What stands out for me is that my earlier dairy also expressed defensiveness. I offered myself as a responsible gun owner who would be a willing ally in the fight to prevent a Sandy Hook tragedy from ever happening again. I think it’s important to confront that. Upon reflection, I reflexively defended myself as a gun owner and user.
In the aftermath of that afternoon, we learned more about the children individually who were killed, about their heroic and dedicated teachers who were killed, and about the anguished families and community. I am a dad. I come from a family of teachers. I married one. That more than anything should govern my reaction to gun violence in schools.
The face of one dark haired little boy hangs in my memory. He is beautiful, bright-eyed and gifted with a radiant smile full of teeth awaiting the tooth fairy’s claim. His image connects to a story about his mother’s anguish over how to display his body for burial following damage done to that face by the shooter’s bullets. That image and that story hang on my soul like a talisman. I remember when my kids were that age. I remember the feeling of their soft warm faces pressed to mine and feeling their arms squeezing my neck. I cherish that memory and even now I cannot fathom how I would cope if I sent them off to school and then never saw them alive again. I also know intimately the violence that modern rifle bullets do to soft tissue and bone – and I can make the obvious connection. The magnitude of the horror and anguish suddenly forced on this little boy’s mother is beyond contemplation. But I can access a bit of it. I revisit that dark place because, I guess, it keeps the significance of that tragedy salient for me. My talisman is an amalgam of these things, and it’s heavy.
My talisman has rough edges. In the past year I’ve worn it to the shooting range with my son and it annoyed, it chafed me during a long afternoon of butchering my family’s venison this fall and I felt it irritate noticeably after Thanksgiving when I saw people lined up and taking numbers at the enormous gun counter of our big-box sporting goods store. It leaves me raw. I could take it off. I could push the Sandy Hook tragedy to the deeper recesses of my memory like I’ve done with the Columbine shooting and so many others that, shamefully, I cannot now recall. But I don’t.
This is about the culpability we share for a culture where school shootings are too common and selfishness is too entrenched to experiment with policy changes that could make school shootings less likely. I’ve benefitted from easy access to guns and ammunition and while I’ve entertained some niggling doubts that the access was perhaps too easy, I didn’t think too much about it. Using my high school graduation date as a marker, there have been 144 school shootings in my adult lifetime in the US (https://en.wikipedia.org/...). It took the shooting in Sandy Hook (number 124) to leave a lasting impression that something is grievously wrong. I wish I’d said more, …done more. In the 365 days since the Sandy Hook tragedy we’ve seen much debate and discussion. I participated at first, then lurked, and then grew tired and discouraged. Three prominent threads weave through the discussions: guns and ammunition, mental health, and a culture that celebrates and sanitizes violence. One never needs to probe in any of these three areas very long before someone feels that their interests are at risk and then responds with belligerence. Mention gun policy or technology and someone with test you for a weakness and dismiss you as ignorant if you get the terminology wrong. If you mention first-person shooter games or violent movies, their enthusiasts will get indignant and direct your attention elsewhere. Mental illness? Don’t stigmatize. And lest you dismiss my comments as an intellectually lazy appeal to false equivalencies, know that I have a deep empathy for those who struggle with mental illness and a deep antipathy for those who assert that their rights to free and easy weapons trumps the right of the rest of us to a safe and civil society. We gun users have the most ground to give. I am fed up with the belligerence.
The NRA and its allies have constructed a fortress to enshrine their vision of US gun policy. It will not be breached with the regulatory equivalent of a battering ram. Progressives tried that after Sandy Hook and failed. Similarly, we will not ban private ownership outright and I doubt we will reach the levels of lawlessness that absolutists hope for in their fever-dreams. Calls to hew to those extremes only serve to inflame and provoke. From the position of simple pragmatics, we are left with an incremental approach. First we soften the mortar, then we chip away at it and then we remove and scatter some of the stones, and eventually we rebuild a culture where legitimate private gun use is possible and children are safe. But to do so, we need people of good will to be generous and forward-leaning (be progressive), whatever their starting position. We need to begin experimenting.
On my southbound morning commute, I often meet a school bus in the northbound lane. It’s a wide feeder street with broad sidewalks and good visibility. I am an impatient commuter and the degree to which I hate sitting in traffic borders on the irrational. So when the flashers go on and I watch the children board the bus from the far left side of the road, my analytical impatient id grouses and knows that I could drive past that bus and that the probability of encountering a child on my side of the road would be vanishingly small. Yet the law tells me I must stop. So I do. And I remind myself that the law is in place out of an abundance of caution and recognition for the precious cargo that the bus is carrying. So I smile and wave at the bus driver when she lets me pass, and I get to work two minutes later than I would have otherwise. We should work towards gun laws that are similarly configured, out of an abundance of caution and recognition of the preciousness of schoolchildren.
I wish I had some wisdom to offer. I wish I knew the key fix that all sides could agree to. But we won’t move the needle on gun violence in this country unless we are mature enough for self reflection and generous enough to put our interests in the balance for the sake of our communities. The families in Newtown deserve at least that much. I’ll be praying for peace for them tonight.
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