“I didn’t threaten anyone,” the man is saying, palms up.
My shoulder brushes one of the officers as we pass, and it feels important, necessary, to grab my daughter’s other hand. I don’t like our proximity to a man who maybe didn’t threaten anyone, but maybe did. There are more officers on the sidewalks. We hear sirens.
“Must be a slow night,” my husband, Adrian, comments, after buckling our daughter into her car seat.
“Not a bad thing,” I reply, getting inside.
Traffic leaving the outdoor mall is at a standstill. People make illegal U-turns, driving back to the highway. Two firetrucks wail toward us. More cruisers, more sirens. Adrian and I look at each other. I open Twitter.
“There’s been a shooting at La Cantera! Everyone pls be safe. Dont come out here rn.”
Adrian grew up in Winston Hills, a suburb outside of Sydney. Every December, his family drove 13 hours up to Queensland, where his parents are from, and spent Christmas on the beach with a slew of close-knit cousins. Every Easter, they returned to Queensland, this time to his mother’s family’s 70,000-acre working sheep station. Here they learned to ride horses and motorbikes, to feed livestock and muster sheep and cattle, trying to stay out of the real workers’ way. The only time Adrian ever saw guns was here, when his uncle shot wild boar that were destroying crops and fences, or his cousins shot kangaroo, which are considered pests.
I grew up in Laredo, Tex., a city of 250,000 on the U.S.-Mexico border. My parents had been neighbors, together since they were 16. On Sundays, we ate fresh homemade tortillas and chorizo con frijoles. My mom gave me a love of reading and writing. My dad took us to the ranch, 200 acres of dirt and cactus and mesquite. As we got older, we occasionally shot guns at glinting silver beer cans, paper targets, skeet. My dad hunts, and my parents had a gun safe in their closet, a glossy behemoth whose dial I sometimes slowly turned, listening for clicks that the movies told me would crack the combination. I had no interest in what was inside, but I wasn’t afraid, either. Guns were a casual, ordinary part of my life.
Adrian and I met on a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. We talked for 14 hours, falling into a kind of dream. At home, our connection grew over email, and we eventually installed webcams to our computers. But I was only 21, finishing college in Texas. He was 27, with a glamorous life in Sydney. Where could we expect this relationship, whatever it was, to go?
We let each other drift away. But years later he sent me a Facebook message. It was the start, all over again, and we marveled at how easy it was. When we dreamed of being together in person, he said, “I think the only hard part would be deciding where to live.”
He was right. We both loved our homes, our families. But when we had kids, he reasoned, I would want to be close to mine. So he moved to Texas in 2014, and we were married two months later. In 2018, our daughter arrived.
I keep refreshing Twitter. The reports are coming fast: While we were laughing at our daughter delightedly eating chicken satay, people were hiding in the backroom of American Eagle, beneath racks of clothing at Finish Line. A girl reportedly had a seizure in the panic.
Finally, the local news station confirms: It was fireworks. People heard fireworks, and they thought mass murder.
Adrian and I talk about it often, the albatross around the neck of every American: the epidemic of mass shootings. The New York Times recently reported that Texas has had more casualties from mass shootings than any other state except Nevada — and just a month after the El Paso massacre and hours after a gunman killed seven and wounded at least 21 in Odessa, gun laws here actually loosened. In September, a high school student in San Antonio was found with a gun on campus. In October, three local freshmen were charged after terrorizing their school with plastic guns. The same month, a middle school girl was arrested for reporting that she’d been asked to participate in planning a school shooting.
So many of our decisions as parents revolve around how to keep our children safe. I began taking prenatal vitamins months before I actually conceived. We researched car seats and crib mattresses and bassinets. Now that our daughter is older, we hold her hands when she walks on uneven surfaces. Adrian has secured bookshelves and dressers to the walls. We cut her grapes. We control what we can, knowing there is so much we can’t.
But if part of our job as parents is to keep our daughter safe, how can we justify staying in Texas — in the United States — when we know Sydney is a safer alternative?
After a mass shooting in 1996, the Australian government banned semiautomatic and pump action firearms and instituted a mandatory buyback scheme to collect the weapons. The Guardian recently reported that while there were 13 mass shootings in the 18 years before the laws changed, there have been none since. There are no gun stores in Sydney. No aisles of weaponry in sporting goods stores or big box chains. If you don’t have a relationship to the country, you might never see a gun.
But here? How can we take our daughter to the mall, to the movies, to church, knowing these places are sites of potential bloodshed? How can we buy her a bulletproof backpack and send her off to school like a tiny soldier, not knowing if she will come home? In the wake of the most recent deadly school shooting in Santa Clarita, Calif., I wonder at what point it becomes selfish for me to keep us here. What choices will I be able to live with, if the worst comes to pass?
And how long before more of us leave, our hearts breaking, hoping we will be welcomed wherever we arrive?
At home, I zip our daughter into pajamas. Give her eight ounces of milk. Brush her teeth. I drag the curtains closed and turn off the light, and I tune into her heart beating against mine in the rocking chair. I sing the lullaby my mother used to sing to us. I make promises I’m not sure I can keep.
Katie Gutierrez has written for Longreads, Catapult, Texas Monthly, and more. She is currently working on a novel. Find her on Twitter @katie_gutz.