Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Tale of Two World Number Twos, Two Tragedies, and a Little Bit of Hope

Andy Murray captures his first Wimbledon
title, July 7 2013
The recent successes of Scottish tennis sensation Andy Murray, the reigning Wimbledon and US Open Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist, have highlighted the tragedy he survived as a child.

I join my fellow countrymen in celebrating the first British men’s Wimbledon crown since 1937, the year my father was born.  I also share in the memories and heartache of the school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland where Murray was an eight year-old schoolboy.  With each new Murray victory, the press re-tells the tale of that fateful morning on March 13th 1996 when a gunman, a former scout leader known to the Murray family, entered the Dunblane Primary School armed with four handguns. He shot and killed sixteen children, all aged five or six, and their teacher, before turning a gun on himself and committing suicide.

Andy Murray survived the attack by hiding under a desk in the head teacher’s study. The tennis star has understandably been reluctant to talk about this traumatic event during his professional tennis career. As he has risen up the ATP world rankings to #2, he has opened up more about his experiences, though he says he does not have a clear picture of the events of that day.

Immediately following the Dunblane massacre, American professional tennis player Andrea Jaeger, herself a former world # 2, traveled to Dunblane to lend a hand to the grieving community.  In her words, she “didn’t know how I could help”. She just wanted to help.

Andrea Jaeger in Dunblane, Scotland, May 1996.
Andy Murray is second from the right.
Jaeger’s startlingly successful tennis career as a teenager was cut short by injury when she was 22.  She has since devoted her life to helping children, in particular cancer patients, through her personal work and her Little Star Foundation.  She arrived in Dunblane in 1996 with tennis rackets, nets, balls,
educational and therapeutic toys and games, and an open heart, and tried to help the children of Andy Murray’s school begin to heal. 

Jaeger’s visit was not the beginning of Murray’s tennis career – he was already showing promise at age eight – but the budding young star was certainly inspired by the visit and coaching from the international tennis superstar Jaeger.  In a recent post on her blog, Jaeger shared for the first time a letter that she received in 2004 from Murray’s mother when young Andy, at that point 16, and his older brother Jamie, were still making their way up the World Junior rankings.

Judy Murray wrote:

“Hi Andrea, 

I hope you remember your visit to Dunblane in May 1996. I found your faxes when I was clearing out my garage yesterday and thought you may be interested to know that 2 of the boys you played tennis
Andrea Jaeger, teenage
tennis phenomenon, at age 15 
with at Dunblane Sports Club are now ranked 6 and 70 in the ITF World Junior rankings.”

Mrs. Murray describes her sons’ tournament victories, singles and doubles titles, and world rankings in both men’s and juniors’ categories. You can read the full letter here.  She continues:

“I’m sure your visit inspired both of them to greater things! They realise there is still a long long way to go but both are determined to get as far as they possibly can in tennis.

I hope you are well and that your charity continues to inspire children. Dunblane has made a remarkable recovery after the tragedy but we will never forget.

Yours, Judy Murray,”

Fast forward several years to 2012 and the equally tragic school massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  On December 14, a lone gunman entered the school building and shot to death 26 people, including 20 children – all first graders aged six or seven – before killing himself.

At the time, Andrea Jaeger was in Staten Island, NY, helping the recovery relief from Hurricane Sandy when she heard of the shooting.  The next day, she traveled to Newtown to lay flowers outside Sandy Hook Elementary and to offer any support that she could.

Standing outside the makeshift memorial in Newtown, Jaeger said, “I want the children I meet, no matter what has happened to them, to know that they don’t have to fear the world, or every new person they meet.”

She knows that the tennis rackets she brought to Dunblane for Andy Murray and his schoolmates did
Jaeger in Newtown, Connecticut on December 15, 2012
nothing to make them forget the horror of the day at their school and the damage done to their childhoods. She knows that laying flowers outside a Connecticut elementary school will not bring back those who lost their lives.

“They can’t believe that things will ever get better,” Jaeger said in Newtown. “You have to make children, even children who have gone through something as horrible as this, believe that things will get better. It starts with giving them love.”

Despite the eerie similarities between the two school shootings on each side of the Atlantic, there is one glaring difference.

