It was 1988, and Laurie Dann opened fire at Hubbard Woods School, killing an 8-year-old boy and injuring five other children, part of a violent, daylong rampage that ended after Dann walked into the family home of Phil Andrew, 20 years old at the time, and held him hostage, along with his parents, for hours. As police closed in on the house, Dann shot Andrew in the chest before killing herself.
Andrew survived and went on to serve as executive director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence and, for 21 years, as an FBI agent. In February, Cardinal Blase Cupich appointed Andrew to a newly created position of director of violence prevention for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“What’s happened over the past 30 years,” Andrew told me this week, “is we’ve gotten better at responding to these acute traumas. But we haven’t done much to prevent them.”
Last week, he joined Evanston, Illinois, Township High School principal Marcus Campbell and Rie’onna Holman and Diamond Ocasio, youth leaders from Chicago-based BRAVE (Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere), for a panel discussion, “Building Peaceful Communities: A Discussion About Gun Violence,” at ETHS.
“Events like Parkland and Santa Fe bring gun violence more to the forefront of people’s minds,” ETHS junior Mollie Hartenstein, one of the FAN Fellows, said this week. “But we also want to bring awareness to the violence that’s happening throughout Chicago and other urban settings that doesn’t get talked about as much.”
At least 13 people were injured and 10 were killed, when a gunman opened fire last week at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. Chicago frequently sees that many shot in a weekend.
It’s all connected, Andrew said.
“This is a community problem that needs to be addressed at a community level,” he said. “The solutions lie in listening to the folks who are close to the problem, and in this case, that’s teenagers. They’re on the front lines, and there is momentum for them taking responsibility for changing our communities.”
He’s not interested in identifying a single scapegoat: mental health, a culture of violence, Ritalin, guns. He wants to talk about all of them.
“We’ve got a perfect storm here,” he said. “It tends to be people who are hurting that do most of the hurting. When we see somebody that’s hurting, someone that needs help, how can a community wrap their arms around them.”
With access to quality health care — mental and physical. With an eye toward restorative justice. With a culture of empathy.
“This seems like such a big problem that no one knows where to start,” he said. “Folks need to understand there are solutions. No question, this is big, and it’s complicated. But there are things we can do, and that starts with community forums.”
Because the longer we stay in our corners (“It’s the guns!” “It’s the video games!”), the further we get from a solution.
“And who benefits from us not agreeing on a solution?” he asked. “Where does that point?”
Where do you think it points, I asked him.
“It points back to a gun industry that wants to place the blame on everything but the guns,” he said. “Is it just the gun? No, it’s not. Does the gun play a significant role? Absolutely.
“What’s really tricky is there’s an industry, a very small group, that profits handsomely from the violence,” he continued. “Gun manufacturers and the leadership of the NRA, which is a puppet for man to sell the easiest thing to sell: fear.”
When you’re scared, he said, you either flee or you fight.
“The notion that you’re armed for that fight is very attractive,” he said. “It’s primordial.”
Teenagers are starting to examine — and push back against — the messages that create that fear and division within their communities, he said.
Wednesday’s panel discussion was a perfect example.
“There are people being enriched at the expense of other people’s lives,” he said. “And when that was left to teenagers to analyze, they started putting a price tag on their own lives.”
Andrew’s been in this fight a long time. A bullet shattered his sense of order three decades ago.
“We’re better than this,” he said. “We’re a better country than this. We’re better communities than this. We’re smarter than this, and we have not made this a priority. I am horrified.”
But he’s also hopeful.
He looks at the way the country has shifted its approach to gay marriage, a topic that seemed impossible to imagine a majority of Americans embracing a decade or so ago.
“There are multiple analogies,” he said. “Cigarettes were perfectly acceptable and killing a lot of people, and the science caught up with them. The industry fought the science for a long time, but the tide turned, and it turned rapidly.”
Maybe gun violence will finally hold our attention and challenge our capacity to imagine and engender a better way.
“These are our communities,” Andrew said. “How do we want to shape them?”