Change, One Step at a Time: On the Newtown Tragedy, Guns, and Letting Go of Our Excesses

A vigil for the Newtown school tragedy. Photo credit: 2012 Penn State/flickr.

My deep conviction has always been that the moment of tragedy is no time for advocacy or politics from either side; that as a nation we move too quickly to get past these horrific events and would benefit from marinating in our shared humanity, pausing in communal grief, and just feeling. But my mind and heart have been changed by the horror in Newtown, Connecticut. Unlike other national tragedies which I certainly feel to an extent, this one cut into me as a parent, a Christian, and an American. From my cubicle at work, I began to tremble and cry when I saw the news, and have since been moved by the firm challenge of many including our President who remind us that these tragedies are so frequent now that there remains no good time to discuss solutions. If we can’t focus our outrage at this moment, when will change ever come?

Known and Unknown

I have grown weary of those who look at the present situation, shrug, and suggest that it’s too confusing, too dark, or too vast to tackle. Sure, addressing violence in our nation is a complicated task. There can be no complete answer because the contributing factors are surely many, including things beyond our current grasp, and human nature remains broken. But that should not keep us from taking steps in the right direction.

As a Christian, I don’t believe that we will know a more complete peace until Christ returns. Yet we Christians seek to bring forth glimpses of God’s Kingdom now, attempting to live Jesus’ prayer: “your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” Christians labor in hope because God is already moving to heal humankind’s depravity, with a trajectory pointing towards reconciliation and restoration.

My spiritual mentor Rev. Earl F. Palmer explained that peace usually comes about in stages, during a time when both sides can’t see the end result, and don’t yet trust one another completely. We gain not through domination but through compromise; the laying down of weapons and defenses one at a time, back and forth, with both sides demonstrating surrender as a safe path. This is only possible when each side acts in good faith.

Starting With the Obvious

Guns are unquestionably part of the problem, but they are not nearly all of it. Gun owners, I understand you in part. I support those who own a modest firearm for sport or to protect themselves or their family as long as they go to great lengths to keep it secured. But there are excesses to gun ownership.

Something needs to be done, these are not normal guns, that people need. These are guns for an arsenal, and you get lunatics like this guy who goes into a school fully armed and protected to take return fire. We live in a town, not in a war,” - Joel T. Faxon [NYT], Newtown resident, hunter and member of Newtown’s police commission

To those who say “guns don’t kill people” and “other things kill people too,” these responses are beside the point. Assault rifles, semi-automatic weapons, and high capacity clips make killing incredibly efficient, in a way a baseball bat, kitchen knife, or accident by lawn mower never could. It is also important to remember that those other items have primary uses not related to killing. The Aurora tragedy happened in a state allowing concealed weapons and Newtown was the result of legally purchased, high-capacity firearms falling into the wrong hands. We’ve seen it play out this way far too many times before, revealing just how toothless the so-called protections truly are.

Look, I grew up on an Oregon farm where guns were a part of life; and my dad gave me a .22 rifle for my 12th birthday. I understand: shooting is fun! But so is driving, and we accept that we must wear seat belts, use headlights at night, and fill out forms to buy a car. Why can’t we be equally adult about regulating guns?” -Nicholas Kristof

I don’t want kids and other innocents to continue dying so people can have almost unrestricted access to weaponize their paranoid fantasy about being cornered by criminals or the government. The last thing we need are civilians with a Rambo complex trying to save the day when a shooter is moving through a crowded area. Even the NYPD shot nine bystanders on the way to nabbing a recent threat, and they’re trained. If the government does turn on We The People, no person with an arsenal in the shed is going to outlast a government with a defense budget in the hundreds of billions each year.

For too many, guns have become idols. They claim divine status; make promises of safety and security they cannot keep; transform people and neighborhoods; create enemies; and require human sacrifice.” -James Atwood

The obvious first step, the low hanging fruit, is to ban the most high capacity, combat-ready weapons and accessories, and offer a government-assisted buy back program through local law enforcement. It’s a start.

Is Anyone Willing to Budge?

