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Opinion | Luke O’Neil

Nothing ever changes when it comes to guns, not in America anyway

Mourners paid their respects at a makeshift memorial near the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Vincent Yu/AP/Associated Press

AROUND 12:30 ON a Tuesday at Westside Middle School, just outside of Jonesboro, Arkansas, the fire alarm went off. Andrew Golden, an 11 year-old student who had pulled the alarm raced outside into a field near the school where he found his friend 13 year-old Mitchell Johnson. Johnson was waiting there with nine weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition they had stolen from their families.

There had been construction going on near the school at the time so when the loud noises started many of the students and faculty who had dutifully marched outside were slow to realize what was going on. Why would they have any idea? When people started falling to the ground they still didn’t immediately put it together survivors have since explained.


It was 21 years ago today and while it wasn’t the first school shooting, bullet-riddled children’s bodies weren’t a perpetual specter in the national consciousness as of yet. It wasn’t the grim ambient horror we take for granted today. That wouldn’t happen until Columbine, a little over a year later. The school shooting when everything changed and then nothing much changed.

Twenty years to the day later, in 2018, millions of people in hundreds of cities around the world gathered for the March For Our Lives, the student-led demonstration in support of gun violence prevention. The march was inspired by the shooting the month before in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were killed and 17 more injured. The school shooting when everything changed and then nothing much changed.

And thus the shooting at Westside felt like it was being overshadowed once again by a larger one, as some of the survivors said last year.

People often say after attacks like this, and the recent shooting at two mosques in New Zealand, that we’re not supposed to publicize the killers’ names. That’s what they want, people say, and that may be true. But there are so many of them now, who could ever keep track? Try to name as many as you can. Wrong, there were way more than that. How many shootings like this can any one person be expected to hold inside of them forever? Unless you were there, of course, in which case you likely never forget a second of it.


“It has bothered me ever since, and I’m sure it will haunt me the rest of my life,” Dale Haas told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette last year. Haas was the county sheriff at the time of the Jonesboro shooting. He’s retired now and he homeschools his 14 year-old son, but his wife still goes to work every day as a teacher in Jonesboro.

“It just kind of makes you sick at the pit of your stomach that it keeps happening,” Haas said. “I don’t see it stopping anytime soon. I think the moral compass of the country needs to be reset.”

BY THE TIME the little boys in Arkansas were done massacring everyone, five people were dead at Westside — four students and one teacher, a woman named Shannon Wright, who people later said stepped in front of a child to shield her with her own body. Ten others were injured.

Golden and Johnson attempted to a flee to a van they had parked nearby with ample supplies but were soon caught by police. They were found guilty and sentenced to prison until their 21st birthdays, due to the fact that Arkansas law at the time did not yet allow for juveniles to be sentenced to life.


During the trial, both boys attempted to show a type of remorse. “My thoughts and prayers are with those people who were killed, or shot, and their families,” Johnson said, which is nice of him because in that apology as the killer, he inadvertantly wrote the script for politicians when these types of shootings happen. Thoughts and prayers. “I am really sad inside about everything,” he said. “My thoughts and prayers are with those kids that I go to school with.”

Both were released on their 21st birthdays. Johnson went on to have more trouble with the law and Golden largely disappeared, but what’s curious about that is that they actually lived. The familiar beats we all know about how this type of story is supposed to go hadn’t yet been established. They’re supposed to kill themselves shortly after the attack right? It’s like going back to the early days of a now familiar genre of story and seeing that the regular that the reliable structure hadn’t been solidified.

We know what happens now though, after the killing, which is nothing much. Not in America anyway.

There have been at least 15 fatal shootings at houses of worship since 2012, including a shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh in October last year in which 11 were killed and six were wounded.


There were at least 103 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in America in 2018, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, comprised of 60 deaths and 88 injuries — numbers that have been steadily rising since they started keeping track in 2013. That was shortly after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, when a couple dozen babies were shot to death. That was the one that was, well, you know how it goes.

Many of the survivors go on to struggle with one important question, which is the question that all of us ask anytime there’s a mass shooting like this: Why?

BOBBY MCDANIEL, A lawyer for the Jonesboro families, helped secure a civil verdict against Johnson and Golden in 2017. They were awarded $150 million, money they knew going into it they would likely never see, but was nonetheless a symbolic gesture. Symbolic gestures are always in ample supply because nothing else is ever available. Not in America anyway.

“This effort was never about any money for us,” Pam Herring, whose child was killed, told the Jonesboro Sun. “We had to honor our loved ones and tell the court how much it hurt to have them taken from us, even all these years later.”

We also hope something can be learned from their depositions which may help prevent a similar situation in the future.”


“The real important aspect of this case is the why was it done, what did we learn from it, and how can we implement what we’ve learned?” McDaniel said.

So what have we learned? Nothing much.

Two days after 50 were killed in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the country and the world. “There will be changes to our gun laws,” she said. Changes in gun laws, including a likely ban on semi-automatic weapons, would arrive within 10 days she said. In the meantime some New Zealanders have already begun voluntarily turning them in.

“We don’t need these in our country,” one said.

Luke O’Neil is a journalist from Massachusetts who writes the newsletter “Welcome to Hell World.” Follow him on Twitter @lukeoneil47.