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American the Broken

February 22, 2018


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America, we are broken.  This country is so divided, and the responses to virtually any potentially controversial topic are so automated, that we’ve made it nearly impossible to work together towards a common goal.  At this point it’s hard to envision a way for us to come together and have an actual dialogue about anything worthwhile.  But when it comes to preventing further tragedies like the recent murder of seventeen students and teachers in Florida, we must.  We’re the grown-ups here.  We’re the ones who are supposed to be protecting these children from harm.  We owe it to them and to ourselves to press pause on the knee-jerk reactivity that’s become so ingrained in our culture.  It’s time we all shut up and truly listen to the “other side.”  (And P.S., we’re on the same side, we’ve just forgotten that.)

The one thing I think we can all agree on is that we have a serious problem in this country.  There’s really no logical way to argue that mass shootings and gun violence are not issues.  I think that unfortunately we have reached a point in our national conversation where we tend to hear certain words or catch phrases and immediately assume we know what someone is saying, rather than truly listening to learn and understand.  Perhaps if we did that, we would realize that we have more in common than we thought.

For example, when some folks hear the words “gun control,” they shut down.  They assume that anyone proposing any changes to our current system wants to take their guns away, destroy the 2nd Amendment, and blame mass shootings on the guns themselves rather than the people using them.  Instead of thoughtfully approaching the issue with open minds and solution-focused perspectives, they fall back on talking points like “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and “Good guys with guns will stop bad guys with guns.”

For those who believe common sense gun control is a real solution, hearing the words “mental health problem” or “parenting issue” may spark feelings of frustration and anger at what they perceive as willful disregard of the real issue at hand.  Instead of working toward a common understanding of a complicated problem, they shut down and say things like, “You must love your guns more than you love your children.”

What’s missing in both instances is crucial: any attempt to truly understand and to find common ground.  No one involved in this discussion is for school shootings.  No one is pro-massacre.  This is a complicated issue, and an emotional one.  In order to fix the problem, we have to be willing to open our ears, our hearts, and our minds.  We have to be willing to feel some discomfort, to admit that we might not have all the answers. We have to be willfully engaged in the business of change, not married to our own agendas and our comfortable talking points.

A dear friend of mine who is a psychiatric nurse posted a New York Times opinion piece today that detailed how mental health professionals’ hands are often tied when it comes to preventing mass shootings.  There are considerable limitations on what qualifies as “mental illness” and protections afforded those who may be diagnosed with it.  The article makes a strong point that “the psychiatrist responsible for (his) care would know how to treat delusions, paranoia, mania, suicidal impulses, self-injurious behaviors, auditory hallucinations and catatonia.  But there are no reliable cures for insecurity, resentment, entitlement and hatred.”  The author, Amy Barnhorst (vice chair of Community Psychiatry at the University of California) explains what those who study mass shootings already know: mental illness is rarely the cause of such violence.  This may be hard for those of us not in the mental health field to comprehend.  We may assume that anyone capable of inflicting such death and destruction with no regard for human life must be mentally ill.  But in fact, the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

So what, we all wonder, is causing these young men to act out such violent fantasies and to feel so cut off from society in the first place that they no longer view other humans as worthy of life?  Perhaps, some argue, our society has fallen so far and produced such men because we have turned away from God and from our traditional values.  We have removed religion from our daily lives, we have raised a generation of entitled brats who think the world owes them everything, we have created monsters with violent video games.  Unfortunately this theory is one that is incredibly difficult to quantify or study, and next to impossible to mandate through policy changes or laws.  It’s an easy way to point fingers and blame without having to assume any real responsibility.  It is opinion, not hard fact.  Folks can believe it all they want, and there may truth to it, but there’s no clear way to prove it and there’s no real way to implement change in this area.  (Not to mention that whole separation of church and state, if we want to talk amendments and such.)  Certainly we can do our part, we can treat others with kindness and teach our children to do the same.  We can strengthen our own families by living our own core values and passing them down to the next generation.  But we cannot force others to do the same, and we cannot indemnify ourselves by judging others.

So what can we quantify?  What can we study and mandate?  When it comes down to it, the piece of the puzzle that we actually have the means to change is…you got it…guns.  Unfortunately as of right now, the Centers for Disease Control are not freely able to study gun violence as a public health issue, despite the high number of deaths attributed to guns each year in the U.S.  The Dickey Amendment, passed over twenty years ago, prohibits the CDC from advocating for gun control, and Congress has routinely withheld funding to send a clear message to the CDC regarding any efforts to truly study gun violence.  Without clear data on the issue, it is nearly impossible to gain any real traction on common sense gun control.  The National Rifle Association was behind the Dickey Amendment and financially controls much of Congress’ action/inaction with regards to guns in our society.  Politicians are motivated by money rather than by what their constituents want.  Moving this issue out of the realm of politics and into the area of hard science would go a long ways toward reaching some sort of common ground between gun control and gun rights.  Hopefully we are seeing a move towards that which could ultimately make the case for sensible gun law reform.

