top of page

Under the Gun: Living and Dying in America

By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.

Could it happen to you? Maybe it already has, or a person you know has been a victim of gun violence.

I’m lucky. So far, the closest this madness has come into my life is:

  • A kid with whom I went to middle school was shot and killed by his father during a domestic dispute in the mid-’70s.

  • In December 1993, I decided to stay late at my office in Manhattan, which spared me from getting on the Long Island Railroad train that gunman Colin Ferguson shot up, killing six and wounding 19.

  • A shooting in Kingston, NY, not far from my home, in 2005. A 22-year-old fixated on the Columbine High School massacre of 13 people in 1999 fired off 60 rounds in a Best Buy store I often frequented. Fortunately, only two people were injured. I wasn’t there nor was anyone I know.

Death or trauma by firearm is an enduring fact of American life. Every day brings news of shootings somewhere in the USA. Mass casualty incidents such as the ones in Colorado Springs on Nov. 19 and Chesapeake, Va, on Nov. 22 get the most coverage, inspiring short-term national grief and calls for gun control that usually fade. There have been 610 mass shootings (four or more dead) to date this year and 111 high-profile incidents since Columbine, a landmark event of America’s gun violence epidemic.

We’re growing used to the carnage and learning simply to live and die with it. So far this year 75,296 people have been killed or wounded according to the Gun Violence Archive. Just add guns to the list of how you will most likely shuffle off this mortal coil. It can happen any time: at work, in a store, a theater, a club, a church, a train, you name it.

We all end up at the Great Gig in the Sky and the manner of one’s own demise is not something most people enjoy contemplating. But for what it’s worth, according to the National Safety Council, your odds of going belly-up from the following causes in America are as follows:

Heart disease: 1 in 6

Cancer: 1 in 7

Opioid overdose: 1 in 67

Car accident: 1 in 101

Gun attack: 1 in 221

Plane crash: 1 in 9,821

Lightning strike: 1 in 15,300

I refuse to live in constant fear, but I admit that I’ve begun thinking about the distinct possibility of being fed some lead in someone’s deranged rampage or an act of political violence. I drive a school bus and active shooter protocols have been mentioned for the first time at our annual training session. I can’t help wondering about the middle school students I haul each day. Would one of them actually do something awful? Could one of my co-workers snap?

Gun violence is such a complex, deeply entrenched and multifaceted problem that it will take generations to solve or even improve. We are a culture that loves guns and fiercely protects them while our fixation on fame, material wealth and differences (race, religion, political affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) fosters anger, discontent, grievance and mental illness. Americans have long embraced settling disputes with violence. Just consider the “romance” of our proud Wild West heritage.

The more available guns are, the more likely it is they will be used, but until we control our constant urge to kill and the ease at which it can be done, little will change. Given mankind’s progress or lack thereof combating climate change, hope is hard to cling to in this instance.

It’s a nightmare trying to live in a country where so many people are willing to pay such a high price for the sake of owning a gun with as few restrictions as possible. I’m still trying to see the wider benefit of that freedom. I’ll probably take a bullet before I do.


John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website ( with the meter running.



bottom of page