I have been planning to resume my series of posts about education reform, but somehow life keeps getting in the way. And, after the tragedy that occurred last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, I think discussing reforms for curricula, teaching, and schools should be postponed for a little while longer. Instead, as we read that our elected officials may be responding to last week’s tragedy with a desire to take action, I want to briefly ask for all sides in this discussion to listen to each other more than they talk, and to find a wise answer—not just an immediate answer.
Last July, after another such tragedy occurred in Colorado, I wrote a post about the what I believe is the core cause of these tragedies: What can we learn from the Aurora, Colorado tragedy?. In summary, I believe we unwittingly have created a void in our society that has allowed certain people (almost always young men) to feel so isolated from the rest of us that they use weapons to lash out at strangers and inflict public mayhem. As I wrote in response to a comment to that post,
“There simply is no easy, quick cure for the loner who has become so isolated and has never learned self-restraint, other than good neighbors who look out for that person and the community, and who act when they see signs of trouble before they boil over. And there is no easy way to re-build the sense of responsibility that is required to have good neighbors. It will take to time and effort to re-establish a true sense of neighborhood.”
I believed that statement then, and the unfolding evidence from last week’s tragedy seems to provide further support for my view of the core cause of such events and the difficulty of dealing with it as a society.
However, it also is clear that the tool of choice of these loners is a semi-automatic gun with a large magazine clip that reduces the time and need for reloading, and thus allows for a greater infliction of mayhem before the police arrive. Yes, it’s true that a few of the lone assailants also had built bombs and booby-trapped apartments, but those weren’t the tools they used to kill their neighbors. And, it is important to realize that a gun is a special kind of tool. It only has two intended purposes: for the sport of target shooting; and to injure or kill another living creature.
But as we make these observations we have to remember that a gun—any gun—is simply a tool. Just like a hammer can’t drive a nail by itself, a gun doesn’t fire itself—it requires human action, which results from human intent or mistake. In fact, there are at least five reasons for owning a gun: hunting animals; protection and defense of oneself and family from crime; defense of oneself and the community from tyranny; to commit crime; and for military use. As Judge Richard Posner reminded us in a judicial opinion just last week, four of these five purposes are legitimate and legal under federal and state constitutions: http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/tmp/O50LDJ0K.pdf. The question we must ask ourselves then as we listen and discuss this issue in the wake of so many recent tragedies is, how do we keep criminals and misguided loners from using guns to commit crime and mayhem while retaining our basic constitutional rights?
That is a question easier to ask than to answer—if this question were easy to answer, it would have been answered long ago. For instance, just read the recent discussion between two liberals published in The Atlantic and Salon about the wisdom of enacting more concealed-carry laws versus more laws that limit access to guns, and you will see how difficult reaching a consensus on this issue has been, and will continue to be—even as all of us want to bring an end to these tragedies: The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control); The answer is not more guns; Responding to Alex Seitz-Wald on Gun Control.
I don’t have an easy answer to this question, either. Renewal of the assault-weapon ban, and/or a ban on large magazine clips, superficially seems like it could reduce the opportunity for a criminal or a misguided loner to create incidents of mass mayhem. However, because one of the constitutional purposes for the right to bear arms is defense of oneself and the community from a tyrannical movement or government (no matter how hypothetical, or even implausible, such an idea may seem to a 21st Century American), we need to at least pause and consider whether these laws would be constitutional in an age when the government has access to even greater firepower. Assuming such bans would be constitutional, we still need to remember that the Columbine massacre happened when two teenagers were able to obtain very lethal weapons while the 1994 law was in effect, that American cities with the most stringent gun laws have the worst gun violence, and that the vast number of weapons and magazines already in circulation means that the real immediate impact of such a law will be minimal.
Even realizing at least the short-term limitations to the effectiveness of such laws, it may be time to reduce the volume of these large-scale weapons and/or magazines in private hands by reducing future access to such items as part of policy aimed to prevent future mass tragedies. But, if all we do is reduce access to the tools used by the perpetrators of tragedies like Newton, they eventually will find other tools (like the suicide or homicide bombers in the Middle East) and other outlets for their perverse desires. In that event, there will be future grieving families in places yet unnamed on our map of mass killings, because we will not have addressed the core cause of these tragedies.
Criminals, unfortunately, will always be with us. Regardless of all the work we have done and will continue to do to reduce poverty, improve education, increase economic opportunity, and rehabilitate the fallen, some people will choose a life of crime outside the norm of our communities. They will do this because there really is evil within us that causes some of us to make different choices in life—some people simply look at the world and perceive it so differently than the rest of us that they choose to find their own sense of purpose—and even sense of community—through engaging in criminal activity.
But we can and do deal with such criminals—they are not the people creating the mayhem and grief for towns like Newtown.
To ever hope to end the carnage of these mass killings over the long run, we are going to have to address the deeper problems that cause young men to become isolated from the rest of us, and to harbor the types of desires and ideas that lead them to make the awful choices that play out through the misuse of guns in these tragedies. This effort will require some soul-searching among mental-health professionals, our clergy and social-services communities, the entertainment industry, and our legal profession and our politicians, about how to identify and help isolated, struggling, and potentially mentally-ill young men in our communities to re-build their lives and re-engage productively in our society (and to reduce their access to weapons while we engage in this effort). Most importantly, we are going to have to re-embrace our role as neighbors to these isolated young men in order to help them—and, in the process, to help reduce the risk that another town or family will grieve another senseless loss in the future.
More often than not, human experience humbly reminds us that the simplest answer is usually the right answer; but, for some reason, it is often the hardest to embrace and implement. As we near the day many of us celebrate the birth of Christ, I believe the simple answer to these tragedies is the one Christ kept repeating to us: “love thy neighbor.” If we keep that answer in mind, we’ll find a way to address this problem effectively and wisely.