Riley Howell, 21, and Kendrick Castillo, 18, both sacrificed their lives in an attempt to fight back against shooters who had targeted their schools. We can probably surmise that they weren’t imagining themselves as taking up the mantle of heroism, but rather doing what they simply felt they had to do to save their own lives as well as the lives of countless others.
Brendan Bialy — who along with Castillo and several other classmates attempted to stop one of the gunmen — told the New York Times that he was acting on instinct. “I think everybody has this idea, ‘What if somebody comes in with a gun? What do I do?’ I didn’t think consciously, ‘I’d do this and then this.’ It just happened.”
The family and friends of both Castillo and Howell remembered the two slain students as kind, helpful, and were not surprised that these young men made the fateful split-second decision to fight back. John Castillo, Kendrick’s father, recalled to NBC News that he had a conversation with his son about what to do in case he encountered a shooter, explicitly telling him that he didn’t have to be a hero. It was advice that the younger Castillo, his only son, rejected. “’You raised me this way. You raised me to be a good person. That’s what I’m doing.'” When Castillo died, he was three days away from graduating high school and going on to pursue a degree in engineering, following his father’s footsteps.
Thomas Howell, a trauma nurse, shared with the New York Times that his son Riley kept advancing on the shooter in order to take him down, despite being hit first by two bullets; the third bullet was shot point-blank, with the muzzle of the gun leaving a burn mark on his skin. The shooter, taken down so hard, complained of injuries. Howell was beginning to pursue studies in horticulture, when he was killed.
Many questions arise after these two successive school shootings. Do we want to commemorate Howell and Castillo heroes, or does that take away from the complexity of these incidents and do a disservice to future acts of gun violence? Does calling them victims diminish the heroic nature of their acts? While it is certainly appropriate and healing for those mourning Castillo and Howell as heroes, it can muddy the conversation on how to prevent loss of life in the shootings to come. After all, to stop school shootings, we don’t need more everyday heroes to sacrifice their lives like Howell and Castillo did.
What do we need more of? We do need more mental health care to prevent certain types of gun violence, but we also need tighter gun legislation. We definitely have work to do around gun culture, too, including a reining in of the influence that the NRA has on our politics. The BBC recently cited figures showing that they spent over $50 million to ensure that pro-gun-rights candidates ended up in office. Shouldn’t gun legislation be based on the expertise of researchers and public health advocates, not of gun fanciers?