What it’s like to be a Canadian parent living in the US in the era of school shootings

Becoming a mother has made gun culture in America even more terrifying. Suddenly, the threat is all too real.

Photo: EPA/ANDREW GOMBERT

The road to my mother-in-law’s house is flat, with little to see. The Florida swampland is bursting with plants and birdlife, but very little of it is visible from the highway, other than the endless wall of cypress and palm trees. The monotony of the ride is only broken up by billboards that startle me every time I see one: giant advertisements for AR-15-style assault rifles, stores where you can buy guns, stores that sell ammunition for guns and shooting ranges. Just seeing these signs, which often feature a bare-legged woman seductively brandishing a weapon, shakes me. I’ve lived in the US for 15 years, but I still can’t wrap my head around the attitudes that many Americans have toward guns.

It’s hard to reconcile the fact that people here can walk into public spaces (grocery stores, libraries, college campuses) carrying a loaded weapon—and openly in some states. In 2016, more than 38,000 Americans died from gun violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 3,000 of them were children. And data show that the number of gun deaths inches up each year.

Woman holding a sign in protestHow to talk to young kids about tough topics in the news The incremental rise in violence has calcified the horror of it for me. Becoming a mother has made it even more terrifying. Suddenly, the threat is all too real. The murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, this past February hit me harder than news of other mass shootings—and I live about an hour’s drive from Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children as young as six were shot at their elementary school in 2012. Since then, more than 450 people have been injured or killed in school shootings. (At the time of researching this article, 20 weeks into 2018, 22 school shootings were reported. The latest was in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 people were killed.) Now that I have a daughter of my own, the fear of seeing families torn apart by gun violence runs even deeper.

Every day, I drive by the school that my daughter will attend next year. I see children playing in the yard. It all looks so wholesome, yet I can’t help but scrutinize the doors: Are they locked properly? I eye each of the adults milling about: Does anyone look suspicious? And I wonder, would I entertain such thoughts if I was raising my daughter back home in Canada?

I came to New York for love. When that relationship ended, I stayed to pursue my career. Originally from Montreal, I have spent most of the past decade in Brooklyn, a multicultural hub of progressive ideals. The energy and creative vibe captivated me. I got married and had my daughter there.

But by the time our daughter was two, my husband and I began to crave a simpler, more affordable life. We moved to the scenic Hudson River Valley, just over an hour north of Manhattan, and traded greater ethnic diversity for political diversity. Influenced by both the progressiveness of the city and the conservatism of rural America, our village is home to Trump supporters and proud liberals alike. And so, while the idea of arming teachers—popularized by none other than the US president in response to the Parkland tragedy—is ludicrous and odious to me, I know there are people in my district who approve of it. That terrifies me.

After the Parkland shooting, I kept hearing from parents who were panicked over letters sent home from school that talked about instituting new security protocols, such as armed guards and gunman drills. I decided to attend a school board meeting to hear the discussion for myself. Student representatives made impassioned speeches about the importance of voting and expressed solidarity with the Parkland students-turned-activists. The adults in the room nodded sympathetically and discussed a security audit that would help guide the board in installing new policies. One parent, a board member, kept insisting that an audit wasn’t enough. He shared how his father was shot in a burglary years ago and still carried bullet fragments with him; he wanted to push for armed guards in the school.

The reasoning for his argument baffled me. I couldn’t fathom the idea of placing guns in schools before considering simpler, proven methods of tightening security, such as stronger locks on the front doors, mandatory sign-ins for guests and improved communication protocols. Had this man always envisioned guns in schools or was he only influenced by the president’s call to arms?

The idea of arming teachers or guards fills me with dread, especially as a mother of colour. Black and brown kids are disciplined differently from white students. According to the US Department of Education, black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students, and I fear the worst could happen if weapons are added to the equation. Plus, research shows that more guns only increase the chances of violence. (The Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed FBI bank-crimes data and found that the presence of armed guards during bank robberies made violence three times more likely. At the Santa Fe school, two armed police officers were patrolling the halls when the shooting occurred.)

The conversation that our town and the country at large is having, sparked by the heinous act in Florida and the grief-fuelled activism of the Parkland students, has forced me to rethink my own attitude toward guns in America. It once represented a peculiar problem that only Floridians, Texans and other red-state residents faced. I felt removed from it. After all, New York ranks fifth out of 50 states when it comes to the strength of its gun-control laws, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Consequently, it ranks 48th for the rate of gun deaths. Now, as I near the day my daughter will attend school, I grapple with the uncertainty that comes with knowing that the parents of some of her classmates might own guns.

In the playground recently, a neighbour asked me, “Are we supposed to start checking with parents to find out if there are guns in their house before a playdate?” The question came as a punch to the gut, and I honestly didn’t know how to respond. The older my daughter gets, the more I will have to entrust her supervision to others. But how do you ask that question without implying a judgment of people’s choices? If the answer is “Yes, there are guns,” do I cancel the playdate? Demand where in the house the guns are kept? Secure a promise that they’re inaccessible to children? I don’t know how to navigate this territory yet. I hate knowing that I’ll have to learn.

What the US has is a gun-violence epidemic. And yet, rather than addressing it, the country is letting the issue fester, and it’s growing more complicated as political divides deepen. It’s unfathomable that lawmakers here would choose to not regulate guns the way they do cars, cigarettes and other potentially dangerous products. But I’ve come to understand that many of them act out of intimidation. The gun lobby is an all-powerful political force.

However, the Parkland survivors and student activists across the country give me hope. They’re being heard and they’ll be able to vote soon, hopefully for candidates who support sensible gun laws. After nearly a decade on a Green Card with no intention of changing my status, I recently applied for US citizenship so that I can vote, too. It feels like too small of a step to protect my daughter, but it’s one of the only weapons that a parent in America has.

A Montreal native now based in New York, Chantal Martineau is a writer for Vogue, Food & Wine, Saveur, Surface, The Atlantic and The Financial Times

Read more:
What you can do to fight against gun violence
7 ways to reassure your child after frightening news events

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