The Gun Report: A high-school principal talks about violence
Mary L.H. Laurie is the Principal of L.P. Landry-O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School and Community Center. She was interviewed by NolaVie writer Sam Tabachnik this summer for the Gun Report. Sam had written previously for The Times-Picayune about several Landry-Walker students and the cycle of violence they face; read that story here.
What are your personal experiences with guns in New Orleans?
I lost two sons to violence via the use of guns. Since I’ve been at Landry-Walker — I’ve been honored to serve here for 10 years — there has not been a year that we haven’t lost one or more children to violence via the use of guns.
What were the circumstances with your sons?
I don’t want to talk about that. ‘Cause at the end of the day, I’m someone who lost the most precious gift: their life, their child. And so the circumstances won’t make it more bearable — shouldn’t make it easier to understand. Because I’m a mother who lost, in my case, two children. There’s never a time when it becomes more bearable, when right is on the side of the taking of a life. I don’t believe that. So the particulars of the story, first I don’t want to relive it. My sons were murdered, not at the same time. The second son by birth actually was murdered first and the other maybe two or three years later. Different circumstances. But at the end of the day, they’re not here and I’m one of many mothers who cries every day because they’re not here.
So the particulars should not be as crucial and critical and I think that’s some of my problem with society. We want to categorize, we want to put people in groups. I see this different ‘cause they engaged in this; I see this different ‘cause these people lived here. And the reality is they are not here. And the people who loved them will miss them for the rest of their life. That should be what we focus in on.
Do you tell your story to the kids at Landry Walker?
They know my story because my story is not unique. It’s my life story. It’s nothing to hide. It doesn’t need to be embellished. It is my life’s story. And at any moment in time I believe that every single one of us as an individual is the sum total of the experiences we have had. So it’s not a case of trying to keep it secret; what is gained by that? There is nothing I can do, nothing I wouldn’t do, to bring my sons back. But I always hope that in the telling of the stories, I can provide assistance, support, move people to another level of reflection. Hopefully in doing so, they can change possibilities. It is my story. It is who I am. Yes, they know. There’ve been many times I’ve shared. I’ve said it in the context of, “You can move past this; you can move past the pain.”
I share my story that I’m a teen mother. It’s my reality. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s my reality. If I feel it’s going to make a difference, then here I am.
Last year was particularly tough for your community, losing several students in such a short time frame. How did you deal with it all?
We had three young people [murdered] in a row in just a month’s time. Some get high publicity so if I said Tokyo [Palmer’s] name you probably would remember that name — the boy with the joystick on the way to school. But yet we had a young girl Daisy; we still don’t know what happened to her. She fought to come to this country, it was her desire to come to this school and over the Easter/Spring holidays something happened. And then we had the young man across the river at Annunciation, at the gym, coming out with his friends. That was his pastime and someone rode by and just shot at the group. And that was in the matter of a month’s time.
You have been a pillar of support for students and parents over the years who have shared your sense of loss. Did you ever go to support groups or anything like that when you were grieving?
I never did. There are certain things that are just too painful. I didn’t want to talk about it for a long time. To anybody. My mother, who was the epitome of what every child’s grandmother should be, for a long time I would not go in Mother’s bedroom because she has pictures up of my sons. And I never wanted to hurt my mother but I always avoided going in her bedroom. The reason I did was I couldn’t look at the pictures. It took me 15 years before I could look at the images. I could see them in my mind, but when I saw the pictures, I would be overcome by this sense of grief on a whole different level. Now I can. I can look back and reminisce. But it took me that long to be able to do that. It took me a while to be able to hear someone say my sons’ names. I could speak it. But my fear was not being able to deal with this story. There’s no right way to grieve.
When you have these incidents, how do you rally the school? How do you address the students and faculty?
The first thing I do is I apologize as an elder in this community. Not just as a principal but as an elder in this community. ‘Cause I firmly believe it’s always been the responsibility of the older generation to make it better for the next generation. And I don’t believe we’ve done a good job. And I’ve got to own that. And until we do, and we are willing to have an honest conversation, nothing ever is going to happen! So every time this conversation starts over again. And we say, “I’m sorry.” We the elders, we the adults in this community, residing right here in this wonderful place we call New Orleans — we haven’t figured out yet. So here I come again. Here we sit again. And we talk about it and we remember—we pray about.
But I want them to know, and I’ve had conversations with my peers, so and so did that. But somewhere there’s a lesson. Either we’re not teaching that lesson anymore or the lesson is not being internalized. However you want to look at the lesson, the responsibility is that of the elders. I believe that in all of my being.
When we first spoke, you said you weren’t sure you wanted to speak about this issue. What changed?
I don’t remember what was on the news that particular day but it wasn’t about my particular story. But they went on to talk about the answer being gun control. They went on to talk about, this whole debate about the right to bear arms versus control — that was the answer and the solution. And I said no. And for me, that was one time too many — that the problem had been put into this little box. As if to say, “If we do this one thing, all of the problems are going to go away.”
