The public outpouring in the aftermath of the horrific massacre that took place in Newtown last Friday less than 20 miles from my home is an important part of the grieving process. It gives strangers a way to connect and express heartfelt sympathy, as well as process overwhelming feelings of profound helplessness and find coping strategies. Social media has provided a virtual comfort-exchange: people are sharing thoughts and articles that might offer comfort, while, in turn, seeking out other perspectives and ideas that might bring them comfort.
Amid the ubiquitous reflexive calls for a gun ban, I found a compelling, controversial essay by Liza Long making the rounds on Sunday morning called, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” It’s a powerful and chilling first-hand perspective of living with a violent, mentally ill child. Read it if you haven’t already. Like the essay’s author, I fall into the category of folks who believe the national dialogue needs to address the care and treatment of the mentally ill, particularly kids. And equally as strongly, I believe we need a brutally honest assessment of the factors that contribute to people being so desensitized to violence.
But what about gun control, you ask. No, I don’t own a gun. However, I know others who do, and I strenuously support their constitutional right to do so. With rights inherently come responsibility. And the fact is that based on production data from firearm manufacturers, there were roughly 300 million firearms owned by U.S. civilians in 2010, and the many millions of legal, responsible gun owners should not be stripped of their rights because of the atrocious misdoings of a small population of sick, evil people. I do, however, believe gun purchases and ownership warrant reasonable regulation, just like we regulate the use of things like motor vehicles. Sadly, the innocent victims who perished in Newtown are no different from the nearly 10,000 innocent victims who are killed each year in the U.S. by drunk drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Is the solution to get rid of cars? Of course not. It’s to require drivers to go through extensive education and training before they’re licensed. To require they register their cars. To equip cars with safety mechanisms. To require drivers to abide by regulations for safe use. To continually barrage the public with reminders of the fundamental dangers of driving under the influence. Likewise, legislating and promoting the responsible use of firearms is good, common sense. Will we eliminate gun deaths? No. No more than we can eliminate car accidents. But it would certainly be a significant step forward in reducing gun-related tragedies.
However, if you believe that restricting or banning civilian gun use is the sole panacea, you’re not looking at the whole picture.
There most certainly needs to be reform in the area of caring for and treating the mentally ill, especially youth. As parent Liza Long, as well as psychiatric and legal experts, have attested, violent, mentally ill children can’t be legally detained and put out of risk unless they’re charged with a crime. This is a crucial area for examination and discussion. Further, as Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson, executive director of California-based Autism Care and Treatment, asserts, there needs to be common sense with regard to firearms exercised in households where there are mentally impaired children. Says Alspaugh-Jackson, “Any child with a neurological or psychological disorder should not live in a house with access to guns. That is, to me, totally irresponsible.”
In addition, I’m a strong proponent of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s proposal for a nonpartisan commission to focus not only on gun laws and the mental health system, but also violence in movies and video games. It’s pretty hypocritical to glorify a culture of mass violence and death in the media, then turn around and insist that guns don’t belong in society. Billions of dollars are made by glamorizing guns in video games whose only purpose is to see how many people you can shoot or buildings you can blow up, and in star-powered blockbuster action movies. Mass assault and bloodshed as entertainment has desensitized society and ratcheted up aggression. Not coincidentally, a recent Ohio State study found that “people who played a violent video game for three consecutive days showed increases in aggressive behavior and hostile expectations each day they played.” By contrast, the study revealed those who played nonviolent games showed no meaningful changes in aggression or hostile expectations over that period.
If we allow our kids to shoot people and explode objects for amusement, we’re expressly contradicting any legitimate messages we might attempt to communicate about responsible gun use. I’m sorry, but I think it’s an abdication of parental authority to say that rather than bearing the responsibility of monitoring or restricting our kids’ entertainment, we should summarily eliminate other people’s access to guns. It’s a cop-out to abolish someone else’s rights in order to make our own jobs less of a hassle. Have we as a society really grown that lazy as parents — or that eager to please our kids — that it’s simply easier (or perhaps more popular) to stomp on the Constitution and marginalize the precepts of our Founding Fathers than to actually be deliberate and impose limits?
My kids weren’t allowed to have toy guns. Nope, not even water pistols. Guns aren’t toys as far as I’m concerned, and it’s personally sickening to see children simulate shooting as entertainment. Video games have never been big in my house either, and we’ve had oversight of games that have come into the house. That’s the policy we as parents decided to set, and we consciously chose not to endorse shooting as entertainment. The kids, who are now in their mid- to late-teens, have always understood and respected our rationale. You’re, of course, entitled to use your own judgment to do as you see fit in your own household. That’s your business, and it’s not my place to comment on it.
But as a nation, I believe we need to take off the blinders and have a frank dialogue about what’s acceptable as entertainment, and not be afraid of offending or disenfranchising Hollywood in the process. The more violent video games we buy and the more box office dollars we spend to see violent films, the more the studios will churn out. And more immediately and importantly, I vigorously urge parents to take control of what’s permissible in our own homes rather than pointing the finger of blame elsewhere and crusading for the removal of other citizens’ rights. Let’s start at home, using common sense and our own parental authority.
Finally, I believe that we need to embrace faith more strongly and regularly in our own families and in our communities. Over this past weekend, churches, synagogues and community prayer vigils were filled beyond capacity with people seeking healing in response to Friday’s unspeakable decimation. Instead of turning to faith and prayer mainly in times of unbearable pain and despair, why can’t we make a commitment to finding out what a difference it would make in the world for families to take strength and comfort from some kind of prayer on a consistent basis? Prayer, in whatever form you choose, is immensely powerful, and a prime opportunity to teach children about religious and/or human values.
Individually, each of these ideas might have some small effect, but think about how much significant change could truly be achieved if we combined all these efforts. Instead of making Sandy Hook one more wasted episode of rhetoric and rancor, what if we actually carved a path to real reform? Out of shared grief from senseless tragedies — events that cut excruciatingly close to home, that we can never, ever begin to comprehend, much less put perspective on — can come poignant reflection, renewed gratitude and resolute commitment toward meaningful change. Let’s make meaningful change the lasting legacy of Sandy Hook, and elevate the memories of those beautiful souls who were lost but shall never be forgotten.