Unraveling the effects of mass shootings through members of the Rice community
Following the tragic events in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, which took place a little over two months ago, we at the Thresher sought to investigate the extent to which the Rice community has been affected by mass shootings. After speaking to many individuals, both students and faculty, we found that many weren’t just saddened by what had happened — they were also frustrated by the lack of action toward a solution. By writing this article, we hope to share these individuals’ experiences messages as they begin to move forward.
One common thread between the stories was their initial reaction when they heard the news — shock and disbelief.
Natalie Saenz went cold when she found out there had been a shooting not 20 minutes from her home in El Paso.
“My heart sank,” Saenz said. “I could feel it drop to my stomach.”
Saenz, a Lovett College junior, was in Austin at the time of the El Paso shooting on Aug. 3. She said she remembers being in absolute disbelief as her boyfriend’s father, a cop who was receiving the updates over the radio, told her about the events as they transpired.
The moment of shock was soon followed by a feeling of dread. Saenz said she rushed to call her family.
“My grandpa always goes to that Walmart on Saturdays and that day he happened to be at the Walmart down the street,” Saenz said. “It just hit me. It could have been him. It could have been anyone I knew.”
Emani Brown was in Connecticut for an internship when she heard about the shooting near her home in El Paso.
“Immediately I was overcome by fear,” Brown, a Jones College junior, said. “I was shocked. I was scared … I didn’t want to believe it.”
Wiess College junior Romanda Dobson was a freshman at Rice when a shooter invaded Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She’d just graduated from Stoneman Douglas, and her siblings were seniors there.
When Dobson first heard about it, she said she had just left her economics lecture. She checked her phone to find a call from her sister Rene, which she said was unusual. She called her sister back, and Rene answered on the first ring.
“When my sister called me, the first thing my mind went to was, ‘Is my brother okay?’” Dobson said. “That fear of not knowing whether your family is okay, it really hit me.”
Although many of the interviewed students shared similar initial reactions, each one processed the aftermath differently.
For Dobson, the reality of the situation hit the day after the shooting. Dobson said that although both her siblings were able to run to safety, many people they knew, including her brother’s best friend, passed away.
“They had started identifying people who had been killed. That’s when it really hit me because I saw one of the girls was in my class last year,” she said. “I remember I woke up and I was … scrolling through Instagram and I saw [my brother’s best friend]’s face … and I just started crying because I couldn’t believe that people that were so close to [me] were just gone.”
Her family was also traumatized.
“My sister was bawling, I was bawling, even my older sister was crying — we were all crying,” Dobson said.
However, one person didn’t cry: her brother. Dobson said although he tried to hide his pain, she could tell he was broken by his friend’s passing.
“He want[ed] to be strong for all of us, but I could tell just in how he was behaving … that it had really affected him,” Dobson said. “We all needed counseling after that.”
As time passed, Lillie Plaza, who lived near the area where the Thousand Oaks, California shooting occurred, said she still didn’t know how to cope with the grief.
“I didn’t really know how to feel anymore,” Plaza, a Lovett junior, said. “I felt like I hadn’t dealt with the situation entirely but didn’t have any more emotional energy left to cry over it anymore. I think I felt kind of numb.”
Hannah Meeks graduated from Stoneman Douglas with Dobson. She said that since the shooting, she often finds herself jumping to conclusions when she hears loud noises on campus. One day, she said she had a class in Keck Hall and the sound of someone moving a cart outside combined with doors opening and closing made her feel like there was a shooter.
“I was definitely on edge,” Meeks, a Hanszen College junior, said. “I wanted to stop the class.”
Meeks also said the Stoneman Douglas shooting has changed the way she views shootings now.
“When I look at these tragedies [now], I try to look at it as more than just a number,” Meeks said. “[After the Stoneman Douglas shooting] was the first time where I really made the effort to know all the victims’ names and read all their memorials and testimonials.”
Effects on the Community
Returning home was difficult for many of the people we interviewed who had to see the devastating toll these shootings had on their communities.
For some residents of El Paso, it was shocking to see such a hateful crime happen to a city with such a strong culture of acceptance. Collin Thomas, a lecturer in the biosciences department who grew up in El Paso, said he felt the shooter’s motive vastly differed from the spirit of his hometown, where he’d been surrounded by diversity and acceptance.
“I’ve always thought of where I grew up as a model for the way the United States, in its best incarnation, would go,” Thomas said. “All of my teachers … were fluent in two languages, and they were conversant in lots of different cultures. I grew up with an understanding that that was normal.”
Although Plaza isn’t from El Paso, she said the shooter’s motive frightens her.
“It’s scary to think that in the eyes of the shooter of El Paso, I don’t deserve to be in this country, even though I was born and raised here,” Plaza said. “Now I feel like my life could be in danger. I never thought I’d have to worry for my own safety in the land of the free.”
