Editor’s note: On May 20, 1988, Laurie Dann, 30, of Glencoe, shot six children at Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, killing 8-year-old Nick Corwin. Earlier, she had delivered poisonous snacks to students at Northwestern University and acquaintances. She also had set small fires at a different school and the home of a family for whom she had babysat. No one was injured from the fires. After the attack at Hubbard Woods, she entered the home of the Andrew family. She shot Phil Andrew, then 20, in the chest. Dann killed herself in the Andrew home.
I was sitting with my mom at the kitchen table of my childhood home in Winnetka when she busted through the kitchen door, brandishing a pistol in each hand and a wild look in her eyes. I was just a college swimmer on the first day of my summer break, but I knew instantly that my life was about to change.
What I didn’t know — what none of us could know then — was that the day’s events would prove to be a grim foreshadowing of what would sadly become an all too commonplace and uniquely American tragedy.
Ninety minutes later, we’d talked her into letting my parents go unharmed. Moments later, I was shot in the chest in an attempt to disarm her. As I fought for my life, there was no way to comprehend the extent of the trauma for me and the children at Hubbard Woods Elementary School, much less for our community and the country. Yet, with excellent resources and support, I was able to own my personal reckoning.
I went on to become an FBI agent — an opportunity afforded to very few of the people shot in Chicago on any given weekend.
America has yet to seriously reckon with the carnage of gun violence. The “Winnetka Incident” may have been one of the first infamous school shootings, but since 1968, the year my mother held me in her arms along the roadside of Robert Kennedy’s motorcade hours before he was assassinated, more Americans have died from guns in the United States than on the battlefields of all the wars in American history.
And, as a survivor, like the inspiring students leading us on the March for Our Lives, I believe the only way to properly respect and memorialize these tragedies is to do everything we can to prevent them from happening again.
It starts with each of us. In more than two-thirds of mass shootings, the perpetrator is known by many members of the community, often as someone in need of help. As a nation, we have been slow to move past the shame and stigma of addressing mental health.
The truth is that the mentally ill are, overall, less dangerous than the general population — but it’s also true that people who are hurt by violence tend to do the most hurting of others. To break the cycle of domestic violence, bullying, dehumanizing racism, and poverty, we need to care. From caring comes conversation and action.
There is no outsourcing of care. Collective security has always been the most effective way to prevent violence. Yes, it’s scary to imagine what it’s like to lose a child, but it allows us to empathize for a moment with what that must feel like. Every gun violence statistic in the Sun-Times’ 31 bullets series is someone’s child, parent, sibling, and friend. Every cop on the beat is a person and someone’s loved one as well.
As an athlete, FBI agent and negotiator, and parent of teens, I know that empathy can help win a race, get a confession, free a hostage, keep a kid connected and assist someone who’s hurting.
There are learnable, trainable, empathy-based skills that are proven to help people in their most desperate times. Using these skills, we can learn to navigate conflicts, allowing us time to get curious and solve problems without relying on fight or flight. It’s simply undeniable: conflict resolution techniques, anti-bullying measures and “restorative justice” prevent violence and build resilient people and communities. This is particularly important, as we have learned so much more about young brain development and the long-term effects of trauma.
That day in 1988 began with poisoned food, a home fire, and by today’s standard, a cyanide weapon of mass destruction. But it was only the guns that killed. Unreasonable access and the increased capacity of firearms are breaking us.
We must stand together for universal background checks and laws that take guns away from the dangerous. We must limit access to high-capacity military-style weapons. We must support real research, the licensing of dealers, responsible training and safe storage of firearms.
We all need to stand against the industry and its puppets that sell fear to make a buck. They are ruining our relationships and communities. We need to care enough to vote.
I know people want to help and it sometimes seems so big, but we can all do something. It’s easier now than ever. Just ask a teenager, but it’s going to take more than a Facebook “like.”
Check out empathy-based training and practice at Community Restorative Justice Hubs (rjhubs.org) and help your organization embrace these community-building tools.
Solutions are out there. But nothing will happen unless we care enough to be part of them.
Phil Andrew is a former FBI agent, crisis negotiator and shooting survivor.