP for short. When I was finally responsible enough to hang out with friends in high school, we often wandered aimlessly through the mall, spending our allowances on superfluous purchases at Claire’s or Hot Topic. Even in college, when my friends from high school are home for the weekend or the summer, we often head to GSP for a movie, dinner at Chipotle, and tubs of frozen yogurt. There isn’t much to do in suburban New Jersey, and there’s something soothing about the familiar pattern of our mall jaunts. It’s nice to know that no matter how crazy things get at college, GSP and its associated memories of simpler times will be waiting for us.

That Monday as I drove along the leaf-covered streets, I realized that this was the first time I was going to the mall alone: my mom was not driving me, and I was not picking up friends along the way. It was relaxing to be behind the wheel, something I rarely experience during the school year in New York. I followed the practice that my friends and I had perfected since receiving our licenses: take the back roads, park near the movie theater, enter through the secret side entrance. As I walked through the mall it was eerily quiet, as Monday in the early afternoon is not peak shopping time. I left after a couple of hours, partly bored and partly saddened that my friends were in class, while I was feeling the weird sense of summer freedom that creeps in when one goes home for the weekend.

Watching television that night was surreal.

Later that night, as I watched SWAT teams and triage tents invade the same parking lot I had driven around earlier that day, everything seemed surreal. I tried to imagine what I would have done if I had been in the mall during the shooting (which I very nearly could have been, had my family not decided to go to another mall). It was difficult to even picture a shooter in the Nordstrom wing, where I had window shopped hours before. Days later, when the police announced that they were reviewing security tapes for evidence, it was unsettling to know they’ll see me on the monitor walking around that morning.

I understand why I feel so uneasy. Garden State Plaza has been the backdrop to many happy times in my adolescent life, and it’s also a place that both my friends and our parents consider safe for us to hang out. In the wake of Monday, that sense of security has been taken away. While we’ve all watched news reports of mass shootings, it’s easy for us to say but it won’t happen to me. Since Monday, I’ve come to the startling realization that in the world in which we live, it could happen anywhere to anyone, be it a school, a movie theater, or a mall, all places my friends and I frequent virtually every day.

There is a raging debate on how to restore this sense of security; some believe people should carry
weapons to deter gun violence, others like myself want to see more stringent laws to limit gun ownership. In reality, I’ve never really believed in the Second Amendment and have always seen it as outdated, indicative of the time the Constitution was written. The Founding Fathers didn’t want a standing army, so they protected the right to bear arms in its stead. In our age of military industrial complex and drone warfare, no gun is going to protect against an invading army or tyrannical government. Hunting seems gluttonous when grocery stores provide endless sustenance, and I’ve never seen the appeal of collecting something whose sole purpose is to kill. I see no purpose for guns outside law enforcement and the military, but I recognize that this is a radical opinion to have, especially in our gun-obsessed culture.

It’s no secret that America faces an increasing number of challenges as the politicians we put in office continue to avoid taking decisive action. After the tragedy in Newtown last December, I truly believed that we were on the brink of real gun reform. After all, if twenty dead children couldn’t convince Congress to act, what could? Yet nearly a year later, we still lack any comprehensive gun reform, and I admit that I’d grown apathetic. If this is the path America chose, then the mass shootings that seem to happen on an almost weekly basis were our destiny. After the events at Garden State Plaza however, I’ve realized that apathy isn’t good enough. I shouldn’t live with the fearful question in the back of my mind of whether it’s safe to leave my house. I shouldn’t be numb to reports of another mass shooting. And in the words of Piers Morgan, the time to talk about guns is not today, it was yesterday.

I don’t know when I’ll next go to Garden State Plaza, but I’m confident that time heals all wounds. The one thing time hasn’t solved is America’s unhealthy obsession with guns.

Laura K. Garrison is a junior at Barnard and Editor in Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Images courtesy of Glamamom and ABC7.

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