I know all the arguments about guns. I believe in the Bill of Rights. All of them. However, the right to own an assault weapon and the right to own a gun are not the same thing. I know all the arguments about criminals don’t pay attention to laws. We can continue to hash out specious arguments and do nothing, but it isn’t productive and won’t save lives.
I taught in a rural school where most kids legally owned guns. In teaching about logic one day, we read a magazine article about girls and guns. It was horrifying, but the statistics were presented in a way to satisfy the argument but not logically. I asked my class how many of them owned guns. Every single student’s hand went up. Every. Single. One. But they were also incredulous that someone would assume that owning a gun meant they were stupid enough to bring it to school. These teens were responsible hunters. They took gun safety courses, and they took safety seriously. It didn’t happen by accident. They were taught.
We have to be willing to do SOMETHING instead of digging out old, spurious arguments about why every action won’t work. We have to prevent people with mental illness from getting guns – especially assault weapons. We have to take the stigma away from getting help for mental illness and make getting treatment easier.
The school, the students, and others in the life of the most recent shooter knew this was a troubled young man. He was expelled from the school. His classmates now say they thought he was someone who could do this. There were people around him who saw the signs of mental illness. He had traumatic events happen in his life including the death of both parents. Plenty of people saw the signs but didn’t step in. Why? Fear. Legalism and legalities. Not wanting to cause trouble. The list could go on and probably includes something that every one of us could recognize as one we’ve used.
All of our society is to blame. We don’t hold people accountable. We’re afraid of stepping on someone’s toes. We have become a society that is afraid to take responsibility and step in. We can no longer correct and discipline the children we see doing things that are wrong or dangerous. When I was a kid and did something wrong that neighbors saw, they stopped me and called my mom. I can’t even count the number of times my next door neighbor, Mrs. Rossano, would yell at me in her broken English to get down off the top of the swing set before “you breaka you neck.” I behaved in school because I knew that if the school called my parents, there would be a price to be paid.
Fast forward to the present and I was reprimanded at my job as a librarian for asking a child to stop screaming. His mother told me not to speak to her child and accused me of being a racist for asking him to be quiet in a library. After stopping another child engaged in violent play that was putting a toddler in danger, a mother, wearing a Messiah College Sweatshirt, told me very angrily not to ever correct her child because it was her job. (Which I wouldn’t have had to do if she did her job at that moment!)
As a teacher, I could not rely on parents to take action or even believe me if I called about the behavior of a student. I called one parent and was told (and this is a quote), “If you have a problem up at that school, it isn’t my kid.” That kid later was killed in a car “accident” where, by all accounts, he wrecked it on purpose. I had another student who wrote a poem called “Killing English Teachers is Good and Wholesome.” His mother responded that I didn’t understand his creativity.
On another occasion a woman called to tell me that a relative of hers had stolen guns from a family member. They weren’t calling the police. His parents were basically doing nothing because they doted on this child and believed he never did anything wrong. She wanted me to know about it because she saw him as someone who would bring those guns into the school and use them. I reported it to our administration, but with no evidence at school, nothing could be done.
During practice for graduation one year, we had a student with glazed eyes who did not recognize his own name when it was called. He could not carry on a conversation with the dean of students and me. Obviously we could not allow this child to get into his car and drive home. We knew this boy and his reputation for drug use. However, because of the way regulations are today, we phoned his mother and described to her the physical symptoms we were seeing. We merely told her that we didn’t think he felt well enough to drive home. Her response was that he had a cold and maybe took some medicine. No one said anything about stuffy nose, coughing or sneezing among the symptoms.
I tell you these examples because they are common, everyday happenings. While they certainly hurt people around them, none led to acts of mass violence. But we don’t know which ones will. I don’t like either/or reasoning. It tends to be fallacious. But in the case of the ongoing threats to our society, and especially to the most vulnerable within our society, it is true. If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. If all you can do is throw up your hands in despair and point out what won’t work, you are enabling.
One of my former students who became a teacher shared yesterday that she had a student who brought a gun to school. He was caught before any tragedy happened. He asked the officials to share a message with her. He decided not to do anything because she had cared and taken the time to talk to him. We have good teachers who have loved children through problems every day. Sometimes they don’t know the extent of the difference they have made. But I’m sure that all teachers would tell you that they would like to be able to do more. It is through connections they make in the classroom that they can. In order to do this, class sizes need to be small and we need to allow teachers to teach – when they are busy doing scripted lessons and test prep, they can’t make the kinds of connections that need to be made through interaction.
There is no one simple solution that will prevent mass shootings. We need a combination of every facet of society saying Enough is Enough and working together to solve the problem.
- We need to stop pointing fingers and start working together.
- We need to stop offering platitudes and start putting action behind our words. I believe in the power of prayer and pray for all of those victimized in these violent events, but we have to also take action to prevent others from becoming victims.
- We need everyone to stop digging in their heels to protect their own self interests and begin working toward the good of all.
- We need to empower schools and law enforcement to require that students be assessed for mental health issues if they see any signs.
- We need to open genuine communication between schools and parents. As a teacher I was told that I could not suggest that a child might benefit from counseling or that there may be a need for drug and and alcohol screening.
- We need families to be willing to help their loved ones get the mental help they need just as they would get them the medical help they need for the flu, broken bones, and cancer.
- We need child psychologists available to our young people in addition to guidance counselors in every school in the country.
- We need to assure that Medicaid is NOT cut because a huge amount of the funding for mental health in this country comes from it. According to several sources including the Kaiser Family Foundation, “a total of $135 billion was spent on behavioral health services in the United States. The federal-state Medicaid program is the largest source of financing these services, covering over a quarter of all expenditures. Medicaid plays a large role in financing behavioral health care because its eligibility rules reach many individuals with significant need; it covers a broad range of benefits; and its financing structure allows states to expand services with federal financial assistance.”
- We need gun owners and the NRA to say that gun ownership is a Constitutional right but that there needs to be some common sense involved in regulating who should not have a gun and what kinds of guns should not be necessary.
- We need to acknowledge that just making something illegal will not stop it completely, but it could save many lives. Taking away a market for assault weapons would at least slow their manufacture and proliferation.
- We need our elected officials to take real action that protects and heals Americans instead of following the lobbyists with money and special interests. When it comes to protecting their constituents, we need them to have courage to speak truth and act on it even if it angers some of their donors.
- We need to live out a Christian teaching that even the likes of Bill Maher and Joy Behar wouldn’t argue with. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Doing this would lead us to do the right things, accept the help others are willing to give, and prevent a multitude of evils. True love would not involve doting, ignoring the things we don’t want to acknowledge, or allowing those we love to continue in a state of mental illness. I’m sure I could go on listing things we need, but I believe this last one has in it all of the ways that people can come up with. If people put their hearts and minds to work seeking answers in love, there is no telling what could be accomplished. As Peter said in his epistle, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1Peter 4:8)