What About a Memorial to All the Victims of Gunfire?

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have prompted yet another widespread call for gun control. Here in the United States this has been going on at least since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 when two high school students shot and killed eleven students and one teacher, and then themselves. (Had they been more skilled at making bombs, many more would have died.) The subsequent cry for more gun control got nowhere and other school shootings followed. Many, myself included, thought that the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in which 20 very young children (first and second graders aged six and seven) and six adult staff members were killed would be the tipping point — wrong again. For whatever reason, the Paris attacks followed by the San Bernadino, California shootings, may prompt a different result. The media response was swift and unusual. The front page of the Daily News on December 3, 2015, under a red banner stating “14 DEAD IN CALIFORNIA SHOOTING,” proclaimed “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS” in extra large type down the center. And the next day The New York Times posted an editorial on its front page. “The Gun Epidemic” stated that it was “a moral outrage and a national disgrace that people can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill with brutal speed and efficiency.” In regard to the Second Amendment usually cited to defend gun ownership, it said: “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.” A few days later an editorial (in its usual place) announced: “Despair About Guns Is Not an Option” and listed seven things that could be done about making this country safer. It began by citing the lawsuit now in progress by the parents who lost children in the Newtown shooting against the gun industry, which is protected from civil damage claims by federal law. And yet, the gun lobby remains remarkably powerful and effective, objecting even to the denial of gun permits to individuals on the terrorist watch list. 

The numbers on deaths from guns in this country is staggering. According to statistics gathered by the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss nonprofit affiliated with the Graduate Institute International and Development between 2007-20012, the United States ranked third after El Salvador and Mexico in the number of gun homicides. It is the highest among developed democracies. Published statistics abound demonstrating that the NRA’s claims that more guns make people safer is just not true. Yet very recently a new Texas state law gave licensed gun owners the right to carry them inside campus buildings. (I would be afraid to teach there and I’m sure I’m not alone.) Maybe that tipping point isn’t as close as I had hoped . . . 

Part of the problem may be that these deaths even when there are multiple victims, occur separately, as do road deaths. Many are suicides or accidents that kill children. It makes it hard for those who don’t follow the statistics to grasp the death toll in its totality. What if we had a composite memorial to the victims of gunfire listing their names, much as the names are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the order of their deaths? Given the numbers, we would need to have at least one such memorial a year. If people could see the numbers in places that carry some symbolic weight, might that get their attention and possibly change their perceptions, and even their behavior? Might it at least prompt a more constructive conversation? Could we make it a competition among states (after all Americans are often motivated by winning something, anything)? Could we start by having a day or week when the number of annual gun fatalities per state might be projected onto their capitol buildings? Perhaps the state with the lowest number could get some kind of federal bonus and the one with highest death toll lose some federal funding? Can we stop trying to be oh so rational or spiritual about it and try something different that might possibly work? Nothing else has so far. 

At this point we might also consider a tangible national memorial that focuses on the gun problem as a whole. According to statistics published by the Gun Violence Archive in 2014 there was a total number of 51,777 incidents including deaths and injuries. By way of comparison as of Memorial Day 2015 there were 58,307 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Perhaps the names of those who fell victim to gun violence could be projected onto existing war memorials in Washington, D.C., including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In this way people might get a sense of the totality of the human damage caused by guns, and see that it is comparable to the numbers of war dead. If there were designated space to commemorate the annual carnage, we could erect a symbolic tombstone with the names and images of the victims arranged in alphabetical order. Each year it would be written over with the new annual fatalities and injuries.

Perhaps a designated day is also in order. Family members and friends could gather at the memorial and read the names of the dead and injured. There could be support groups for them to discuss the ongoing impact of their losses. Then, too, there could be announcements of any progress made to limit the numbers of gun shot victims. Over time the list of names on the memorial might get smaller and smaller . . . Do you think that’s possible?

Memorials to Shattered Myths

Vietnam to 9/11

By Harriet F. Senie

The Vietnam War, Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine High School shooting, and attacks of 9/11 all shattered myths of national identity. Vietnam was a war the U.S. didn’t win on the ground in Asia or politically at home; Oklahoma City revealed domestic terrorism in the heartland; Columbine debunked legends of high school as an idyllic time; and 9/11 demonstrated U.S. vulnerability to international terrorism. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was intended to separate the victims from the war that caused their death. This focus on individuals lost (evident in all the memorials and museums discussed here) conflates the function of cemeteries, where deaths are singular and grieving is personal, with that of memorials—to remember and mourn communal losses and reflect on national events seen in a larger context.

Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11 traces the evolution and consequences of this new hybrid paradigm, which grants a heroic status to victims and by extension to their families, thereby creating a class of privileged participants in the permanent memorial process. It argues against this practice, suggesting instead that victims’ families be charged with determining the nature of an interim memorial, one that addresses their needs in the critical time between the murder of their loved ones and the completion of the permanent memorial. It also charges that the memorials discussed here are variously based on strategies of diversion and denial that direct our attention away from actual events, and reframe tragedy as secular or religious triumph. Thus they basically camouflage history. Seen as an aggregate, they define a nation of victims, exactly the concept they and their accompanying celebratory narratives were apparently created to obscure.

Harriet F. Senie

Harriet F. Senie

Harriet F. Senie, author of Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11, is Director of the M.A. Program in Art History and Art Museum Studies at City College, City University of New York, and also teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of several books and numerous articles on public art, and is co-founder of the international organization Public Art Dialogue and co-editor of its journal, Public Art Dialogue. For more information please visit http://www.harrietfsenie.com
Harriet F. Senie