In the past, I’ve made a claim that social networks like Facebook can be an excellent opportunity to learn from others, engage in meaningful dialogue, and ultimately break down barriers between people… if used correctly. The recent tragic events in Newtown, CT resulted in a barrage of commentary on Facebook.
Different people have different coping mechanisms when confronted with personal or vicarious tragedies. It was apparent in the wide variety of responses people had. Some expressed grief. Others expressed outrage. Some remained quiet. All those responses are perfectly normal; there is no one “right” reaction for people to have. Me? I wanted to talk about ways we could prevent this from happening again.
Like all parents, I couldn’t help placing myself in the position of the parents that lost their children that day. It’s a feeling of helplessness and terror only another parent could understand. I dealt with those feelings by considering my own thoughts and opinions on the apparent causes of the tragedy, which caused me to reconsider a lot of my opinions on a vast range of issues. Discussions with others, both those that agreed with me and disagreed with me, help reformulate my opinions. For the most part, I compartmentalized my feelings about protecting my kids and took a more “cerebral” approach, which is one of my coping mechanisms.
The discussions with friends centered mostly of three issues: Mental health, religion, and gun control. Discussions on the first two didn’t really change my thoughts too much. I still believe we need to spend more money (tax dollars) to fund research on human behavior, and we need to greatly expand our mental health system to assist those that do not have the financial resources to have access to mental health. We also need to do a better job of screening individuals. There’s a tricky issue of involuntary commitment versus personal rights, but I’m generally in favor of allowing it in cases where an individual could be a danger to others. As a society, we have to decide how we’re going to handle individuals that are clearly violent. Read this excellent post about a mother struggling to get help for her obviously dangerous son.
The religious discussions also didn’t change my opinions much. While many people were calling for more “God in schools”, I’m still a strong opponent of any government-sponsored religion. Religion and morality aren’t correlated, though truly internalizing the teachings of pretty much any world religion will help develop moral development. Religion is important to society, but so is the freedom to practice any religion you choose (which includes no religion at all.) Keep all religion out of government, which includes schools that receive government funding. However, it’s also important to protect individual’s right to practice their chosen religion. Far too many atheists, in an attempt to accomplish the first goal, completely trample the second.
That brings us to gun control. In the past, I’ve been an opponent of gun control based on a few ideas. First, it’s a right granted by the Constitution and modernized through Supreme Court interpretations. While some are more than willing to give up that right, we should so so with great trepidation. Remember when Congress gave the President the authority to pursue terrorism by any means necessary after 9-11? What happened? The government detained people without bringing changes, tortured suspected terrorists, expanded the TSA to include invasive searches, and allowed our government to spy on us without a court order… all things people have bitterly opposed despite the fact that our representatives gave all those rights away. When we give away our rights, we give away our rights.
Second, I always questioned the logic of banning any class of guns. We have anywhere between 200 and 300 million guns in the United States. It is very easy to acquire a firearm via illegal channels. Banning any class of guns does little to keep guns out of the hands of people that want to use them for crime. Spending any time in an economically-depressed area should make that fact obvious. Some use the “but Japan/Great Britain/other largely gunless society has a very small number of murders committed by guns” argument, which is stupid. Our founding fathers opened Pandora’s Box and allowed our citizens to own guns. The elimination or exceedingly strict gun control measures in those countries work because they don’t have the sheer volume of guns we have here in the US.
Third, guns aren’t the only means of inflicting mass casualties. Oklahoma City should have taught us that. With the proliferation of the Internet, the methods to make bombs, make and disseminate poison, and other various agents of mass fatalities has been brought to the general public. Guns are just a tool, and they’re not the only tool in the toolbox. Banning some guns may stop some crimes of passion, but it’s not going to stop crimes that involve any degree of premeditation.
Fourth, many people use guns for protection. Yes, that increases accidental shootings, but that risk is mostly eliminated with safe storage and effective training. For example, the use of biometric storage and firing devices, storage of ammunition and guns in different locations, understanding the ambiguity of perpetrator identification, and actually discussing and exposing children to firearms are steps smart gun owners take.
Finally, I was a proponent of allowing teachers to carry guns. Having been a teacher for twelve years, I understood the potential logistics of a school shooting and the psychology of a likely perpetrator. Any “shooter” that was bent on inflicting mass casualties isn’t going to choose a location with people armed with guns. There’s a reason we guard banks, airports, federal buildings, courthouses, and a host of other important locations with guns… they’re a powerful deterrent. I never quite understood why our schools, which contain our most precious possessions, are not protected by armed guards.
