Families in Uvalde, Texas, are mourning the deaths of 19 kids and two adults, following a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School Tuesday. The mass killing was the deadliest school shooting in the United States since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
Juliette Kayyem, who served as assistant secretary for Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, joined Boston Public Radio to explain what Uvalde families are going through in the aftermath of the attack, and to discuss what she thinks must change to prevent future mass shootings.
“[When we call] him a 'shooter' rather than a 'gunman,' we've taken 'gun' out of the activity,” Kayyem said. “'Killed' rather than 'hunted' or 'murdered.' We sanitized these. I think part of that is because we're so familiar with them.”
The shooting comes less than two weeks after a gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. The suspect in that attack allegedly published a screed containing white supremacist views before the shooting in the predominantly Black neighborhood.
Kayyem, who recently published a book on dealing with disasters, explained how parents wait hours to be reunited with their children after a school shooting. Those who do not find their children either safely evacuated or in a hospital are then taken into a room and notified of their kids’ deaths. Because of the damage such weapons can inflict upon young children, parents are asked to either visually identify bodies or provide DNA samples.
“The authorities have to go back to the families and take swabs of family members, get an orange juice glass that maybe the kid left behind, a hairbrush, a toothbrush, to now identify who the kid is — because the children would not be identifiable, at least to authorities,” Kayyem said. “What's their distinguishing trait that only I would know if I was asked to have to identify [my child] and they were unidentifiable?”
She warned against glossing over difficult details, like the damage that bullets do to a child's body.
“If we sanitize that part, we will learn nothing,” Kayyem said. “That's what was happening to 19 families last night.”
Kayyem also called for policy changes to prevent future mass shootings, including mandatory background checks, raising the legal age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21, and monitoring people who buy large quantities of ammunition.
“If Google knows that I'm ordering more of, I don't know, Tylenol, I'll start to get lots of advertisements about trying to destress or something,” she said. “We can monitor purchases of highly violent things.”
Kayyem also said she does not think increased defense in schools, a common refrain by Republicans, will make a difference. During the Buffalo shooting, a former police officer turned security guard was killed in a failed attempt to stop the suspect, who was wearing body armor. In Uvalde, officials said a school district officer and two police officers were shot attempting to stop the gunman before he entered the school.
“There would probably be more killings because things would get elevated and there would be more guns in schools,” she said. “You're looking at a fortified response that would have to work at the right moment, and you're also assuming that the person is not wearing body armor.”
Kayyem emphasized the extent to which mass shootings are an American problem. The U.S. has more guns than people, and sees higher rates of mass shootings than many other countries.
“I really thought it was important to constantly remind us what a uniquely American thing this is,” Kayyem said. “The U.S. is going to be the leader [in global affairs], and we can't even keep our freaking kids safe in school."