How Americans of a Different Era Ended Mass Deaths of Schoolchildren

My “discovered book” by Grove Patterson, written in 1954, includes this account of the author’s early years at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The main grade-school building in Collinwood, railroad town and suburb of Cleveland, was destroyed by fire during the afternoon session. In the panic that ensued 273 little boys and girls were burned or trampled to death. There has been no other school fire in American history to compare with it in stark horror.

The scene on the copy desk that night and until four o’clock in the morning is engraved in my memory. Tears flowed down the cheeks of oldtime, supposedly hard-boiled copyreaders as they handled column after column of vivid stories from the schoolhouse, the morgue and the homes of the bereaved.

As I reflect on whether we will as a nation do anything to stop the next Newtown massacre, I consider Patterson’s sentence “There has been no other school fire in American history to compare with it in stark horror”. Why was this statement true when Patterson wrote it 46 years after the Collinwood fire and why is it still true? Because Americans decided to use their government to make it true.

After Collinwood and some less deadly but still horrible school fires in the Progressive Era, U.S. schools were mandated to have fire escapes, paint that was free of accelerants, panic bars on exit doors, fire alarms and fire drills. No doubt it was expensive. No doubt some people resisted. No doubt some resented the imposition and complained about big government intruding on the lives of communities and individual citizens.

But American reformers got their government to do it, and that’s why no fire as deadly as the 1908 Collinwood blaze has happened in a U.S. school since.

People back then were not smarter than we are today. They certainly didn’t have more money or love their children any more than we do today. But they strongly believed that governmental action could save the lives of children, acted resolutely on those beliefs and made them real. May their courage and their faith in government inspire everyone who is now trying to stop the next Newtown.

What policymakers can do about gun violence

The deaths of so many children and their teachers and school officials at Sandy Hook Elementary, and of a mother at the hand of her killer son, have caused me to re-visit the subject of national firearms policy, which I thought about night and day for nearly seven years from the fall of 1994 to January 2000.

We must begin by recognizing that the rare problem of rampage or spree shooters who may be suicidal is different from the problem of youth gang violence in inner city neighborhoods that we were primarily focused on during the 1990’s when youth gun homicide rates went through the roof and the primary firearms policy goal was to keep guns out of the hands of teenagers.  In responding to one more shocking shooting of innocents by a deranged young man wielding a military caliber semi-automatic assault weapon, we must build on progress in firearms violence reduction that has continued since President Clinton left office, and pick up where politics halted the Clinton era initiatives. We also must think freshly and strike out in new directions.

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