There are other issues begging for our attention in light of these shooting tragedies: mental illness, malaise in young men, pornography on demand and the scientifically-observed way it rewires the brain and leads to numbing and depression, increasingly sadistic video games, increasingly sadistic television, frequently sadistic films, and more. What’s my point? It’s not that everything is equal. But the left and the right do have blind spots; glossing over varying problems which dehumanize, desensitize, and destroy, and we have to be willing to look at all of it with fresh eyes if change is going to occur. Many gun owners expect their access to military-grade weapons to not only continue, but expand, despite the increasing carnage in our streets, movie theaters, malls, and schools. Many on the left don’t appear to want to discuss limiting or reworking how the population accesses our more vicious and degrading content labeled as entertainment. Each side downplays these excesses, cites the right to bear arms or freedom of expression, and reminds the world that they’re not the ones misusing the privilege. But that does not negate the damage nor does it erase those who are more susceptible to abusing our manufactured extremes.

In exchange for a ban on assault rifles, will the left agree to re-think its approval of the more harsh content labeled as entertainment? There’s a difference between censorship and a culture which collectively develops a distaste for its excesses, thus relegating the market for such material to the fringe.

The Scriptures say: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” I have to ask of my fellow Christians: if we believe in Christ’s eventual return, and take seriously  texts like the one above, are we, as the President said, doing all that we can to bring this peace into reality today, or are we letting the earth fall into hell, wagging our fingers with disapproval and misplaced blame, and waiting for our heavenly escape?

It is time for the first step. It is time for us to change. Do we have the courage to begin that journey? Do we have the willpower to surrender something? Anything?


12 thoughts on “Change, One Step at a Time: On the Newtown Tragedy, Guns, and Letting Go of Our Excesses

  1. Ian, This entry summarizes my view on the issue in many ways. In television these days, violence is also more rampant that it was in the 80′s. I had to explain to my 3.5 year old why he couldn’t watch Spiderman cartoons, and apparently many of his friends have seen it.
    I also have a dear sister in law with a mentally ill child. She is fearful of him. This child had two loving parents, good morals and they are scared of him. They live in a very wealthy neighborhood in NJ, and she says she is not sure what he is capable of. He has threatened to hurt her and others and hurts himself often. It is not my child and it is difficult to watch. She feels like one day he will either be homeless, killed or kill himself, despite good medication and expensive therapists. I’m not sure how you can support this population more extensively, but something needs to be done.
    I’m not placing any blame on the mother of Adam Lanza, but if he had a diagnosed mental disorder at all, those types of guns shouldn’t have been in that house at all. Period.

    It breaks my heart when people use the excuse, ‘my right to bear arms’…well, many things have changed since those amendments were written. I’m pretty sure the amendment was in a completely different context. Despite my negative feelings towards any guns, I understand that many like the sport of hunting. In that sense, I agree that NOBODY in the world needs semi-automatic or Glocks unless they are in Afghanistan.

    I’m grateful to have a President that is motivated to do something about this. I’m also grateful for many NRA type members speaking out about things needing to be done on gun laws. Am I naive enough to believe that people will not get their hands on guns? No, seeing as most guns used in crimes were obtained legally, maybe we can save a couple of OUR children. As a sidenote, I love that Obama said OUR children, because they are, all of them. It is our responsibility to keep them ALL safe, not just our own.

    • Costa I also don’t really know the way in to the mental illness discussion; just reading the summary of your friend’s experience is difficult. My hope is that doctors, scientists, and therapists, our most qualified professionals, will use the occasion to make progress.

      Great comment, like you I am troubled by the excuses.

  2. Very thoughtful and well written as usual.

    I think there are three key ingredients to the recipe that caused this horror. All of it falls on the mother for not doing her job as a parent to provide the care, guidance, and safety that her child needed to have a good, healthy life.

    First, we need to recognize mental illness in our children and not have the arrogance or live with the denial that we can handle it ourselves. It needs treatment, if not for the kid’s own quality of life, but for the safety of those around them.

    Second, we need to be guides and councilors to our children. Without our help, they will struggle in the sex/violence culture. We can’t shield them from it forever, but we can equip our children with the wisdom to adopt sensible, healthy values. Depending on the strangers that raise our kids in daycare and at school, sometimes spending more time with them than we do, is just sloppy parenting and incredibly sad.

