The Second Generation of School Shootings

Thirty-five years ago this week, I was working at a local bookstore in Winnetka, Illinois, the quiet suburb of Chicago where I grew up. It was a warm, sunny day, a week before my 18th birthday. The store was called Scotland Yard and specialized in murder mysteries, which is the kind of detail you think about later.

Around lunchtime, customers started coming in agitated. Had we heard what was happening? We hadn’t. In 1988 news traveled slowly. There were rumors of someone running around with a gun. We turned on the radio. It was a woman who had some kind of grudge. She was running from house to house. People came in with more news. She was poisoning people. She had set fire to a house. No, it was a school in Highland Park, a town up the road. She was targeting children. Which children? She’d gone into another school. She was looking for fourth graders at Hubbard Woods, our local elementary school. There had been a shooting at Hubbard Woods. My little brother was in the fourth grade at Hubbard Woods.

Winnetka is an affluent place, which in 1988 meant it was a safe place. Children rode their bikes everywhere without helmets, and made their way to and from school without parental supervision. My family has lived in Winnetka and neighboring villages on the North Shore of Chicago for four generations. Hubbard Woods, redbrick and low-roofed, sits in a leafy enclave within the leafy town, and someone had entered it with guns.

No one was answering the phone at home. Short of running to the school myself, which felt like contributing to a crisis rather than solving it, I had no way to find out whether my brother was safe.

The fear that overtook our village that afternoon—the horror of not knowing whether a small child to whom you are viscerally attached has just been slaughtered while learning multiplication tables—was unfamiliar to the majority of Americans. Today, all too many know exactly how it feels. Today, as an American sister, I would race to the school because I know. Today, American parents fling themselves into active-shooter situations because they know. Today, American second graders text their parents to say goodbye because they know. No one else in the world lives like this.

[From the October 2018 issue: The bullet in my arm]

The rumors we heard that day had sounded garbled and far-fetched but were broadly accurate. It was a woman, named Laurie Dann, and she did have a grudge. She was a former babysitter for local families and had exhibited disturbing behavior for a while. She had decided to target some of the children she had cared for, especially those in one family who had told her they were moving away, as well as those of her ex-husband’s family. She dropped off arsenic-laced Rice Krispies Treats and fruit juice at several local homes. She picked up the younger children of the family she’d targeted and brought them along while she tried to set fire to a school in Highland Park. After taking the children home to their mother, she set their house on fire, but they all managed to escape. Dann had three handguns, and headed to Hubbard Woods.

It has not been widely reported, it seems, but those of us in the community have always known why she went there—she was searching for the family’s older children, who were in fourth and fifth grade. But the fourth and fifth graders were on a field trip to Chicago that day—the targeted children and their classmates, including my brother, were spared because of a fluke.

Dann shot one child she found in the hallway before entering a second-grade classroom, where the children were with a substitute teacher. The teacher tried to disarm her, but Dann succeeded in herding the children into a corner and opened fire. She murdered an 8-year-old boy named Nick Corwin. A child in front of Nick Corwin ducked, escaping physical harm, but not the trauma that followed. Another child was shot in the neck and survived. Dann shot six children at Hubbard Woods that day, five of whom survived. The children were taking a bicycle-safety test when Dann entered the classroom, a detail I think about a lot. We were about to become a society that makes children take bicycle-safety tests while permitting them to be slaughtered by people with guns.

My brother’s bus was diverted to Washburne, the middle school, on the way back. They were told there had been an accident. They knew their younger classmates were taking a bicycle-safety test and couldn’t figure out what kind of accident would mean the school had to be closed. None of us recognized that day the very specific survivor’s guilt awaiting those children, that they would live the rest of their lives knowing Dann had intended for them to be the victims, not the second graders she shot instead.

My brother still lives in Winnetka. For years, he didn’t talk about that day, and we didn’t ask. Now he has his own children, and they attend local schools. The elder, at Washburne, has started active-shooter drills. Last summer, a killer took an assault rifle to the Fourth of July parade in nearby Highland Park. My brother was with his family at Winnetka’s parade a few miles away, when everyone was told to evacuate because there was an active shooter. He told his wife, who was terrorized, that he had already been through his shooting trauma, and was processing the fear differently. Then they had to explain the reality of guns in America to their preschooler, who attends Hubbard Woods.

We’re at a point of iterated, escalating trauma: the same people being affected by mass shootings across generations. Laurie Dann had three handguns and killed one child and wounded six people. The shooter in Highland Park had a semiautomatic rifle with three 30-round magazines. He killed seven people and wounded 48.

My brother has started talking about what happened in 1988. He has a lot to say about Americans’ decision to sacrifice our children’s physical and emotional safety for the privilege of playing with weapons designed for war.

The Hubbard Woods shooting is now sometimes called “the first school shooting.” Thanks in part to the rare circumstance of the killer being a woman, and to the rich whiteness of Winnetka, the story of Laurie Dann fed a new phenomenon: the rolling news cycle. After she fled the school, Dann entered the home of the Andrew family, still brandishing the guns and claiming that her bloodstained appearance was because she had been raped. Not knowing what had happened, the Andrews tried to ease her into surrendering the guns, while getting help. When she saw the police coming, Dann shot 20-year-old Philip Andrew in the chest before taking her own life. The young man survived and became a gun-regulation advocate. People who survive such incidents are overwhelmingly likely to become gun-regulation advocates. Maybe we should listen to them.

