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What We Parents Must Do

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Our deepest question now is whether what happed on Friday -- and what has focused the attention of the entire nation -- will touch the nation's soul or just make headlines for a few days.

I think that will be up to us as parents to respond as parents. The brutal shooting of 20 six- and seven-year-old school children in their own classrooms touches all of us, and as the father of two young boys I'm especially struck by how it touches parents. From the heartbreak of the parents in Newtown to the tears in the eyes of Barack Obama as he responded -- not just as the president, but also as the father of two daughters -- to the faces of the first responders and reporters who are parents. I have felt the pain and seen the look on the face of every parent I have talked with since this horrendous event occurred. Virtually every mother and father in America this weekend has turned their grieving gaze on their own children, realizing how easily this could have happened to them. The emotions we've seen from the Newtown parents whose children survived and the feelings of utter grief for those parents whose children didn't, have reached directly to me.

Saturday, the day after the Connecticut massacre, Joy and I went to our son Jack's basketball game. The kids on the court were all the same ages as the children who were killed on Friday. I kept looking at them one by one, feeling how fragile their lives are.

Our first response to what happened in Newtown must be toward our own children. To be so thankful for the gift and grace they are to us. To be ever more conscious of them and what they need from us. To just enjoy them and be reminded to slowly and attentively take the time and the space to just be with them. To honor the grief of those mothers and fathers in Connecticut who have so painfully just lost their children, we must love and attend to ours in an even deeper way.

We are hearing advice from child advocates, counselors and therapists to talk to our kids, love them, hug them and tell them that they are safe. We've done a lot of that -- loving, hugging and talking with our boys Luke and Jack over the weekend. And I know many other parents are doing the same thing.

But... we really can't honestly just tell our children that they are safe. This year, children have been so randomly and unexpectedly shot in their schools, in movie theaters, at malls and on street corners across the nation -- places that any of our kids could be at any time. They are not safe.

This crisis will not be healed or solved until parents begin a national conversation about what will keep our children safe in this country, at least more safe than they are today.

This weekend, the nation was all grieving. Our church was packed on Sunday, as many congregations were across the country. You can feel the grieving, and it has brought us together.

But what comes after the grief? We have yet to learn all the facts and stories of this particular tragedy; and we should be careful to listen before we all start speaking. But why did this happen? That is the question we must ask and answer. What must we as a nation learn from this? What must we change, both personally and in our decisions about the public arenas of our society where this terrible tragedy occurred? How can we make our children safer?

After some time has passed, will we just become increasingly numb to horrendous moments like this? Will we just get used to school "lockdowns" against the threats of increasing violence? Or will this tragedy cause us to ask all the questions about why these things are happening, and to find all the solutions it will take stop them from happening?

The nation must finally discuss and decide what we are going to do about all the semiautomatic and automatic weapons that are now throughout our entire society -- including weapons with the only honest purpose being to kill large numbers of people. Let's also be honest about the difference in what is needed for hunting, sport or even self-defense, and what it means to live in a nation where millions of people have the kind of weapons that only the military and law-enforcement officials used to have. I have been listening this weekend and learned facts that have even stunned me. In the four counties around the Connecticut school shooting there are more than 400 gun dealers. There are more gun dealers now in America than McDonald's restaurants. On Black Friday alone, the FBI received more than 150,000 requests for background checks for firearm purchases; they received more than two million in the month of November. And most astoundingly, there are 311 million people in America and now an estimated 280 million guns. There are more and more guns in our society, they are being allowed in more and more public places, and they are more and more legal to be concealed. That is the direction that the gun business and gun lobby has taken us -- and the gun business and lobby are now the same thing.

Is that the kind of society we want to live in? And is the answer to tragedies like this one to arm the teachers, as some gun advocates have already suggested? Really?

But it's not just gun idolatry. We must also do a better job of detecting and treating the kind of mental problems that are repeatedly leading to such violence. How can we better avoid the deadly connections between mental illness and guns of mass destruction? How do we see, find, treat, and monitor individuals with such issues, and support families in order to protect them and so many others?

And we finally need a very honest conversation about our growing culture of violence, and all the "entertainment" and "products" that project the worst expressions of violence as solutions to problems, or even just as "fun." The distinction between games and reality becomes blurred, especially for young people who are already struggling with reality. There appears to be an alarming connection between unhinged violence and unhinged individuals -- and the nation needs to consciously engage that. How do we raise and protect our children in a culture that is infected with such deep attractions and habits of violence? How ready and willing are we to confront and even heal those habits and addictions?

One thing I do know: Washington will not fix these problems. It will have to come from outside of Washington. It will likely come from putting our children first, and not politics. Our children must be our first response to this, and they must inspire a response that lasts. And it likely will have to come from us -- as their parents.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in early 2013. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.