In late 1997, just a year and a half after the Dunblane massacre, the British government acted swiftly to ban private ownership of handguns in mainland Britain, outside of licensed shooting clubs.  The parliamentary vote was taken following a highly successful public campaign against gun ownership that culminated in a petition being handed to the government with almost 750,000 signatures. The new laws gave Britain some of the toughest anti-gun legislation in the world.

All small-bore pistols were included in the ban, along with rifles used by target shooters. Penalties for anyone found in possession of illegal firearms range from heavy fines to prison terms of up to 10 years. There were also firearm amnesties across Britain, resulting in the surrender of thousands of firearms and rounds of ammunition.

The massacre at Dunblane “was one of the most shocking things that has ever happened in this country and it united the country in a feeling that we had to do something," Gill Andrews of the British Gun Control Network said, following the instigation of the new laws. "And I don't think that it would have been possible to make the kind of progress that we have made without that tragedy."

According to official British crime figures, the number of crimes involving handguns committed in the country is in free fall. Between the years 2003 and 2011, handgun crimes fell 44%, from 5,549 annually across the country to 3,105.

In the seventeen years since Dunblane, there have been precisely zero school shootings on British soil.

By contrast, in the United States, where the pro-gun lobby has significant influence over national and local lawmakers – despite overwhelming public opinion in favor of tighter gun control – school shootings continue to make tragic yet regular headlines.

According to statistics from the organization, there have been 387 school shootings in 42 different states since 1992, claiming 510 lives. While Virginia Tech (33 lives lost in 2007), Sandy Hook Elementary (28 lives lost in 2012), and Columbine High School (15 lives lost in 1999) grab a majority of the headlines, there continue to be several school shootings each year all across the nation.

One child’s death is one too many.

Children ages 5-14 in America are thirteen times more likely to be murdered with guns as children in other industrialized countries according to David Hemenway, professor of Health Policy at Harvard University.

The US has the highest gun ownership rate in the world - there are 89 guns for every 100 Americans, compared to 6 in the United Kingdom.
Murder figures in the US are unfathomable for a British public who are accustomed to approximately 550 murders per year. In 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available from the federal Bureau of Justice, there were 12,664 murders in the US. Of those 11,101 were caused by firearms.

The good news for Americans is that firearm-related homicides dropped from 18,253 in 1993 (a reduction of 39%) and non-fatal firearm crimes dropped from 1.5 million victimizations in 1993 to 467,300 in 2011. We are moving in the right direction.

Yet the right direction is only relative:

• no school shootings in Britain since 1997; more than three hundred in the US. 

• 550 murders in Britain in 2011; over 12,500 in the US.

• 3,105 handgun crimes in Britain in 2011; more than 150 times that amount in the US. (side note: the population of Britain is just under a fifth of that of the United States, 63 million vs. 311 million)

American politicians are beginning to make small in-roads towards controlling which types of guns are available to citizens. In Colorado, the state where I live, new laws went into effect just this month requiring universal background checks for all private gun sales and a ban on ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds.

Small potatoes, but a step in the right direction.

I am under no illusion that anyone who may be so determined can get their hands on weapons that were designed for the battlefield.  I am under no illusion that anyone who may be so determined can force their way into any school, movie theater, or other public place where the innocent gather, and do untold damage.

As an educational leader, I have taken steps at my school to mitigate the risk without giving the place the feel of a fortress. A step in the right direction, I suppose.

As I continue to think about the families of Newtown who lost precious children, I am comforted by
Judy Murray is embraced by her son Andy immediately
following his Wimbledon victory, July 7 2013
Judy Murray’s words: “
Dunblane has made a remarkable recovery after the tragedy but we will never forget.” I hope and pray that the Newtown families, and families across the country who have lost children to gun violence, will make a similar recovery.

The chances of a surviving student from Sandy Hook Elementary becoming an Olympic or Wimbledon champion are slim – though not outside the world of possibility. I pray that the chances of us learning from this tragedy and taking steps to ensure another one does not happen are not outside the world of possibility.

In the words of Andrea Jaeger, “You have to…believe that things will get better. It starts with giving them love.”

Thank you, Andrea, for inspiring thousands of children and their families through your Little Star Foundation and all the work you do for kids.  Thank you, Andy, for inspiring a nation and for battling back from such tragedy.

We’re making small steps in the right direction. As Andrea said, “Things will get better.” As Judy Murray added, “There is still a long long way to go.”