Obviously policies and laws won’t always prevent the bad guys from doing bad things.  We have laws against robbery and illegal drugs and possession of child pornography…and we have prisons full of people who have broken those laws.  But we continue to spend massive amounts of money and invest untold time and energy in fighting these issues.  We don’t simply throw up our hands and say, “Well, criminals will steal stuff and sell heroin, and pedophiles will exploit children in the worst way possible…but laws won’t completely prevent that from happening, so let’s just not bother.”  The fact that there will always be those who break laws is not an argument for anarchy; rather, it is the clearest possible reminder of why we need those laws in place and why we need to uphold them and punish those who break them.

As for the “Guns don’t kill people” argument, I couldn’t agree more.  Cars don’t kill people, either.  The people driving them do.  Which is exactly why we have laws and rules regulating who can drive them and how.  We have mandated training before anyone can legally get behind the wheel or own a car.  We have traffic safety laws.  We have licensure that must be approved and updated.  We have limits on the type of cars that can be driven in public.  We recognize both society’s need for cars and the potential dangers inherent to them, and we have implemented ways to account for both.

And yes, the 2nd Amendment is a hot topic.  The interpretation of its intent, the fact that it was an amendment and not a part of the original Constitution, I’ll leave that to the legal scholars.  I personally grew up in Western Kansas with a healthy respect for the guns (safely stored) in my house, and a healthy respect for the people in my life who own and use firearms responsibly.  I don’t begrudge anyone the right to hunt or own a firearm for protection.  But any real hunter should only need to take a shot or two.  Anyone defending their home from an intruder should only have to fire a round or two to scare off or incapacitate someone intent on doing them harm.  Beyond that, I truly don’t believe our forefathers thought that anyone off the street should be able to purchase and wield a weapon capable of mass destruction.  And as far as being armed against the government, that’s pretty well laughable unless we think every citizen should also have access to missiles and grenade launchers.

So let us be reasonable.  Let us come together as human beings who care about their children and their fellow human beings.  The fact is that the majority of Americans support common sense gun control within the parameters of our basic rights: universal background checks, waiting periods, banning high capacity magazines and bump stocks and weapons like the AR-15, closing loopholes on gun shows and private sales.  None of these would prevent any rational, law abiding citizen from owning reasonable weapons.

The majority of us recognize that our society is broken, that our divisiveness is tearing apart the fabric of our democracy.  We cannot stand by and wring our hands while our children fear going into their classrooms and concert-goers nervously look to the windows of nearby buildings.  This isn’t a political issue, it’s a human issue.  Divided we fail, united we work towards a common goal: saving lives.  The issue at hand is complex, to be sure.  There is not one clear solution that will end all violence.  But we have before us the opportunity to end some violence.  Can we live with ourselves if we allow our differences to prevent us from doing so?  I, for one, can’t.




3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2018 7:09 pm

    I’m really glad you cited the Dickey Amendment. Gun violence is a complex problem and we have let it go without truly addressing it for decades. One law will not solve the problem, but neither will ignoring it. Not allowing the CDC to study an epidemic that is literally killing the next generation is absolute nonsense and is something I doubt many people really know. The more of us that point it out, the better.

    I do wonder though, how “divided” we really are. Yes, I agree that the current administration and the partisan divisions that truly created “Trumpism” seem bad, but I wonder how deep it goes. It’s an honest question and one that we may not be able to answer until we see how the next few election cycles play out.

    • February 22, 2018 10:16 pm

      Excellent point! Are we really so divided or have we just allowed ourselves to be swept up in the whole “Us vs. Them” movement perpetuated by politics? I’m hopeful we can rise above it together!

      • February 22, 2018 10:53 pm

        Let’s hope. It might be helpful to remember that we’ve really always been divided. The 1950s were the decade in which we had the most bi-partisan alignment and then the parties began to to shift again. We think it is so horrible now because of what we say to one another, and we are not wrong. But if you read some of the floor speeches from ‘before the internet,’ well, we weren’t nice then either.

        Maybe these kids having the unique standing to come out and call a spade a spade, will force those of us who are willing to ask a few questions and NOT call each other names to do the right thing. This isn’t hard.

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