In times of tragedy, it is tempting to write an immediate response. I have found it is wiser to wait twenty-four hours before writing at length about a tragedy and even then to do so in a very preliminary way, holding your conclusions loosely and keeping them open to revision as the shock fades away. Waiting to respond at all until the shock fades away runs the risk of simply dismissing what has happened as not terribly significant, which I believe is really the motive of people who call for no “political” response to tragedy.
When we consider the horrific events of December 14th in Newtown, CT, we need to recognize at least two truths. The first is that nobody in their right mind shoots anyone. It is especially horrific when someone kills children, twenty of them in one place. Our horror compounds exponentially, and it should. When well-meaning people make comparisons to children dying in other parts of the world due to military action or street violence they seem to be saying that we somehow are not entitled to our grief, even though that isn’t their intent. It intensifies our pain, and can do the opposite of the intent by creating resentment toward those other situations by creating the impression that somehow our grief in this situation isn’t justified. It’s bad timing. Grieving people need to grieve, and when we appear to tell them they haven’t got that right we do them a disservice.
Given that these shooters by definition have mental health issues, I have two sub-questions. The first is, why are we allowing insurance companies to avoid parity in mental health coverage? Insurance companies have strong lobbies working against us, but we can no longer sit by and allow their criminal irresponsibility. During the early 1990s insurance lobbies convinced legislators that institutionalizing people – including those who were potentially extremely violent – was wrong and so most State psychiatric hospitals were closed. Some patients were transferred to group homes, many others went home to families that naturally don’t have the skills to care for them adequately or to the streets. Group home residents were displaced by patients from the State hospitals. The only winners were the insurance companies – a scenario that has been repeated far too often in this country where insurance companies and not physicians control access to the healthcare system and the treatment offered there.
We simply need to move beyond the superstitious stigma around mental illness. According to NIMH, twenty-six percent of Americans over eighteen years old suffer from a mental illness. That’s just over one in four, including me. I believe that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive adequate treatment – especially those of us who function so well people wouldn’t suspect we have a mental illness – simply must speak out to remove the stigma. Mental illness, including addictions, aren’t weaknesses but rather medical conditions. Judging someone for mental illness is no different that judging them for having a broken leg or diabetes. I call on all my brothers and sisters among clergy and spiritual teachers to address this issues forthrightly.
My second sub-question is how long we will be willing to allow those whose greed leads them to oppose universal healthcare to continue to oppose it without calling them out for their greed, selfishness, and lack of compassion? How long will we allow those who feel that the answer to every social problem is privatization to prattle on without confronting them with the massive failure that private health insurance has become? How long will we let the fallacy that we must be kind to everyone – even those who create unjust systems that both deny healthcare, food, clothing, and shelter to people while at the same time denying their responsibility for the consequences of their systemic greed?
The second powerful lobby we simply must bring under control is the NRA. The Second Amendment to the Constitution does indeed guarantee the right to bear arms, but it doesn’t specify the type of arms we have the right to bear. It was also written in a time when semi-automatic and automatic weapons didn’t exist. Reloading time between shots on a Revolutionary War period weapon was much longer than the time it takes to pull the trigger or a semi-automatic weapon repeatedly. There is no legitimate need for handguns and there is no legitimate need for civilians to own automatic weapons. Anyone who believes they are going to effectively rebel against the power of the United States military with small arms is a hopeless idiot – and yet that is the basis for many claims around the need to own handguns. What’s more, comparisons to Hitler’s Germany around the issue of handguns are the product of fools who don’t understand that you can’t make legitimate comparisons when cohorts are disparate. The truth is that in contemporary America there is no reason for handgun ownership or the ownership of high-capacity magazines for weapons of any kind. The .223 rifle used in these killings is a civilian version of the M-16 with a capacity of thirty rounds. When coupled with a Glock and a Sig Sauer, these weapons would have allowed the shooter to fire more than fifty rounds without reloading. Did you know that anyone can purchase a weapon at a gun show without being required to pass any kind of background check?
I am, however, a realist. Changing gun laws won’t immediately take guns off the street. In fact, it will probably take several generations to eliminate handguns on the street. That being said, if we are going to get serious about ending these tragedies we simply must address both the cause of the attacks – mental illness – and the supply of weapons by which the attacks are carried out. None of the fallacious arguments against those two steps can be allowed to stand in our way.
We stand on the precipice of having to install metal detectors in the entryways of every school in the nation and having school doors locked at all times. That reality is made no better by small-minded ideologues who believe the solution is to arm every citizen, returning America to the level of violence experienced in the Old West. The logic is that if we all had a gun on our hip nobody would dare fire a gun. That logic isn’t borne out by the experience of Americans on the western frontier, but more important is that the violently mentally ill wouldn’t care if everyone had a gun on their hip because they aren’t responding to reality. Can any reasonable person believe that turning our cities into shooting galleries is a solution to anything? Do we want our children to grow up inside educational institutions that more resemble prisons than classrooms?
Will you join me in doing what needs to be done to create change? Are you willing to say that all children growing up safely is more responsible than our individual Clint Eastwood fantasies? Are we all willing to step fully into adulthood, take responsibility for the mess that has been created, and take the necessary steps to change things?