Homeland security

A local chaplain’s memories of mass casualty fuel his concerns about automatic-weapons legislation

“I doubt I’d be able to admit my shame in such a public way,” writes Chaplain Burkes, “if it didn’t underscore an imminent danger facing all of us.”

“I doubt I’d be able to admit my shame in such a public way,” writes Chaplain Burkes, “if it didn’t underscore an imminent danger facing all of us.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Norris Burkes is a hospital chaplain at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento and a spiritual columnist with Gannett News Service. Visit his Web site at www.chaplainnorris.com.

It was one of those memories in which I could recall exactly where I was and what I was doing—not a good kind of memory, like when your wife tells you she’s pregnant or your girlfriend tells you she’s not—but a memory of the most tragic kind.

The memory began to surface sometime during an afternoon training session I was attending last week about critical incident stress.

As our instructor pressed his way though his endless slide show of scene after scene of mass casualties, I began to recall a day with which I have compared all mass casualties since.

It was exactly 1 p.m. on the afternoon of January 17, 1989.

I was a Stockton pastor, and I was driving back to my office when I turned on the radio to hear reports of a massive emergency response at Cleveland Elementary School, where a man had shot scores of students with an automatic weapon.

Recently having been trained to provide pastoral care for mass casualties, I naively considered myself prepared and veered off toward the school to help.

Minutes later, I was offering the on-scene commander my assistance as a local pastor with training in trauma pastoral care. He paused only a moment before sending me into a room where parents and counselors were told to wait for a list from admitting hospitals.

I was seated with a Cambodian mother and her 11-year-old son. She didn’t speak English, so maybe she knew better than I that the room was a kind of ruse. She and the other parents were gathered there because it was suspected that their children had died, and we all were awaiting that awful confirmation.

We did not wait long. Soon, the list came in to confirm the worst. Without the aid of an interpreter, I had few communication options. I held the list in front of her, placed my finger on her daughter’s name, squeezed my lips together as if to hold back the terrible words and shook my head sadly.

The woman recognized her daughter’s name and asked, “Sh-di?”

Our eyes collided, with a pained look of confusion.

“Sh-di?” she repeated.

My eyes squinted as I tried to understand, and she echoed her question.

This time, I understood.

“She die?” she said, with the raised tone of a question.

“Yes,” I said, looking into her stoic face. “She die, yes. I’m so sorry. She’s dead.”

Her eyes swept the room searching for a second opinion, but her desperate hope was dashed with a confirming nod from her son.

She did not cry. Neither she nor her son even moved. But suddenly, in something that can only be described as a sort of emotional ventriloquism, her grief began to squeeze through her son’s eyes, and a small tear etched a path along his frozen face.

Within a few moments of that tear, the mother and the boy left the scene, and I began talking to the school staff. In stark contrast to that one single tear, the rest of the afternoon and evening were filled with the unceasing tears of school staff members.

Teachers cried for the students and for their heroic colleague who had been injured shielding children from the hail of bullets. The principal cried for all those the emergency medical technicians had said would not last the hour—the ones she held as they “bled out.”

As the day went on, the horror of what happened began its paralyzing work on me, and it was only a sense of dreaded obligation that pushed me back to the school to help for a second day.

Once there, it felt like I was only perfunctorily present. By the end of the day, most of us promised to return for a brief training class, which would allow us to go into the classrooms to talk with the children.

I am still ashamed that I did not go back—I couldn’t go back. I made excuses to myself: There were plenty of trained professionals, and, of course, I had duties at home and at church.

I tried to tell myself that I had been like the good Samaritan, but more and more, I found myself feeling like the two jerks that had preceded the good Samaritan and failed to render aid to the injured man.

I’m not sure how much difference my presence made that day, and even now, I doubt I’d be able to admit my shame in such a public way if it didn’t underscore an imminent danger facing all of us.

But I tell this story so that we might pause for a moment in our effort to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, in hopes we’ll renew our resolve to eliminate weapons of malevolent destruction.

I say “renew” because the national ban on automatic weapons will expire soon if it’s not renewed or—better yet—rewritten.

Rewriting is crucial because the original ban concerned mostly the domestic manufacturing of high-capacity ammunition magazines. The word “domestic” left a loophole big enough for the gun manufacturers to import more than 50 million ammunition magazines into the United States since the passing of the 1994 ban.

President Bush made campaign promises to renew the bill, but the backlash from the National Rifle Association (NRA) has given him pause. Now, Tom DeLay is saying he won’t allow the bill to the floor, and it’s likely to bleed out in committee.

To survive with any semblance of validity, the bill will require non-partisan support in its strongest sense. Many believe that if it were to make it to the floor, a number of pro-NRA members of Congress likely would reverse their stance given such a public challenge.

High-capacity magazines represent the grossest distortion of our constitutional right to bear arms. They have no place in hunting, target shooting, student instruction, self-defense or home-defense and have no other legitimate civilian purpose.

Let’s handle this form of domestic terrorism with the same singleness of purpose and moral leadership that we stand against all terrorism.

A “coalition of the willing” stands with you on this ban, Mr. President. We are ready, so “let’s roll.”