NEWS COMMENTARY: Senior Assassin tainted by real gun violence


Illustration by Joslyn deGuzman

Rampant gun violence has caused an innocent toy water gun to be mistaken for a deadly weapon at West Essex.

Water guns used to be an essential part of any wholesome water fight, a summer staple in every family garage, stored between boxes of sidewalk chalk, deflated basketballs and dusty jump ropes. But now, in a world where knocking on the wrong door can become a death sentence and kindergarteners are forced to grieve their murdered classmates, it has become a local symbol of a nationwide epidemic: gun violence.

We are constantly fed news footage of yellow tape barricading synagogues, churches, schools, grocery stores, movie theaters, malls and playgrounds as police search for murder suspects and bystanders watch, hoping their loved ones won’t be found inside. Our social media feeds are filled with the last photos taken of young children, attached to a fruitless set of thoughts and prayers. As of May 29, the Gun Violence archive has counted more than 260 mass shootings in the United States in 2023 alone and 647 in 2022. 

All the while, politicians make noise and swear changes, but little has actually been done on a policy level. Gun safety bills remain stagnant, stuck in government chambers so divided there seems to be no hope of movement forward.

So really, it’s no surprise that a once innocent summer toy was mistaken for a murder weapon in our own area. On May 8, the entire West Essex campus went into a period-long lockdown after a concerned citizen called the Fairfield Police Department and reported seeing young individuals who seemed to have a handgun. Officer Frank Patierno arrived at West Essex shortly after to investigate the suspected vehicle, according to a report from the Fairfield Police Department. After the students involved were taken into custody, the lockdown turned into a shelter in place before students were released from their classes. In the end, the police discovered that the alleged handgun was in fact a “Glock-style water pistol…which was recently purchased…so that the student could participate in a widely reported Senior Assassin Game,” according to the same police report. No charges were filed and all students were released.

It was easy to say “this doesn’t happen here.” We hear about the shootings, send our “well wishes” and passively worry, but in the back of our minds most of us feel removed from it. Sure, it happens in Nashville and Parkland and Denver and Newtown and Pittsburgh. It happens in Texas and California and Florida and New York and Pennsylvania. But not here; not in our community. 

And while we’re lucky that in this particular case, there was never a real threat, it does teach us something: This is no longer a far away issue. We can no longer pretend we might not be next. And as if “being worried about a mass shooting” wasn’t bad enough, now add “being worried about other people shooting you because they think you are a mass shooter.”

“The world is a very different place with the amount of gun violence,” Principal Caesar Diliberto said in an interview with the Wessex Wire on the subject of Senior Assassin. “That is very unfortunate and that is very sad, but in that kind of climate, to be playing games and running around as if you are shooting people…it’s a recipe for a potentially very bad and tragic situation.”

Both administrators and police officials, in speaking with students and teachers, warned repeatedly that by students carrying water guns, they could be placing themselves at risk of being perceived as potential shooters—and face violent opposition, either by police or by private citizens attempting to stop suspected gun violence in their community. Police in several different counties across New Jersey have urged students to avoid games like Senior Assassin, saying participation can be dangerous.

“The last thing we want is a kid to be mistaken for a criminal,” the Livingston Police Department said in a public Facebook post on April 30.

Through communication to parents via email and directly to students, the West Essex administration has urged students to “make smart choices” regarding games like Senior Assassin.

“I recognize that many of the game originators and organizers and coordinators try to set up parameters to minimize the chances that something might happen,” Diliberto said, “but you can’t really eliminate them in the current climate.”

When the lockdown alarm blared on that random Monday, I thought it was just part of our monthly practice, our monthly reminder of the broken society we are living in. However, the darkness of the classroom and silence from the loudspeaker continued, quiet whispers of “Do you think this is real?” began to spread across the room. Suddenly the threat of gun violence felt a lot more real, a lot closer to home.

In the end, this has nothing to do with a water gun. It has everything to do with real guns. The real guns that kill more people in one day in the United States than do in months in other countries. The excessive access to guns has created a country in which it’s incredibly difficult to separate a fun senior tradition from what looks like a dangerous game.  

In a world where gun licenses were necessary and difficult to receive and where shootings were rare, no one would have called the police on a couple kids playing with a water gun. Unfortunately, that isn’t the world we are living in. But this shouldn’t be, and doesn’t have to be, our reality.