I published this article a year ago today. It’s still such a critical topic. (In the past year since I wrote this, 194 children under the age of 12 were shot and killed in America, according to Slate Magazine.) I hope my small personal story will inspire even one person to lock up their guns or change their mind about gun control in this country. As a southerner, I have so many dear friends who are NRA supporters, but read this story. I lost a dear childhood friend and am lucky to be here today. Why? Because a sick teenager had access to a loaded gun.
“Good luck has its storms.” - George Lucas.
I was buying a coffee at my local spot yesterday morning and the barista, who likes to serenade me for some reason, was singing a made-up tune: “Lucky Laurrra, Loving Laura. Lucky Laura comes around the bend again. How lucky for me.” You get the idea. And as I walked out of the cafe, I thought: she has no idea about the timing of her little ditty.
Twenty-seven years ago a good friend was murdered at my high school by a likely insane student with unrequited love for her and access to a gun. That fateful day was also a very close call for me. So close, that most friends and family really have little idea. Had I just reminded my friend to meet me at our teacher’s office after our practice, maybe I could have thwarted my friend’s murder. Knowing me, I did remind her as we were both in trouble. So, I’ll never know why she didn’t show. Had she shown for our detention, I would likely have been shot too. So, perhaps I should look at it as Norma saved my life by forgetting to meet me, and therefore, not letting me walk with her to her car and mine, which was parked across from hers that afternoon. Instead, I got to find her slumped over her car, arm dangling down the rolled-down window, blood on the ground and see her murderer’s car spinning out of the dirt parking lot behind a cloud of dust. His best friend just standing there holding a knife. It was all surreal and I recall just deciding to go to Norma’s house to tell her mother and take her to the hospital before the madness of the media began. How I thought of it, I’ll never know. But I’ll never forget the way Norma’s mother looked at me when I walked in, and without a word said by either of us, she collapsed into tears. She could never look at me again, after that day, without utter sadness. We took her to the hospital, where hoards of TV crews were now filing in, and I remember thinking how cruel it was for her family to be captured in complete agony. Later when I was a crime reporter, I made a vow to never be an anguish chaser.
But back to the unfolding of that story:
Here’s the twist of fate: Norma and I had been in trouble with our anatomy teacher for being late, yet again, to class. We had a problem with flirting and chatting in the halls and not making it across campus in time for his class. He demanded that we both stay after school to discuss it. But we had cheerleading practice. So he said he’d wait and we needed to see him afterwards. Norma was my partner who lifted me in all jumps and so for the next hour and a half, I worked with her on lifts and dance moves. (I know, I was a cheerleader back then, bear with me people!) I recall saying something like see you at Coach L’s, but maybe I didn’t? I know I didn’t want to go alone for our ‘talk’ but I really can’t recall whether I reminded her. When practice broke up and we all left to change or gather books, I went to Coach L’s for my punishment. Coach L and I waited for Norma before our ‘talk’ could start, but instead, a football player appeared in the door screaming shots were being fired and we all ran out to the student parking lot.
Chance, luck and coincidence have played huge rolls in my life. Even at 16 years, this wasn’t my first brush with near-death. So, yes, I’m a very lucky girl. And luck or chance visited me again on this day—and for years—I’ve been plagued with guilt. So much so, I couldn’t participate in court proceedings or in interviews for an HBO documentary about teen murder. I felt like I could have stopped this. Three weeks before the murder, this disturbed boy who was angry she didn’t have feelings for him, left threatening notes and flowers in Norma’s car that made her cry and shake with fear. There were obvious signs that something was wrong. And then, of course, I didn’t walk with her to her car like I always did after practice.
None of it is reasonable, I know. But I carried that guilt for a long time. Now I’m just angry. This unstable boy should not have had access to a gun. His friends—who knew about his rage and likely read his notes and recordings planning Norma’s death— should have told a teacher or parent or someone.
And parents, please, lock up your guns. Just a few months ago, I read a tragic Facebook post from a former high school friend, who still lives in our hometown, saying her young daughter’s friend fatally shot herself accidentally when she found a loaded gun at home. Sadly, I recall finding my own father’s gun in his bedside drawer at one point in my own childhood. I’m sure it was an accident, but then again, can you imagine if a disturbed, drunk, or angry teen found it? (I am one of four children, so there were kids, friends, neighbors, in our house most days.)
I’ve given up trying to curb guns in our country. We’ll never be England where kids never have to fear being shot at school or elsewhere. And while I’m encouraged that assault weapon bans are moving forward—there are still SO many guns and NRA supporters, that it’s impossible to get rid of the sheer volume of guns in homes across America. So my hope by sharing this sad story is that it will inspire just one person to go out and buy a gun safe. And if you have a safe, for pete’s sake, I hope this story will inspire you to put all your guns (preferably unloaded) in your safe at ALL times.
Gun violence has escalated since my friend’s murder in 1986. In fact, according to Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, of the 11 deadliest shootings in the United States, five happened since 2007.
For those interested, on the day of the Newtown elementary school shooting, I stumbled upon his excellent article in the Washington Post: Twelve Facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States .
Our society is becoming ever-more violent. Please, please, please lock up your guns.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. North Carolina readers: Norma’s killer is up for parole and a North Carolina law may make it easier for him, and other felons, to get out of prison. I just found out about this today. You can read about it here.