The image of a Christmas tree with unopened presents piled underneath is heart breaking because of what will not happen for twenty families in Newtown, Connecticut on Christmas morning. The parents who bought and wrapped the presents for their children won’t be able to watch them open their gifts. Their children went to school on December 14, 2012, and they never came home because a gunman entered their school and twenty of them died along with their principal, the school psychologist, and several teachers. By the end of that Friday, a little more than a week before Christmas, the news of the Sandy Hook School murders and the suicide of the gunman had spread across the country and around the world. There are no words to capture the horror and tragedy at the school. Even the tears of the entire world cannot adequately mourn this kind of senseless violence.
How Can This Keep Happening?
The pattern of our reactions to the mass shootings is getting to be as horrifyingly predictable as the shootings themselves. Americans use words to describe their actions and reactions to this senseless violence. Many of these words are horrified, heartbroken, traumatized, disbelieving. We are horrified, we ask ‘how can this keep happening,’ we pray, we mourn, we remember, we call for action, and then the horror fades into everyday life and we move on with our lives.
In conversation and in Internet comments and essays, Americans are already debating in words, sometimes vitriolic, uncompromising words, what they believe caused this latest mass shooting tragedy in America. The gun control and anti-gun control forces often overlook the victims and continue their passionate debate before the victims are buried.
We are a Society Steeped in Violence
Americans and violence, especially gun violence, walk hand in hand. In 2010, nearly 5.5 million firearms were manufactured in the United States, 95 percent of them for the domestic market. Support for handguns has grown over the decades. In 1969, a Gallup Poll reported that 60 percent of Americans supported a handgun ban, but by 2011, only 26 percent of Americans favored such a ban.
Between 2001 and 2010, about 270,000 Americans died in shootings, including homicide, suicide, and accidents. According to the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Centers for Disease Control, America averages 87 gun deaths every day, 31,672 a year in 2010, with an average of 183 people injured. The Chicago Crime Lab’s research estimates that gun violence costs society $100 billion dollars a year.
Even mass killings don’t seem to make a dent in the gun culture. According to the Washington Post and Mother Jones, there have been at least 61 mass murders with firearms across America in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. In most cases the murders legally acquired their weapons. A week after Jared Loughner shot and severely wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six other people in Tucson, Arizona on January 8, 2011, thousands of people attended a gun show in Tucson. Some of them bought semiautomatic handguns similar to the one that Loughner used to fire 31 rounds into the crowd gathered outside a supermarket to meet with Congresswoman Giffords.
The escalating number of mass killings doesn’t seem to soften hardened words and attitudes or inspire people to rethink their attitudes toward guns. In 2012 alone, mass killings took place at a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a mall in Oregon, and an elementary school in Connecticut.
Are Mentally Ill People on a Decades-Long Rampage?
A superficial reading of the backgrounds of some of the mass shooters might tempt us to conclude that they were all mentally ill, evil people and we as a country need not concern ourselves with them except to despise and condemn them. A blanket condemnation of mentally ill people or locking them or their guns away will not eliminate mass shootings in America.
Studies by Fazel & Grann, 2006 and Swanson, 1994 suggest only 3% – 5% of violent acts are attributable to serious mental illness, and most don’t involve firearms. Not all mentally ill people are dangerous and science has not come up with a method to predict which ones will become violent.
Research shows that people with mental health problems for the most part do not contribute to gun violence. Studies by Fazel & Grann, 2006 and Swanson, 1994 suggest that even if we completely eliminated mental illness as a violence risk factor, less than four percent of mentally ill people turn violent. A three part science blog from the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard cites study findings that suggest that bringing suicide into the gun violence picture transforms mental illness into an important component in formulating a policy to prevent firearm violence.
The Center for Disease Control in estimates that suicides account for 61 percent of all firearm fatalities in the United States in 2010, that is for 19,393 of the 31,672 gun deaths recorded. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in Americans aged 15-24, the age group that goes to college, joins the military and in some cases experience the first episode of a major mental illness. Most suicide victims in this age group had diagnosed mental health problems and some even had some treatment.
