A sad day, and a time for action


Today was an incredibly sad day with 26 people – 20 of them little ones – gunned down at school in Connecticut. What’s sadder still for me is that it’s only the most recent of increasingly frequent massacres of this type, and it’s getting worse at an alarming rate. I usually absorb these sorts of events privately, but the fact that today’s killings are on an especially large and senseless scale involving so many young children not much older than my own is compelling me to say more.

I still remember clearly the Columbine shootings in Colorado, probably the first shooting that really struck a chord for me because it was in a school, and nearby. I was in high school an hour away in Fort Collins at the time, but my friend at the time (now my wife) was much closer, living only miles away and much more connected to what was going. While I processed that event through a sort of detached fear and horror that this could happen anywhere – like my school, or my friends’ schools – it’s having a much different effect on me the older I get, and especially now that I’m a father.

From the other nearby shooting at a theatre in Aurora to the rest around the country and finally today’s school killings, I’m deeply troubled that my son is going to grow up in an age where this is commonplace. I’m glad for his sake that at two years old the news is a blur to be ignored, and when I asked him how his day went he happily babbled on about friends and activities like nothing special had happened today. I know in just a few years these events are going to hit him more deeply, whether it’s across the country or somewhere nearby. It’s one thing to go through fire drills and have basic safety precautions in place. But the thought of schools everywhere sheathed in metal detectors with armed guards and routine drills around what to do while a gunman roams the halls and the reality of more massacres not being if, but when and where they will occur, is more than I can put my head around and really makes me sick. No child should have the fear of being killed permeate their school. Of course I’m glad for anything that keeps my child safe, but I also can’t help feeling like it’s an un-winnable arms race as the frequency and severity of events like this keep climbing and we’re counting on school security measures alone to keep it in check.

Another big difference between Columbine and the recent shootings is how connected the world is by social media, and it’s probably only fueling my anger at the situation. While I read plenty of like-minded sentiments from friends completely fed up and disgusted with the state of second amendment paralysis in our country, it’s also not hard to find those quipping snidely that people kill people, take away the guns and they’ll just do it with a knife, or that if all the parents and teachers were armed to the teeth than a gunman would never make it past his first shot. My reaction is simple: that’s completely crazy. There’s a clear correlation between the level of gun control and the frequency and severity of gun violence in countries with stricter controls in place, and not just when it comes to the big-news massacre but with many types of violent crime. It’s even true on a muted scale with the different levels of state-imposed gun control in place in this country already. Limit the prevalence of guns and the opportunity and incidence of gun violence go down. Increase it and they go up.

I have no illusion that with tighter gun controls there won’t be sick people who set out to kill people in a school, theatre, or mall, but not letting them easily, legally, equip themselves with military-grade assault weapons will make a difference. In both today’s shooting and at the theatre in Aurora the reaction by authorities was by all accounts swift and thorough – they arrived in force within minutes, but it’s just not fast enough. The sheer volume of carnage that can be carried out by surprised with these types of weapons is more than any quick response will be able to intercept short of us living in a perpetual police state. The people who carried out these killings are directly to blame, are mentally ill, and we’re never going to fully get inside everyone’s head to curb that type of intent (nor do I think we should try). But we clearly understand and have control over the instruments they are using to carry it out with such vigor. Dozens of people aren’t going to be killed in seconds with a knife.

Probably the most ridiculous pro-gun argument I’m tired of hearing is the perpetual clinging to guns for self defense. You know, that in case some crazy guy breaks into my house or starts harassing me on the street I need to be able to shoot ‘em dead with my trusty handgun, therefore everyone should have whatever kinds of guns they want. Or when the government starts to really tread on me I’ll rise up and resist. Quite a bit has changed since the constitution was written and it’s infantile to keep propping it up with a sort of nostalgic colonial interpretation. We’re not talking about having a musket anymore, and statistics are clear that all forms of collateral and accidental injuries far outweigh the intentional ones by the average person owning a gun.

But what I find most ironic – and under-discussed – is that the capability of quick and efficient killing by modern firearms is matched by quite a few viable non-lethal options. Protect yourself with a taser if you’re really that worked up about it. If there’s a reason that instantly rendering an attacker unconscious or incapacitated isn’t good enough and you really have to be able to kill them, I’ve love to hear it. Especially since in so many high-profile encounters between law enforcement and civilians we expect the utmost restraint and non-lethal force handed down to the masses. If riot police can control a swarm of violent protesters with rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas I don’t see how the average Joe is somehow more entitled to instant lethal force at his fingertips for the by-and-large more mundane encounters he’ll need it for – if ever.

Basically, to the guns-for-everyone zealots I can only say this: I value my child’s life far more than your selfish fantasy of empowerment, and I truly hope we’ve hit a threshold of these tragedies where people who share a common-sense, pragmatic view of the tradeoffs between unbounded “liberty” and a safe world for us and our children are finally heard more loudly than you; loudly enough to give our politicians the courage to no longer be your hostage on the topic and finally enact some real change. This isn’t about hunting and self defense, it’s about your pride versus my son’s safety. I know progress happens slowly, and a lot of politicians and citizens alike are set in their ways, but the catalyst we have here is real and heartbreaking. Let’s not keep paying the price of children dying for our inaction. I have hope because there has been some real progress on other tough social issues recently – healthcare and LGBT liberties come to mind – and also because other parts of the world have turned a corner on gun control. I know on the macro scale it’s not the sort of inescapable human failing we dumb it down to be; individual bad people will always do bad things, but society absolutely has some ability and responsibility to shape the trend with thoughtful policy, and it can work if we have the courage to try.

Back off the progressive soapbox, if there’s one thing that heartens me about these terrible events it’s the love and protection that our teachers and others in the community show our children. It may shine through brightly when they’re calmly hiding kids away from a gunman or heroically throwing themselves in the line of fire, but they do it in a thousand little ways every day and as parents we are truly blessed by all those who give so much to our children when we can’t be with them.

I’m going to bed with a very heavy heart tonight, and I hope that by the time my son asks me to explain an event like this I can tell him that as sad and incomprehensible as it is, it’s something our country cares deeply about and is working hard to prevent. He deserves more than just a platitude about how these things happen and there’s nothing we can do about it, because there is.

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