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Daniel Gross

Daniel Gross

Posted: January 11, 2011 11:42 AM

The Inequity of Compassion

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I know about headline-grabbing tragedies. My younger brother was shot in the head on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in 1997. The incident inspired me to resign as an advertising executive to start PAX, an organization dedicated to preventing gun violence.

In our time of shock and grief, my family deeply appreciated the sympathy that poured in from across the country. It helped us cope. But from the moment I started to get involved in the gun violence issue, I found the disproportionate attention given to our story also made me feel uncomfortable.

People seemed to care more because my brother was a white, upper-middle-class, young musician, shot at a famous landmark. A common theme began to emerge: "that kind of tragedy isn't supposed to happen in places like that, to people like your brother."

Over the years now, I have seen this same theme repeated. We seem to care more about certain tragedies, like suburban school shootings or psychotic shooting sprees in office buildings or malls or famous victims. Certain deaths seem to matter more.

I believe this mentality is fostered by the news media. There are undertones of racism and socioeconomic discrimination in the relative importance attached to human lives. Also, there is the thirst for the sensational -- and the typical and expected are rarely sensational. As a result, there is far too little focus on a shockingly common problem, that poses a far greater threat to all of us than most realize, and we fail to examine surprisingly simple and accessible opportunities to prevent it.

On a typical day in our nation, eight children and teens are lost to gun-related deaths -- mostly your run-of-the-mill urban violence or unintentional shootings or suicides. Nothing new. Nothing capable of capturing the fancy of the media or the public. Just eight more kids gone. Eight more families devastated, every day.

The real tragedy is that these are the very deaths that can actually be prevented.

Every day, I face the irony that my organization does not address the type of tragedy that impacted my family. But given the current state of our gun laws, and the fact that there are already estimated to be more than 200 million guns in homes across America, there is very little that we can do to prevent the random madman from getting a hold of one and wreaking terrible havoc.

But actually there are real things you and I -- ordinary people -- can do to prevent most youth gun deaths -- the ordinary ones.

Parents, understand the real risks to your family of having a gun in the home and, if you still choose to do it, at least make absolute sure it's stored safely. Kids, appreciate that you are empowered to prevent violence by speaking up about weapons and threats. Just by doing these things alone, most youth gun deaths can be prevented.

These are the practical solutions my organization promotes. The problem is, practical solutions to typical deaths are not sexy.

Now another unthinkable shooting has occurred. At least six people are dead, including a 9-year-old girl, and 13 severely injured including United States Representative Gabrielle Giffords. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families and loved ones. I can identify more than most with what they are going through.

As is usually the case when things like this happen, I am being flooded with calls, emails and texts from supporters. As usual, many are wondering, even hoping whether this is what it will take finally to galvanize our nation's resolve to do something about the crisis of gun violence.

But I've seen this play out too many times to attach too much hope to that notion, without substantial changes in the way we look at isolated tragedies relative to the real problem that exists- the real reasons we are losing eight kids every day, and the real things we can do to prevent it.

I understand why Saturday's tragedy is important news. I just want to urge the media also to appreciate that the sensational shootings are often not the typical or preventable ones. I suggest that some of the time that will inevitably be spent examining how and why the tragedy in Arizona happened, might be more productively spent asking the same questions about the alarmingly frequent tragedies that can more readily be prevented.

It's not that the sensational deaths don't matter. It's that they shouldn't matter more.