Opinion: The fear of gun violence is ending my American dream

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A notification on my phone catches my eye. I pick it up and read an early alert of gunfire at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

I must have looked pale because my British wife, perceptive as ever, asks if I’m OK. Our children, 8 and 6, are in the kitchen with us getting ready for swim team. I gesture with a slow, ominous shake of my head as I chew the inside of my cheek.  As soon as they’re gone, I switch on CNN to hear Jake Tapper’s sobering words confirm what I already know is coming: countless precious little lives, snuffed out by an 18-year-old madman with the means to massacre an entire classroom in an instant.

The early death toll stands at possibly two dead, but I know, wearily from years of experience as a TV news producer, how the casualty rate climbs quickly in these situations. And it’s not long until we learn that 19 children and two teachers tragically lost their lives that day, while officers waited outside the classroom for more than an hour before engaging the shooter, as seen on surveillance video of the law enforcement response.

Thirty minutes later, with tears in my eyes, I call my wife as she watches our children swimming laps and say simply: “Enough is enough.”

From devastating natural disasters such as Hurricane Dorian to unspeakable horrors such as the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, death and suffering are a large part of my profession. In my 16 years at CNN, I’ve honed the ability to compartmentalize and process later. The worst of the world is being siphoned into our eyeballs, all day every day, so you learn to be dispassionate. But when kids are involved, you have to wipe me off the floor.

Uvalde’s aftershock on my circle of friends, family and colleagues was immediate.

As an expat from the UK, I’m used to waking up to a rash of messages from the motherland and beyond. But the morning after, I had just one solitary text. I could sense in that moment the disbelief from people thousands of miles away. The exasperation that no words could make a difference in that moment. The inability to reckon with the reality that something so unspeakable could be allowed to happen. Again.

The one message I did receive was from my oldest friend living back in the UK that said, quite simply: “Dude, I fear for you. Just come home.”

As the sickening horror of what had happened inside Robb Elementary School emerged, a friend of mine with children around the same age confided that he was a “nervous wreck” and had spent the previous night Googling Canadian immigration laws. Emigration became a recurrent theme among many of the people I spoke to in the aftermath. The most poignant response came via text from a long-standing colleague lamenting the polarized and violent state of his troubled nation: “You’re not crazy to leave. We’re crazy to stay,” he said.

There was a collective trauma we were all processing, which found an outlet in impromptu group therapy sessions within my immediate circle. The fears and anxieties we all carry, usually pushed deep down inside, instead rose to a crescendo of cathartic fear-sharing:

The woman who told me she’s never been to the cinema after the shooting at a movie theater in Colorado in July 2012. The man who always sits facing the restaurant exit for fear of a gunman spraying diners with bullets. The neighbor who runs to her door every time there’s a siren outside to see if it’s heading to the elementary school. The grandfather who tells me his adult daughters still have nightmares of a school shooter, and “feels awful that they grew up carrying that.” The mother who is nervous about taking her children to the grocery store. And the colleague who told me her best friend was shot dead when they were at college and who has been traumatized by it ever since.

The United States has been our home for nearly a decade. Both our children were born here. They have cute, twangy American accents with their friends and teachers but can turn on the Queen’s English when they’re at home. And let’s cut to it right here — being a Brit in the South pretty much makes you an E-List celebrity every time you open your mouth. “I lurve your accent!,” they say. Stock response: “I like yours, too!”

We’ve thrived here — found lasting, loving friendships and welcoming communities through schools and sports. I got to fulfill my dream of working in the birthplace of CNN, walking the same hallowed halls as the world’s greatest journalists.

But the tragedy of modern America is that it is mired in a civil war. Two political tribes, talking past one another, which has supercharged a now violent culture fueled by the idolization of guns.

Add to that the whiplash nature of the gun debate, whereby you can read a headline about the most consequential gun reform in 30 years on the same day the US Supreme Court struck down a New York state century-old law that placed restrictions on carrying a concealed gun outside the home. It was a ruling so controversial that state lawmakers were then forced to introduce their own legislation to limit its impact. The bill was signed into law this month.

The inevitably of it all is what is most frustrating. As an executive producer, I’ve led CNN’s coverage of countless shootings, and the cycle is always the same. First the “working to confirm” email from the news desk, then the breaking news alert, the reporters racing to the scene, the full scale of the tragedy unfolding, the news conferences, the parade of politicians, the survivor stories, the irreparably damaged families, the infernal political hand-wringing and muted legislative attempts. Memories are short. Political tribalism is entrenched. The world moves on until, inevitably, the cycle of shock and grief starts all over again.

Despite the genuine bipartisan breakthrough on meaningful gun safety legislation in the aftermath of Uvalde, the reality is that there is nothing stopping the next shooting alert from hitting your phone. Will it be today, next week or next month? Sadly, the best you can do is hope it’s not your town, your classroom or your child this time.

Three days after the Uvalde shooting, I’m sitting in a huge auditorium where my daughter and her classmates will soon be joyously singing their way through their “moving up ceremony.”

Outside, the heightened police presence makes it feel more like Baghdad’s Green Zone than a high school. Rapt parents with moist eyes surround me. And as we stand for the National Anthem, I am reminded in that moving moment of all that I love about this country — the rabble-rousing patriotism and the aspirational nature of its people who never give up hope, even after the most traumatic of events.

The reality is, I love America deeply. But it is impossible for us to live with this uniquely American problem any longer. It’s time to go home.

July 18, 2022 at 04:39AM

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