    Lastly, just calling it gun control is alarming. It implies that there’s currently a lack of control. Over machines designed to end lives. The second amendment came from a time of necessity when there was no formal military to defend our borders with. It’s not needed when we have the most capable one in history. Why are people so surprised when a machine designed to kill efficiently does just that?

    Legislation can help–but I think preventing this tragedy starts at home and is the responsibility of everyone.

    Parents need to man up and be the mentors, protectors, and sponsors of their children. Letting them consume our culture without any context is a crap shoot–there’s no telling how they’ll react to it. Denying care for mental illness is tragic for the child and those around them. Owning superfluous killing machines is something I’ll never understand. Home defense and hunting is one thing, having enough firepower to kill hundreds in no time at all is just plain scary.

  3. Ian… You nailed it! I couldn’t agree with your assessment more! Seriously.

    I was just thinking about this earlier…

    “In exchange for a ban on assault rifles, will the left agree to re-think its approval of the more harsh content labeled as entertainment? There’s a difference between censorship and a culture which collectively develops a distaste for its excesses, thus relegating the market for such material to the fringe.”

    It seems to me the Left needs to remember that ‘free speech’ should have its limits when it comes to possibly desensitizing folks via video games, etc. Its not the main issue, but one that needs to be part of the gun convo.

    • Thanks Kurt- yes, the left needs to be willing to come to the negotiation table too. And censorship is not required, we can change the culture by pushing more redeeming content and by reworking how people access the more vicious stuff. I wouldn’t mind seeing a change to the ratings system so that sadistic content is treated like alcohol: 21 and up. Not a perfect solution, but a start.

  4. Good blog, Ian. To some of the points above: the mental health system and the legal system often require a child to have committed a crime before you can get decent mental health care (especially residential treatment or hospitalization) for the child. Or you have to prove that the child/teen is an “imminent danger” to self or others. Proving that with a child can be pretty damned hard. Access to mental health services is difficult and strained. We have an HMO, we are far from negligent parents — and we have found this to be true. Parents who seem to be “in denial” to outsiders may acknowledge that something is very wrong, and may have already jumped through a whole lot of hoops, tried a whole lot of therapies, counselors, prescriptions, prayer, without a “fix.” And on many days, many of these kids look “fine.” So… not easy. (But having said all that? I think Ms. Lanza made a serious error in judgment in having those guns around, knowing of her son’s issues. And alas, she paid for it with her life, and many other lives….)

    As for the guns. When I try to have this discussion w/ppl, all I get is “slippery slope” and “my constitutional rights.” Some will tell me that a high-capacity magazine really offers no advantage for a well trained shooter who can be just as fast/efficient with a low-capacity pistol, and thus “where do you draw the line.” (The implication being, there should be NO line, period.) But we figured out a blood alcohol number beyond which your “right to happiness in driving when drunk” is outweighed by society’s right not to have you kill them with your car. I am sure we could figure out something.

    As for the violent video games? I’d be quite happy if they disappeared from the planet, though I think the odds are nil. Captivating alternatives do exist but the war and assassination games are ubiquitous. (And studies trying to link play of violent games with tendency to do actual violence are not so conclusive. Alas.)

  5. At last! I thank God (I mean that quite sincerely) that I have found a blog unlike some I spent distasteful time reading, in which being a Christian and being a fierce opponent of gun control seem to be regarded as the same thing. Here in Australia, after a particularly nasty episode not unlike the Newtown horror, the then Prime Minister (in 1996, I think) managed to get a law passed similar to the “first step” advocated above. A major buy-back of certain kinds of guns was arranged, along with an amnesty for those who owned them illegally. And John Howard was no crazy lefty! He was about as far right as you can get in Australian politics, and did some bad things later. But I have always admired the way he got that legislation through against strong opposition. Keep up the good work.

  6. Ian
    I suggest you do the “liberal thing” and lead the way in your community by putting a “My Home Is A Gun Free Zone” sign w/a picture of your wife and child on it!
    Disarm yourself and “YOUR” family!

    • Hi Lamont. Did you miss this part? “Gun owners, I understand you in part. I support those who own a modest firearm for sport or to protect themselves or their family as long as they go to great lengths to keep it secured.”

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