Winnetka worked swiftly in the aftermath of the Hubbard Woods shooting to pass stricter gun regulation. This law stood until 2008, when the town council voted to repeal it in response to the Supreme Court’s District of Columbia v. Heller decision. For 20 years, it was difficult to obtain guns on the North Shore, and we had no mass shootings.

Since the Heller decision, mass shootings have exploded across the United States. Twenty percent of the public mass shootings in America from 1966 to 2019 took place in the last six years of that period.

It takes ingenuity to avoid blaming guns for gun deaths. Blame mental illness. Blame doorways. Blame teachers who won’t take a loaded weapon into the classroom. A Michigan school district just banned backpacks because a loaded gun was found in a third grader’s bag—the third weapon to be found in a backpack in the district this year. There were 44,358 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2022. They weren’t all mass shootings, but none of them were caused by a backpack.

After a shooting two weeks ago at a mall in Allen, Texas, that left eight dead, including children, the conservative talk-show host Megyn Kelly took to Twitter to blame mass shootings on the people who argue for gun regulation, a statement so irrational, it is hard to fathom. But there she was, insisting that mass shootings continue because people keep arguing that fewer assault weapons might result in fewer mass shootings from assault weapons. “You have LOST. It’s DONE,” Kelly declared. “For the love of God what else can be done?”

Kelly blames mental illness, but there is no evidence that mental disturbance is disproportionately high in the United States, or that it has recently spiked here, while there is plenty of evidence that gun ownership has.

What else can be done? We can limit access to these guns. Many other countries have had mass shootings over the past few decades. They responded with tighter gun regulations, which have led to fewer mass shootings. Serbia had two mass shootings two weeks ago, and instantly tightened its gun regulations, because everyone who is not American knows that regulating guns keeps gun violence down.

[Read: What the U.S. can learn about gun violence from Serbia]

Eleven years after the Hubbard Woods shooting, in 1999, two teenagers killed 13 people, and themselves, at Columbine High School, in Colorado. Four months later I  moved to England for an academic job, arriving three years after the U.K.’s equivalent of Columbine, when a gunman opened fire at a school assembly in Dunblane, Scotland. He shot 32 people, killing 16 children and one teacher, before killing himself. The U.K. quickly passed gun regulations that have never been overturned, and for which there is no movement to overturn. The legislation has ensured that the Dunblane massacre remains, to this day, the deadliest mass shooting in the U.K.’s history. Guns were not banned: People still have the right to use them for hunting and sports. But they are regulated.

The British do not have a debate about “school shootings.” Every British person I have ever met, across political lines, considers the very existence of a gun debate in America to be self-evidently unhinged. What on earth is there to debate? Whether it’s okay to butcher children in classrooms? Hubbard Woods should have been our Dunblane, long before Columbine or Sandy Hook or Uvalde.

The fact that Winnetka immediately passed gun laws after the Hubbard Woods shooting, laws that worked, disproves gun advocates’ lie that America has always been this way because of the Second Amendment. We were stunned in 1988 because mass shootings were rare. The premise of Megyn Kelly’s diatribe is that guns are inevitable in American life and therefore so are mass shootings, unless we come up with some other, as-yet-unimagined solution. She should know as well as I do that this is simply untrue, because she and I were born in the same year, and we didn’t grow up with mass shootings, or active-shooter drills, or politicians calling for the arming of teachers or metal detectors or single-entry points or security guards at preschools.

If it were true that the Second Amendment has made unregulated guns an inevitability in American life, then mass shootings at schools would have been happening long before 1988. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 became legendary because the shooting in Chicago of six professional criminals and one bystander shocked the nation. When bank robbers like John Dillinger started using machine guns, the government responded with the National Firearms Act in 1934, which mandated tight regulation of machine guns. They remain difficult to purchase, and by an uncanny coincidence, machine guns are rarely deployed in American mass shootings today. More than two-thirds of the 35 deadliest mass shootings in American history have taken place since Republicans allowed the assault-weapons ban to lapse in 2004, and the majority of them have involved assault weapons, which can now be purchased in corner shops in many states. Sometimes correlation is causation.

Our current reality was bequeathed to us not by the Framers but by the Supreme Court. In Heller, it ruled that the Second Amendment’s association of the right to bear arms with the necessity of a well-regulated militia did not actually mean that the right to bear arms has anything to do with militias or their being well regulated. Evidently James Madison just threw that part in for the hell of it.

Gun advocates speak as if Supreme Court decisions like Heller are immutable. But Supreme Court decisions can be reversed, as we all learned last summer, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. There is no reason Heller’s willful misreading of the Second Amendment may not someday carry as much legal force as the 1857 Dred Scott decision. That ruling also rested upon a mythical claim, namely that African Americans had never been considered citizens, when in fact the franchise had been gradually withdrawn from African Americans in many states.

Many Americans declared after Dred Scott that the raging debate over the legal status of fugitive slaves was finished, that the anti-slavery side had lost and should shut up. But a decade later, the decision was overturned, because the derangement of human slavery was incompatible with democracy. Dred Scott showed what happens when you try to build actual laws upon political fictions: Reality collides with the myth. That is what is happening with the American gun debate today.

In March, a few days after a man in Nashville shot six people to death, my British husband was chatting with a Frenchman. “Ma femme vient des Etats-Unis,” my husband explained. My French is poor, but I had no trouble understanding the response: “Les Etats-Unis—c’est incroyable! C’est incomprehensible.” Everyone else in the world is simply dumbfounded. Why would you allow your children to be slaughtered by guns while also making them take bicycle-safety tests? C’est incroyable.