So what changed?
On the surface, it probably seemed like the gun control debates my friends and I had repeatedly made the same points over and over again. When digging deeper, you could see very subtle shifts in thought. Forcing yourself to really defend your positions has two possible effects- it will either strengthen your positions or change your mind. For those that accept they could be wrong, the latter is usually the result. To people that are convinced they are usually (or always) right, the former is the result. I always strive to be in the latter category.
And that’s what happened.
Slowly (thanks to my friend Suzanne and a few others) I came to see the logic of banning assault rifles. While I don’t think such a ban will do anything to actually reduce gun-related crimes, it introduces a deeper message- as a collective society, we’re taking the initial steps to end all violence. Yes, this tramples on our Second Amendment rights… but that’s a good thing. We’re not going to legislate away evil. However, taking these initial little steps will force us to really consider the deeper issue- why do people do violent acts in the first place? As I wrote earlier, we don’t have a good understanding of human aggression. We don’t know if exposure to aggression increases or decreases aggression. We don’t know if aggression is learned, innate, or some combination of both. If we can solve the aggression riddle, we’ll solve the gun violence problem.
I’ve also reconsidered my thoughts on teachers carrying guns. Shelly and I had a discussion about the actual logistics of schools. In the post-Columbine world, schools set up policies to become more secure. That includes things like limiting entry points in buildings and setting “lock-down” procedures. If a threat enters a building, the school moves all students into lockable classrooms and closes all internal doors. The idea is to sequester a potential threat in one area until the police arrive. This limits potential casualties t the area where the threat is sequestered. This limits the potential dangers to all students. Great for the school; bad for the area where the threat is sequestered.
If teachers are armed, it presents a few significant problems. First,most teachers don’t have a “I can handle a gun” mentality. I had a whole lotta former colleagues that would scare me if they tried handling a firearm, especially in a crisis situation. There were a few that didn’t fit that category, but they had extensive military or firearm training.
Second, the teacher’s first responsibility is getting all the kids behind a lockable door, which means the teacher is also behind said door. If the threat is outside the classroom, the armed teacher is useless without having to open the door, thus exposing the kids to harm.
Third, the teacher would be a potential threat to first responders. If I were a police officer, I wouldn’t want to enter a building in search of a person with a gun and have to discriminate between other similarly-dressed people with a gun. The only solution would be to involve the teachers in the police training, which would come at a considerable cost, and we know people don’t like ponying up money to pay for anything related to schools.
So what solution sounded reasonable? We live in a society with A LOT guns, and we use those guns to protect a wide variety of things. I see no reason why kids should be any different from money, airline travelers, or an old painting hanging in a museum. Teachers being armed present a variety of logistical problems, so why not stations a few armed guards at schools? These could be members of the local police force or they could be school personnel that train with the local police. That, coupled with more access security (like we see in police stations and court houses) won’t completely eliminate the danger, but it will make our schools a lot less desirable target.
I’ve also revisited an idea I’ve kicked around for a few years- a total worldwide ban on all guns, including those used by the military. Require everyone to turn over their guns to be destroyed and set extreme penalties for those that do not follow suit. Yes, I know this is a completely unrealistic Utopian idea, but hear me out. Through murder, war, and genocide, we’re our own worst enemy. This has been the trend for a very, very long time, even before guns. In fact, we assume humans are innately aggressive because we’ve been aggressive throughout our entire recorded history.
Unfortunately recored history seems to ignore one indisputable fact- for every aggressive act, there are countless acts of peace, kindness, and love. Maybe our supposed “aggressive” nature isn’t innate. Maybe empathy and respect are the norms, and situational antecedents drive violent behavior. Banning all guns would force us to address that issue. It would force us to see others as sources of positivity and good as opposed to seeing everyone as a potential threat. The world is only a dangerous place because we make it a dangerous place. Banning guns won’t guarantee we’d eliminate that mindset… but it might. What we’re doing now isn’t working too well, so why not give love a shot.
Delusional? Maybe. But my delusional world is a better place. I’m okay with that.
All of these ideas wouldn’t be possible without the open, honest discussion from my friends, and for that I’m greatly appreciative.