Many states, including Maryland already have bans on gun sales to people with mental disorders or who have a history of violence. A study by Appelbaum & Swanson – 2010- examined federal and state laws to restrict access to firearms among people mentally ill people and they concluded that laws and restrictions don’t have much measurable impact.
How did the mentally ill person get a gun is a crucial question to answer, but an equally crucial question for society is “what treatment did this person have and why didn’t it work? Do we need to improve our methods of identifying and treating mentally ill people who have the potential to be violent?”
To See Ourselves as the World Sees Us? The world sent condolences to the United States after the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado on Friday, July 20, 2012, but newspapers around the globe expressed surprise and dismay that the United States did not act more forcefully to curb gun violence. A list in the Atlantic Wire of July 2012 compiled some of the world reaction. The Berliner Zeitung noted that in the United States the probability of being shot is 40 times greater than in Canada, England or Germany, but “politicians are too afraid to challenge the gun lobby. The reaction is always the same: shock, disbelief, sadness, prayers, repression. How can it be?”
The Guardian in Britain wrote that there was little hope of changing American gun laws and the difficulty wasn’t just checks, balances, and partisanship, but also in many of the American people’s love of guns. Columnist Alex Slater asked: “How many gun deaths does it take for American politicians to crack down on the availability of deadly weapons? Seemingly no number is high enough.”
The list of six and seven year olds from Sandy Hook School and their principal and teachers is far too high a number. It is time to stare at the violence nose to nose and see ourselves reflected there.
To See Ourselves as We Are
We need to argue the legality and illegality of guns with each other with the goal of moderating the violence, not creating more violence towards each other. We need to acknowledge that people kill with legal guns and well as illegal guns. We need to discuss whether or not arming more people will prevent future massacres and curtail the gun violence. We need to examine the concealed carry argument in all of its nuances. We need to debate the pros and cons of Congress reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. We need to use stiletto words to question Congress and the National Rifle Association about even limited gun control and demand answers.
In a study called Firearms and Violence the National Academy of Sciences reported that it found no evidence that increased legal access to guns is related to increases in gun violence. The study suggests that an increasing body of evidence reveals that right to carry laws lead to less gun violence.
Joan Ozanne-Smith of Monash University in Australia and her researchers studied fire arm deaths over a period of 22 years in Australia. They noted a significant drop in deaths, especially suicides after Australia instituted strict gun control laws in the late 1980s and mid 1990s. The United States has different variables than Australia, but the research proves that gun control prevents deaths.
We need to discuss and debate these pro and con studies and find a middle ground.
A significant point to ponder is that the level of non-gun homicide is higher in the United States than in other countries of the world. Perhaps a high level of violence is the cause of a high level of firearms availability instead of the other way around. Further studies about this premise would reveal much about us and our country.
People use words that interpret the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the “right to keep and bear arms,” amendment. Some people contend that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to keep and bear arms to protect themselves against the hostile government. They believe an armed citizenry is an essential defense against dictatorship, gun wielding criminals and unbalanced, sociopathic people who perpetrate massacres.
Others interpret the Second Amendment differently in the context of the time it was written and the necessity for states to create and maintain militias with the hostile government being Great Britain. It is a stretch of the imagination to think that the Founding Fathers could have foreseen assault weapons and Americans killing each other in the thousands. Many people don’t want to give up their guns, but they want to curtail the use of guns to kill people.
We need to moderate our words and our violence.
Words Can Bring Hope and Healing as Well as Hatred and Havoc
Children are forever gifts and they are our future. Heated words, arguments, and even reconciliation and a reduction in violence won’t bring back the ones we have lost. Words are lost in the enormity of evil acts and bottomless loss. Not even twenty-first century medical science can bring back people we have lost to gun violence, and there are no adequate words to express this kind of loss and sorrow.
We can find the words to stop at least some of the violence, to talk to each other, and to vanquish violence. We can rediscover words like Outrage, Resolve, and Courage, and apply them to reduce gun and other violence and save lives. If we act on these words, eventually we will be able to wrap our victories against violence as Christmas presents, put them under the Christmas tree, and the children of the future will be there to open them as a loving legacy.
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