I wanted to say to you: Should we be focusing on gun violence or should we be focusing on violence? And so if we put all the possibilities that exist about who can and who cannot have the right to bear arms etc., is that going to actually give the solution we need? Because a gun has no brain; the gun does not think; the gun is the means to the end. It’s an instrument that is being utilized but masks the true conversations about what actually needs to be put in place.
We’re just putting a Band-Aid that seems so very, very simple. And it’s very easy to talk about. Very easy. So we’re going to take them all off the street. But it’s not for me that someone used the gun, it’s that someone believes it's OK to use an instrument of destruction against another human being. But no one speaks about that. When I speak about the lessons not being taught, or the lessons not being internalized, what is it that says to an individual at any point in time that I have done right? That it is OK to injure or take a life?
But that’s not the discussion. We keep going back to this one discussion about an instrument of violence that has no brain.
So you feel that the conversation should be centered more on this culture of violence and less on the issue of gun control?
Guns have become more accessible so you do see this correlation [with higher murder rates]. But it shouldn’t be the central issue. The central issue is an uncomfortable issue and it’s greater and it’s bigger and it’s broader. So when we narrow access to guns, that’s only one instrument of destruction. And I take it away, so is it so simple to say that if we take away this instrument of destruction, are we literally saying that now we’re going to see this great reduction?
I venture that is not true. I venture that if one believes he or she has the right to utilize violence against another human being, they will find a way to utilize violence against another human being. I feel that we mask and find the easy solutions.
So take them all away. Wake up tomorrow and, by some miracle, they don’t exist on this planet anymore. They don’t exist in this country, they don’t exist in New Orleans. We literally are saying that we’re going to see this drastic reduction in violence. In gun violence, if they miraculously disappear, but are we saying that will erase the thought: It’s alright to take a life?
You know, if my sons had been murdered with a knife, if they had been murdered with the use of bare hands, it wouldn’t be any more bearable. It wouldn’t be any more bearable because they would not be here. They still wouldn’t be here! So we have a lot of issues we need to talk about. And I’m not saying the conversation about gun control versus not gun control is not part of that broader conversation. I’m saying we need to be strong enough to say, “What is it?” That’s what I want to talk about; that’s what I’ve been in deep reflection about.
Do you own any guns?
My husband is a police officer so of course there are guns in the house. Do I personally use them? No, no.
Have you ever shot a gun before?
No, no. I don’t touch ‘em. That’s a fear I have. That fear is not linked to the murder of my children, it’s just something I’ve always felt. If you ask me why, I cant tell you why. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to interact with them. And maybe that’s why, is because of the unknown.
What do you know about gun control and what do you think about background checks?
I believe in the Constitution. I believe in the Amendments. I struggle with them. You have a right to struggle, but if you believe that is the foundation for who we are as a country and the whole conversation about the right to bear arms versus not to bear arms. I believe in the Constitution. I believe in the right as a citizen in this country to own guns. But that right does not give us the right to say, “You have the right to do harm.” You do not have the right to use this instrument to do harm to another human being.
In terms of background checks, I don’t have a problem with that. I believe in the understanding of the Constitution. I believe there is a place for those pieces. I think they can and need to exist. I don’t believe our founding fathers thought you had the right to do whatever you want with this instrument, the right to do harm. So that said, if there are protocols we can put in place that speaks against this idea that you can use this however you choose, I’m all for that. I do believe in background checks.
Do we have an adequate gun control laws? Too strict? Too lenient?
Where I am in my reflection, I really don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know if it’s not enough, if it’s too many. I just know what I feel in my being: That’s not the primary issue. Because if we limit the law that speaks to the right to own guns, I don’t know that if we add more laws that restrict guns, that’s going to give us the solution we’re looking for.
Do people in this country, in this city, view black-on-black violence differently than other violence?
I do. I really do. And it goes back to, at the end of the day, how my sons died should not matter. ‘Cause at the end of the day I’m a mother in pain every day of my life. I thank my Maker that He gives me strength every day to continue, but it is a pain I realize with every new day, that it’s a pain of a lifetime. So the fact that they were African American should not matter. They were African American ‘cause their mother was African American, their father was African American. But if they had been born to a mother not of color, would the pain of that mother be any greater? I don’t think so.
But I think we’re still at a place in this society where we still see differences. We do. And we still process on those misguided perceptions and understanding of those differences. And still the greatest fear is that which is different. And so yes, I do believe there is a different feeling. Sometimes I think it comes from a place of safety. If it happened to Mary Laurie, I could still find a way to put it in a box. Now I might not be able to say, “Mary Laurie raised her children in so-and-so housing development,” but I can say, “Mary Laurie is black, so that’s their problem.” I can put it in a nice little box and say it’s their problem.
I do think for the larger population, we are the “their.” I think out of that sense, you still have the “isms” going on and the biggest, of course, is racism. And we don’t want to talk about it.
The Gun Report is a series of conversations about gun safety in New Orleans sponsored by NolaVie and 91%, John Richie's upcoming documentary about background checks for gun purchasers. We want you to join the conversation with personal anecdotes and commentary. Email us at [email protected]