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COLUMN: Lessons learned and memories reflected in pools of blood

I grew up around guns. Through my life firearms were included in some of my fondest memories.

My parents bought me a BB gun while I was still in elementary school. From there I moved to a .22 cal with a scope, then shotguns, handguns, rifles and even black powder. I’ve been lucky enough to experience great hunts and days on the range handling a wide variety of firearms. I passed my first hunter’s education course at the age of 12, never turning down a day afield, and have introduced many to the shooting sports. I’m not what anyone would consider a great shot, but I try hard.

Guns have also been part of my worst memories.

I’ve witnessed the aftermath of countless murder scenes as part of my job. While I’ve traveled through two war zones, the worst memories come from the streets of my hometowns, including coverage of two school shootings.

The details are tough to recount — not that I don’t remember them vividly. I’ve long since discarded the photographs, which now only exist in news archives.

I don’t keep photographs of human suffering handy, nor do I show them in slideshows. Mental images from horrid scenes are hard enough to deal with. Memories of soul-piercing mournful sobs, mothers collapsing, children left behind and blood pooling as a crowd gathers at murder scenes have often kept me up in fear of yet another nightmare. I’m not proud of that part of my job, and I hope to never witness another.

Both school shootings I covered resulted in deaths. The first was in March of 1989 — early in my career. I was sent to the scene alone and the story didn’t make national news. In fact, there was debate of whether to use the story on the front page. Many murders happened in the city and details often were moved to inside pages as readers tired of reports of homicides.

Twenty-two years later, when news broke of the second school shooting, all available staff photographers, both still and video, were sent to the scene. By January 2011, school shootings were part of a national storyline. Images of students escaping with arms raised, tearful parents waiting for news and the funerals and memorials which followed are stuck in all of our heads — forever tainting the carefree memories most my age have of education.

In both cases, the shooters were students. In the first case, the shooter was sentenced to six years in prison for shooting and killing another student near the gymnasium — a place I traveled to for game coverage often. Even though the stains are gone, the memories will take generations to die, if ever.

In the second, the shooter committed suicide after wounding the principal and murdering the assistant principal. I’ll always remember Vicki Kaspar. Not the 58-year-old woman who dedicated her life to education — just her name. I never met her. I was just assigned to cover the aftermath.

My job was to illustrate the pain of those involved — to look for angles where the light would hit their faces just right, highlighting students, teachers and parents tears as they mourned. I had to hold my emotions back until I returned home after the long, horrible days.

Our world has changed. I recently checked in at the security sign-in system new to Powell schools. I was assigned to photograph a very happy occasion, but as I went through the new procedures, I had flashbacks of previous tragedies. I wonder if the new systems will stop a shooter intent on doing harm.

When I was young there were no nightmarish mental images to consider as I readied for school. I can’t imagine how parents must feel now as we debate teachers and administrators carrying weapons in defense of those seeking an education and dedicating funds for security systems designed to slow a shooter.

I will always enjoy outdoor sports. It’s part of my heritage and if I had children it would be part of their experience. Yet, knowing what I know, I suggest all parents start by stowing their weapons properly and educating children about gun safety.

Are new security systems or gun-toting educators the answer? I suggest more time and money be invested in mental health care rather than machines. I challenge anyone to find mass murderers who were sane at the time they picked up their weapons.

Mental health care is expensive and time consuming. Unfortunately, those in the industry are paid poorly and often overlooked as heroes. And those who seek treatment have been stereotyped rather than respected for having the courage to get help.

The cost should be easy to bear. The pain of your hometown school being a statistic — a Sandy Hook Elementary or Millard South High — should be avoided at all costs and the solution begins at home and with mental health care professionals.

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