by CARLOS ESCALANTE, for the Sun Gazette
One late April night, I was leaving a high-school baseball game with my friends when a car drove up filled with people.
We could see their ski masks as they rolled down the windows, and then suddenly one of the people in the back seat pulled out what looked like an assault rifle.
We thought they were just messing with us – even when they aimed at us and pulled the trigger. No one was hit, so we assumed the cartridge was empty, not realizing they just had horrible aim.
When they came back, one of my friends chased them as a joke. We weren’t expecting them to actually hit us with airsoft bullets, leaving bruises on our upper legs, stomachs and backs. We all just stood there with our mouths open.
Most of us nervously laughed it off, showing one another the bruises. A parent yelled after the car as it sped off that they had their license plate. But the damage was already done, both on the bodies and in the minds of the teens in this town.
In a rich suburban town where violent crime was virtually nonexistent, this event came as a shock. We certainly weren’t expecting it at a social event with numerous young children and parents around. But it did happen, with many witnesses – and word spread so quickly through the stands that even the athletes in the middle of their game heard in the dugout.
But the teens weren’t scared, upset or frustrated. They joked about it all night. Violence, even just a toy gun, was hilarious to the teens at my high school, and they wanted to be part of it.
One by one, teens started to get their hands on toy guns. Some bought realistic-looking guns on Amazon, while others opted for smaller, more childish-looking “gel” guns from the nearby Target, with colorful gel balls as bullets. Both were used on school grounds. They were popular after lacrosse practices, when a student would just pull out a gun and start shooting at his teammates, or around the back parking lot after school, where people lurked, hoping to get a few shots in.
In just a few weeks, it became such a regular occurrence that students accepted the fact that they were going to be shot as they left school, laughing it off when it happened. This was what my high school was turning into – a place where teens who had never experienced the fear of being near a deadly weapon shot fake guns at others for fun.
Then came May 24. The day after the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, Texas. I was surprised to see changes at school. Officers were now stationed at all outside doors. Doors that were previously opened were now closed and locked. During lunch, a teacher left the door open, and a student ran into the building before any staff could see. A friend at my table saw him. “Oh great, we’re going to get shot up!” We all laughed. Nothing really changed.
And that included the fake shootings. If anything, it was only getting worse. Students still participated in these shootings on the school campus, but many were now taking it out of school as well. During the day, students mostly just banded together and shot at each other in parking lots or parks. But when night hit, it was much worse: Students shot at stop signs, buildings, other cars and even people.
Some may say this was just an innocent game for teenagers – that the guns were only toys for entertainment. It all sounds like a joke, but it is eerie to me. In a society where parents are heavily involved in children’s wellness with the goal of developing academically strong, talented and well-rounded children – compassion is overlooked. The utter disrespect shown by teens during this time was fueled by a lack of compassion.
The good news is, while compassion can’t be legislated, infrastructure can. I’m not talking about roads or power supplies; I mean basketball courts and parks with lights.
The gel-gun shooter trend didn’t end because of a program that told teens to be more considerate or take things more seriously: It was just new lights at a nearby basketball court. Those same teens who shot at stop signs and people after dark now spend their time playing pickup basketball.
They formed teams, created a social-media account and kept stats, even live-streaming games for friends to watch.
Some people involved in the shootings now understand their stupidity and regret their actions, but many still see nothing wrong with it. This experience has given me a utopic vision, one that sets gun control, mental illnesses and even infrastructure aside, because there are already people working on these issues. Although compassion alone is not the solution to violence, I still believe it can alleviate the hurting of others.
This is a call to all the parents: Instill the simple value of compassion within your children. This can change society in a more humane way; a compassionate way.