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How Many of Us Won’t Have Children Because of Gun Violence?

The worst school shooting since Sandy Hook has many Americans reconsidering parenthood

The morning of May 25th, the day after an 18-year-old man shot 19 children and two teachers to death at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, millions of parents dropped their own kids off at schools across America. This normal routine became a ceremony of anguish. Some cried, grateful that their children are still in this world — yet fearing their powerlessness should a gunman decide to target the community. The supermarket. Church. A movie theater. School.

Meanwhile, many of us without children felt something different. Heartbreak and fury mingled with… relief. We gave thanks that we did not have to take a child to school today, and that we have none to protect from the manifold dangers of society, only ourselves. Now and then you will hear that it is selfish not to procreate, and while that claim is both untrue and callous, it is fair to say we experience one comfort selfishly: We will never have our babies torn from us, never experience the mortal pain that transcends any other. In this, we can almost feel safe.

The calculus of whether to have kids is flexible and obscure. People have their reasons for and against; they change their minds; they regret. Not a few, thanks to this country’s miserable dogmas and lack of abortion access, have parenthood forced upon them. But it’s far from the only relevant context. A 2020 poll of childless adults in the U.S. found that 25 percent had factored climate change into their decision. Maybe that reflects a kind of post hoc thinking. Someone could already, instinctually know they don’t want children, yet explain it as a matter of environmental dread. Or maybe they have weighed the moral choice of creating new life when life seems to be getting more precarious. And maybe they have asked themselves if they’re strong enough for the worst — for that life to perish so soon — and realized they are not. 

It may be a touch insensitive, and not altogether constructive, to respond to the massacre of children by saying you won’t have any, or are fortunate not to. But it’s honest. And at a moment when we are grappling with how to save the soul of this nation — if such is possible — it matters. Including suicides and accidents, gun violence is the leading cause of death among U.S. youth, above fatal car crashes. Annually, upwards of 3,500 children and teens are killed by gunfire, with some 15,000 wounded — 52 kids shot every day. If politicians can go on ignoring this, would-be parents cannot. The numbers are too stark when considering the safety of your unborn son or daughter. The statistics, though, cannot begin to capture the madness and menace of our firearm culture. Guns openly carried by civilians in every public space, shots echoing in city streets, active shooter drills from kindergarten up, armed guards outside classrooms, trigger-happy police and the glorification of the Second Amendment by way of weapons that are bigger, deadlier and increasingly easier to obtain. Guns are a religion here.

How would these realities not influence people at the crossroads of conception? They become part of our reasoning like anything else, a sorrowing awareness that any newborn enters this time and place at elevated risk. What a sick irony that the political factions alarmed by declining birth rates — a panic that has, in fact, been used as a pretext for mass shootings — are the same obstructing reforms that might give potential parents greater hope for a child’s future. Not for a second will the gun worshippers acknowledge that empathy and pessimism have led some to “save” their offspring by declining to bring any into existence. On that side, there is no sacrifice too grim to maintain the status quo, which is not only killing kids and precluding the arrival of more, but robbing countless adults of the joy that welcoming one should be.