On Friday, when asked about the policy ramifications of that day’s elementary school shootings in Connecticut, White House spokesperson Jay Carney mentioned there would be “a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I do not think today is that day.”
He was right.
But, now, it is tomorrow.
Many people and news sources have quickly brought up the debate about gun control laws as a means of preventing future crimes like this. Most of the actual data I have seen being used as evidence for BOTH sides of this debate have been of the form “in this particular subset of cities that I am choosing to mention, during this particular period, right after a gun law was [enacted/repealed] , the [rate/number] of [murders/crimes] with guns went [up/down].” Pick your favorite word inside the brackets.
Among all such arguments I have seen recently on both sides of the debate, these arguments do not include data about ALL relevant cities (some conveniently unmentioned cities that implemented similar laws had the opposite trend?!??!) and never account for other confounding factors that may simultaneously have been affecting gun violence rates (or for that matter, may be affected BY gun violence rates).
There does, indeed, seem to be conflicting evidence. However, I’ve never heard a good reason why assault weapons–whose only purpose that I’m aware of is killing people quickly–should be legal. For other types of weapons, my thinking is less cut and dry, but my instinct is still pretty strong that fewer is better.
Watching the conversation both personally and in the national media after this and other major violent crimes, after people beat to death all of the arguments for and against stricter gun control laws (sorry for that sadly ironic figure of speech), the conversation shifts towards a discussion of mental health.
People rightly argue for more mental health support so mentally ill people can get the help they need and don’t resort to acts of violence. People also rightly beseech others not to stigmatize mentally ill people as violent criminals, since this stigma is false, cruel, and actually counterproductive since it prevents people from personally seeking mental health support.
Broadening people’s personal definition of mental illness can achieve both of these goals simultaneously. First of all, if someone goes out and shoots a bunch of people, something is psychologically wrong. I don’t know if it is congenital or not (maybe some of both); I don’t know whether it is a short term issue or a long term issue (maybe an underlying longer term issue with a short term spark); I don’t know whether the person technically falls in a particular DSM diagnosis; I don’t know whether psychiatric or psychological treatment might be helpful.
I DO know that if someone goes out and shoots people, something is wrong, and that this person (like all people) should have been given more support to have prevented his problems from getting this far and should have had easy access to psychological support once things started going poorly. In fact, I think that whenever someone purposely harms another person, something is psychologically wrong (an only exception possibly being in the attempted defense of one’s self, community, or country–although, admittedly, lots of people who commit unnecessary acts of violence think they are doing it for one of these reasons). Hopefully, reducing all real or perceived threats to safety will reduce these acts of violence as well.
If we as a country are willing to make a concerted effort to help people develop, from a young age, skills of introspection, empathy, stress management, anger management, and positive relationship development, then less violence will happen at all levels. This applies to fights at school, domestic violence, shootings, terrorist attacks, etc.
In addition to helping people develop the tools, mindsets, and experience necessary to deescalate short- or long-term situations that could turn violent, we need to make acute support more readily available and easily accessible when people perceive that a situation is escalating towards violence (two people who are mad at each other, a depressed loner with no friends, etc.).
Finally, in addition to helping people develop more robust ways of dealing with stress and anger, and providing more/better/more-accessible acute support in situations where stress and anger are boiling over anyway, it is also important to do what we can to reduce the sources of stress and anger in the first place. Underlying financial issues, medical issues, family issues, interpersonal conflicts, work issues, etc. all make it significantly harder to deal with new stress and, when in place for extended periods of time, can sometimes push people to lash out at others.
All work that is done to help people improve their lives in these areas, in addition to obviously being valid for its own sake, also reduces everyone’s levels of extreme stress and anger, bringing situations back in the range where people are better able to deal with issues themselves (due to their prior strong emotional education!) or at least which can be supported by a professional in when necessary.
Healing and moving forward
However, taking all of these steps to prevent future crimes is only one step towards healing in this situation. Mr. Rogers had some wonderful insights about how to communicate with kids abut scary situations.
“What children probably need to hear most from us adults is that they can talk with us about anything, and that we will do all that we can to keep them safe in any scary time.”
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
What is not mentioned in all of the links that are going around about Mr. Rogers is that this is good advice for EVERYONE, not just kids…
(The fictional) President Bartlett eloquently honors the helpers who ran INTO the fire.
State Senator Mike Johnston of Colorado (who will be President of the United States in a few years) wrote beautifully about the myriad “helpers” who sprang to action after the Aurora theater shootings and about the triumph of love over hate.
Finally, The Atlantic Wire is collecting stories of the heroes of the Connecticut tragedy.
I take comfort that there are helpers all around, always. When I walk into a movie theater, mall, or airplane, I feel safe knowing that 100% of the people in the crowds around me are on my side. On the unlucky day when there is one person in the crowd who wishes me harm, I am satisfied to know that there are hundreds of others whose thoughts and actions counteract that.
I am proud to live in a society where I know this is the case.
More broadly, I take further comfort in the knowledge that so many people do so many things each day to support others (in an organized/ongoing way, or in the spur of the moment). I am proud to live in a world full of nice people who work to support our common humanity!
Beyond State Senator Johnston’s suggestion to acknowledge all of the love out there and work to increase it in our daily lives, it may seem hard to personally have an effect on violent crime (let alone gun control or mental health policy).
I’d encourage you to explore (or donate to!) some of the following initiatives designed help people get along better:
The Sustained Dialogue Campus Network
The Arbinger Institute (authors of The Anatomy of Peace, among other things)
PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center
Finally, in this time of sorrow, music can provide some healing and catharsis: The Prayer of the Children.