Brown said after taking in the news of the shooting, she was afraid of recognizing names on the list of victims.
“The thing about El Paso is that it’s a small city,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody. Even if it wasn’t a family member, I was scared that when that list of names came out I would know somebody.”
For Zach Hutchings, a Brown College senior, one of the hardest parts was returning home to Thousand Oaks. He said the loss felt by the community following the shooting became all too real.
“The city felt so somber for that stretch of time,” Hutchings said. “It was so hard to hear the stories of old high school friends saying they went to church with one of the victims. One of my friends [also] umpired baseball with one of the victims.”
Plaza said she was scared to go back home to Thousand Oaks following the shooting.
“You’re never going to be able to understand how it feels to have something like that happen so close to home until it happens to you,” Plaza said. “One moment [Thousand Oaks] is this really happy place where I love going and then another [moment] ... I can’t not think about what happened.”
Brown described the shooting’s rippling effects on the place she called home.
“He shattered my community. And murdered my people. And robbed our city of joy and peace,” Brown said.
Before these experiences, many of the interviewed students admitted that they felt detached when they heard about shootings or read about gun violence in the news.
“It’s so normal to hear [about mass shootings], to wake up and be like, ‘Oh, another mass shooting,’” Saenz said.
Some said they weren’t able to comprehend the reality of shootings until it happened to them.
“I used to think Sandy Hook and all the other shootings that happened all were so far away,” Plaza said. “Before [the Thousand Oaks shooting] happened ... I felt really safe.”
But after experiencing the firsthand effects, many said they realized the importance of working to prevent shootings from occurring.
“[The Thousand Oaks shooting] was an eye-opening experience for me,” Hutchings said. “[It was] a reminder to me that I need to do everything I can to make sure that my kids don’t have to live in a world where this might happen.”
According to Plaza, the shooting caused her to reevaluate her political views — particularly her views on gun control.
“I feel like growing up, the viewpoints of my parents were very conservative,” Plaza said. “I didn’t realize that [gun laws] were so flexible that they allowed people like the person that went and shot up Borderline [Bar & Grill] to access a gun.”
After the Stoneman Douglas shooting, Meeks and Dobson said they decided to attend the March for Our Lives. It took place on the same day as Beer Bike, but the two said they didn’t mind missing the event.
“It was [supposed to be] my first Beer Bike, [but I] didn’t care,” Dobson said. “[The march] was really good because even though a lot of people from the Rice community didn’t show up, there were so many people. It was a huge rally.”
Saenz voiced her frustrations with the lack of action toward a solution.
“It makes me mad that nothing is being done. How there can be so many mass shootings that happen? It’s just such a normal thing and nobody’s doing anything about gun control, nobody’s doing anything about racism,” she said. “There’s so many facets to why mass shootings are happening and nobody’s taken an approach to solving any of them.”
Brown also called for people to take political action.
“It’s time to reevaluate what the Second Amendment is actually saying and what it means,” Brown said. “And it’s time to reevaluate, do we care more about guns or do we care about humanity and humankind and one another?”
Even in the midst of these tragedies, many students said they felt a sense of community, love and resilience in their hometowns.
Saenz was shocked by the love and generosity people all over the country showed following the shooting.
“I have seen people come together in a way that I’ve never seen before,” she said. “All the victims, their funerals were paid for ... It was really heartwarming to see out of this horrible massacre, something good came out of it.”
Plaza described her community’s response to the shooting, saying they quickly turned to action.
“They were doing community fundraisers for the families that were affected by the shooting,” Plaza said. “There were people that were holding vigils to remember the victims and try to really emphasize their lives and their stories.”
Despite the hardships El Paso faced, Brown said the love in her community only grew stronger during this time of loss.
“What happened on Aug. 3, the day of the shooting, is not El Paso. It has never been El Paso because El Paso is unity. It’s resilience. It’s strength. And it’s all bound by love,” she said. “Those effects [of the shooting] will not last forever because El Paso is love. And it’s healing. And it’s going to pick itself up. And the community is going to work to make a change.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article listed Room 100 in Keck Hall, not Room 105, as the location of Hannah Meeks’s classroom, and stated that it was the El Paso shooting, not the Stoneman Douglas shooting, that shifted Meeks’s perspective on the victims of shootings.
Last updated Oct. 16 at 11:00 a.m.
More from The Rice Thresher
The Thresher opinion piece by an anonymous student describing his deferral from Rice following a schizophrenic episode and the 2017 hospitalization of Michael Lu highlight stories of mental health on campus that are often kept under wraps. Hoping to shed more light on the topic, we opened a call for submissions to both students and alumni. We present their stories here and hope they provide a glimpse into the intensely personal, difficult journey that constitutes seeking care.
McMurtry College’s Diversity Council hosted a public town hall on Tuesday night to facilitate a discussion with the three students who dressed as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers for the Halloween event at Willy’s Pub.