One thing that I can say about myself with confidence is that I’ve had some experience with violence and tragedy. A witness to domestic violence, a victim of child abuse, an observer of violent assaults involving knives and baseball bats. Knowing a couple of folks who committed suicide — one who jumped on my side of the office building in which I worked a decade ago — and watching a former boss flip out from a manic-depressive episode right in front of me.
Still, even with all of that experience, I don’t know anything about being the parent of a child killed in the midst of a mass shooting like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I can only begin to imagine that kind of grief, pain and anger.
So, it’s with that in mind that I write about the things that have been said by journalists, parents, politicians and others about this latest tragedy that have really bothered me. Despite the core-shaking event in Newtown last week, apparently there are people in this country who believe in guns more than people, who believe that some lives are worth more than others, that people with mental health issues are the perpetrators of most violent crimes. These people are wrong, wrong-headed, and the kind of people who seemingly want to steal my hope that we’ll do something serious about guns and gun violence in the US.
1. The “I can’t believe that this happened here” response. Every time I hear someone say something like this, I think, “So it’s all right if a mass shooting happens in Mogadishu, Harlem or Southeast DC?” It’s one of the most entitled, elitist and bigoted things I’ve heard over the years. Tragedy happens everywhere, especially in a nation as fearful, violent, imperialistic and gun-obsessed as ours. And people’s lives are invariably screwed up by tragic events, regardless of race or location. Whether in a mostly White bedroom suburb like Newtown or on the South Side of Chicago.
2. “If the teachers and principal had been armed, this wouldn’t have happened” response. Really now? Folks whose job it is to teach should walk around with or have handy a handgun on the rare chance someone like Adam Lanza shows up? Gun enthusiasts can say this a billion times a day. But more people with guns doesn’t make anyone any safer. There’s about a generation’s worth of research showing this very fact. End of discussion.
3. “We need to get rid of violent video games” response. This is ludicrous. American history is replete with mass murders and mass shootings, from White “settlers” decimating American Indians to the Rosewood, Florida race riot of 1923 to Charles Whitman shooting and killing fourteen during his University of Texas clock tower rampage in 1966. Last I checked, Mortal Kombat and Halo 4 didn’t exist in 1877, 1923 or 1966. Violent video games aren’t the problem. Our violent obsession with guns and supremacy in life is the problem.
4. “We need a better mental health system in this country” response. This one is actually correct. At least, it mostly is. The assumption here, of course, is that people somehow snap in the process of taking their own and others lives without a coherent rationale. Psychological screenings (see my post “A Call for Psychological Screenings” from September ’12) and backgrounds checks with 100 hours of mandatory gun training would definitely help. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are NOT violent. There are plenty of “normal” folks who are anti-social, have borderline personalities, are psychotic, but function normally in our society. Until the day they get a hold of a gun or some other weapon, that is. Those folks, though, would likely not test as having a mental illness.
We need much tougher gun control laws, a total assault weapons ban, regulations on bullets sales, maybe even a repeal of the Second Amendment. We certainly need a system that promotes comprehensive mental health services from birth through death. But right now, we also need to stop engaging in clichés, to get the story right before reporting it first (hint, CNN), to step outside of our cloistered and entitled way of viewing the world. Newtown’s calling, but for me, so is Mount Vernon, New York, Littleton, Colorado, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Silver Spring, Maryland, Aurora, Colorado, Norway, Afghanistan, Pakistan and so many other parts of this world that have experienced violent tragedies.