gun violence

Little Martyrs

A nihilistic religion worships the gun.

People mourn at a makeshift memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 28. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
People mourn at a makeshift memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 28. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

When I was 11 years old, I thought I was going to be a martyr. The mass shooting at Columbine High School was so shocking it penetrated the walls of my school, which was, until sixth grade, also my home. Yet I longed to leave, to make friends and go to class. I went to public school a few months after Columbine, and I was ready to die if I had to. The idea did not occur to me organically. The church library had acquired a new tale, an update of sorts to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which occupied a different shelf in the same tiny space. Called She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, it claimed that one of the gunmen killed Bernall because she refused to deny Christ.

Written by Bernall’s mother, Misty, the book portrayed the teen as a troubled girl who found God just in time to die for him. Cassie had dabbled in the occult with a bad crowd. In letters she wrote to a friend, Cassie had wished violence and death on her parents. The Bernalls pulled her out of her Colorado public school in favor of a Christian institution and forced her to attend a church youth group. After she accepted Christ and her behavior improved, they sent her to Columbine. On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris approached Cassie where she hid under a table in the school library and, according to her mother, asked her if she believed in God. When she said yes, he shot her. In fact, witnesses said that Harris had never asked Cassie anything at all. Instead, his accomplice Dylan Klebold asked a different girl, Valeen Schnurr, if she believed in God. He’d already shot her once, but she said yes anyway, and Klebold walked away. Bernall died, but Schnurr lived.

I was transfixed by the Bernall book and the power of its grief, and so were many others. The book was a national best seller, even though its central claim didn’t survive scrutiny. Perhaps Bernall’s conversion was genuine — she isn’t here to dispute her parents — but real or not, her faith alone could not satisfy the Evangelicals who embraced the book. They needed blood to support their worldview. “Should the believers accept the literal truth, they’d be left with a hopeless equation: Schnurr said yes and she lived, but saints and martyrs don’t live,” Hanna Rosin wrote in the Washington Post, weeks after the book’s release. “Saint Cassie probably said nothing and died.” Investigations and reports meant little to the Christian right, which swept Cassie up to heaven. The Christian singer-songwriter Michael W. Smith recorded a song in her honor. Churches like mine purchased the book so that gullible young people like me would read it. We were entering a time of great persecution. The Left Behind series had begun publishing just a few years before Columbine and minds were fixed on tribulations to come. Her murder confirmed what we already believed: The nation had turned its back on God, and blood was the punishment.

The gun is our Moloch, the writer Garry Wills said after Sandy Hook. As Moloch, the Old Testament god serviced by child sacrifice, the gun “is an object of reverence,” he wrote. “Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails … So let us celebrate the falling bodies and the rising statues as a demonstration of our fealty, our bondage, to the great god Gun.” I no longer believe in God or the devil, but I believe in the gun because in America there is no other choice. To me, the gun is more real than the Trinity, and it is the true author of our tribulations. For all Cassie’s parents got wrong about her story, something remains of her martyrdom, but not to God, to the gun. She shares this with the children of Uvalde, Parkland, Newtown, and other places we will someday know because the right refuses to restrict the gun.

Martyrdom makes sense of a world that is saturated with death. In the two decades since Columbine, there have been so many shootings, and there are still so many guns. The right no longer searches for deep meaning amid the blood. Something bleaker has replaced martyrdom. There has been a hardening, as if with each fresh tragedy conservatives steel their hearts against the dead. Nineteen children lie dead with two of their teachers in Uvalde, Texas, all sacrifices for no higher cause. In this view, martyrs are necessary because evil exists and no politician can legislate the devil away. It is easy, Bernall writes, “to get angry, to point fingers, or to lose oneself in what the media calls the ‘larger’ issues,” gun control among them. “Why, when parents and lawmakers are calling for gun control and an end to TV violence, are our young crying out for relationships?” she asked. She Said Yes is not anti-gun control, at least not in a literal sense. Instead, the book gestures toward something more apolitical. Love is the answer, Bernall suggests. Dare all “for Love’s sake — not as a hero or a martyr, necessarily — but consistently and with conviction, in the small, everyday things that make up a life,” she writes.

A greater cynicism is on display in Run Hide Fight, an action film distributed by the Daily Wire in 2020. The plot is something like a revenge fantasy, and it’s not hard to understand why it appealed to a media company founded by Ben Shapiro. In it, another young blonde girl finds herself in the middle of a school shooting. Unlike Bernall, this girl fights back. The film’s opening scenes show her hunting deer with her father; we learn, before anything else, that she’s a decent shot. Using her wits and the weapons she acquires, she frees a portion of the student body and eventually strikes back at the shooters. One scene pays homage to Bernall directly: The lead shooter asks a random student if she believes in God, and she says yes, though he doesn’t shoot her. The hero in this story is the girl who fights, who shoots the mastermind, and, in the end, leaves him to bleed out in a stream.

God never receives more than a glancing mention in the film. The teenage hero talks to visions of her dead mother, not Jesus. Yet the film is a piece of evangelism. The fabled good guy — or girl — with a gun is the only savior the film needs. There is a nihilism to it all. Violence is natural, the film suggests; it can’t be prevented, only neutralized with the help of the gun. The film’s dead children are martyrs to it. The film’s hero, a kind of priest, only feeds more bodies to the gun. In the film, as in real life, there is only the gun. After the Uvalde shooting, the sheriff of Lee County, Florida, released a message to other would-be shooters. “We’re not waiting one second,” he said in a TikTok. “We’re going to kill you. Because you can’t kill evil enough.”

The right’s loyalty to God-the-gun is not a coincidence but rather the manifestation of a deep commitment to violence in all forms, from political coercion by minority rule to the brutal implications of a country soon to be without Roe. After Uvalde, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick went on Fox News to recommend 2 Chronicles 7:14. “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal our land,” the passage says. Patrick prays to a gun. So does Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general. “We don’t need more gun control. We need to return to God,” tweeted Marjorie Taylor Greene. Her god is a gun, too. The nation has its apostates though: Most Americans support some form of stricter gun control, though they are thwarted by true believers in power. “It is hard to acknowledge that the death of innocent children is a price we are willing to pay for freedom,” the conservative commentator David Marcus wrote on Fox News. “But it’s true.” There is so much more blood to spill.

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