“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” Albert Einstein
As a father of two small children, I’ve been grappling with the Connecticut tragedy in my own quiet way since last Friday. I’ve had to drop off my seven-year-old to a school that looks just like Sandy Hook Elementary and drive away, watching him in the rearview mirror shuffle in through the double doors with his oversized backpack, oblivious to what had happened just a few days before in a place not unlike my own Canadian town of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Part of what frustrates us about this senseless massacre is the fact that nothing can be done to reverse it. There is no vengeance; the killer (as he invariably does in this situation) turned the gun on himself after reigning down his shocking violence upon beautiful, innocent children and honest, caring adults. But even if he had been arrested alive, what would it have done? All we could have done was watch him go from police car to police station, from armored vehicle to courthouse, shuffling along listlessly in shackles and an orange jump suit. There is no satisfaction or revenge in this. It merely becomes an exercise in voyeuristic inner violence for an exasperated population.
Part of the healing process involves understanding what went wrong and endeavouring to make necessary changes that will reduce the chances of such unspeakable horror ever happening again. So far the two main topics we’ve been hearing about since Friday have been guns and mental illness, both large problems in the United States due to complex societal problems too involved to dissect here.
Unfortunately, these two issues are interlocked in a serious way. Some are trying to separate the gun from the attacker, saying that the killer’s state of mind, not the guns he used, was responsible for the massacre. Others argue that if he had not been able to access these weapons, his untreated mental illness would not have been able to manifest itself in such a devastating way.
Of course at the root of both of these problems is the argument that most mentally ill people are not violent, and nor are most gun owners. So herein lies our dilemma: While facing up to the fact that this was indeed a relatively isolated and rare event, we know that guns and mental illness collided here in a way that has irreversibly transformed both the families of the victims and the world as a whole. In the midst of the heated debates, nobody is contesting this fact. So based on this one bit of common ground, the question is whether or not an obviously divisive society can come together in a spirit of compromise and understanding in the wake of this tragedy.
No one seems to be questioning the seriousness of mental illness in American society. The healthcare system is not doing what it needs to do to address the mentally ill. We know that. Everyone agrees we must do better. What people are fighting very intensely about, however, is the firearm. Reading the long scrolls of comments underneath the myriad of internet articles about the Newtown shooting, one cannot help but notice the large crevice between those wanting stricter gun laws and those wanting more guns in society. The former sees guns as the main problem and wants to see the availability and number kept in check, with stricter regulations on who is able to access firearms. The latter wants to see a less regulated firearm industry with more accessibility, which will help people to defend themselves against a perceived future attacker such as the deranged young man in Connecticut.
Even an opponent of guns in society can sort of relate to a person’s knee-jerk desire to obtain a personal weapon in the wake of such an event, especially if you’re a parent. If given the chance, would you have hesitated to shoot and kill a gunman mowing a classroom full of kids with a high-powered firearm? Many I’m certain would have gladly pulled the trigger. But often the chances of being in such an advantageous position are slim to very unlikely. I believe this is at the heart of gun supporters’ vehement arguments: the more people who are armed, the better chance that the right person will be around when the wrong person is about to unleash a round of bullets on an unsuspecting group of people. But the gun opponents will then argue that it’s too dangerous to have guns everywhere, especially in schools where kids can obtain them and accidentally shoot themselves.
When scrolling down through the endless debates online, one can see the spewing of hatred and intolerance. The anger and frustration often escalate in these threads, culminating in insults and threats. And this is coming from both ends. Evidently the gun opponents – generally perceived as more pacifist in nature – can spew the venom as readily as the gun proponents. However, in the midst of these virtual shouting matches you can see some balanced arguments coming from both sides. Supporters of gun law restrictions and supporters of the right to bear arms both have intellectual and rational spokesmen laying down plausible and sensible arguments. This is refreshing to see because it holds the promise of compromise in the midst of this hurtful aftermath. The question within this compromise, however, is how much each side is willing to give up. In the true spirit of compromise, both sides must be willing to bring their viewpoints and beliefs closer to the center in order for a solution to be possible.
So let’s take a look at supporters of stricter gun laws first and what they seem to be voicing on their end. In the most extreme cases they seem to believe that guns should not exist at all, and that no one – not even authorities – should have access to firearms. The extremity of this argument is admittedly ridiculous, and is thankfully tempered by the more realistic claims that while guns are an unavoidable and permanent reality in American society, there should be a ban on over-the-top items such as assault rifles, extended ammo clips, and specially designed bullets that increase the severity of wounds. There is also the argument that stricter rules should apply for those registering for a weapon. Right now some argue it is too easy for any random person on the street in America to legally purchase a gun. And applying this argument to the Newtown tragedy, one can claim that the killer’s mother should not have been able to purchase such deadly weapons so easily, which enabled her son to readily implement them.
On the side of the gun proponents we also have extremists. Some bring religion into it and say it is their God-given right to bear arms in any way they see fit, and in any capacity – whether it be an assault rifle or a handgun with hollow-point bullets. This staunchly conservative claim, interpreting an Eighteenth Century document word for word, feels the 2nd Amendment has given them carte blanche on any type of firearm they wish to possess. This train of thought has thankfully been tempered by more critical thinkers into an argument that focuses more on freedom of the individual than a fascination with powerful weapons. Most gun owners are responsible people who value firearm safety above all; they see the possession of these weapons as a way to protect themselves from what they view as an increasingly dangerous society.
In order to get closer to the much-needed compromise, we must first dismiss the more ludicrous claims of both the left and the right. Take them right off the negotiating table. It is not possible to disarm society nor is it realistic or sane to have clips that hold dozens of rounds or assault rifles capable of reigning down a hail of bullets in seconds.
So we are left with two opposing sides that have plausible and feasible claims. The opponents want to eliminate certain types of weapons and make it harder for an individual to obtain a weapon. The proponents do not want a whole lot to change with regard to laws that allow them the freedom to protect themselves, and feel that it is not the fault of guns that people kill one another. Once we take the extreme viewpoints out, there has to be the possibility of successful negotiation within this comparatively narrower spectrum.
Where we truly come together as a unified society is in our collective grieving for a group of people who should never have had to face what they did that day and suffer such a tragic and untimely fate. The majority of us are just normal people trying to live peaceful lives with our families and friends in a way that makes us feel safe. Hopefully we are able to do that in a spirit of understanding and compromise so we can all function together effectively. We can never go back and fix what happened, but together we must be able to face the future in a constructive way that reflects the lessons learned from the tragedy in Newtown. We owe it to those who paid an awful price on that day, and we owe to the millions of children who place their trust in us every day. As the President said in his address to the people of Newtown and the world Sunday night, we are ALL responsible.