On June 17 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof allegedly shot and killed 9 people, including South Carolina State Senator Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney. As I am writing these words, Roof has been caught by law enforcement in North Carolina. There is ongoing scrutiny over his social media and comments from his family and acquaintances. We do not know many details about his mental health and I find it abhorrent to dismiss him as a "lone crazed gunman." Mythologizing Dylann Storm Roof into a mysterious villain distracts us from confronting tough truths about guns. Even if we discover he does have a mental illness (whether previously diagnosed or not), what we really need to talk about is why Dylann Storm Roof has "gun rights" but not health rights.
Rather than succumbing to another mean-spirited non-conversation about mental illness, fraught with misinformation and stigmatization, let's have some real talk about America's addiction to guns. This obsession with firearms has taken many states like South Carolina on a misguided journey of making it easier for people to access guns and harder for them to seek health care. Our addiction to weapons has deluded us into instilling guns with rights while still treating healthcare as a privilege.
As we continue praying for grieving families in Charleston, now is the time to reflect on the prayer used by some addicts and by others overcoming adversity:
"I pray for the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can not, and the wisdom to know the difference."
America must pray for the courage to change the things we can. We need the courage to admit that owning 300 million guns means there are too many guns. We need the courage to get real about the 2nd Amendment's place in the 21st century, and then completely rethink and rebuild how guns are owned in this country. We need the courage to admit that "gun rights" are not real. Legal gun ownership is a privilege, not a right. Sadly, we don't like any of that because it involves hard work, taking responsibility, and awkward confrontations with ourselves. So America might pray for courage but we don't really want to use it.
Instead, America will probably pray for the serenity to accept the things we can not change. Unfortunately, that sounds an awful lot like complacency, which is the real request within calls for calm. When you're calm, you start losing the urgency to do all the hard work to stop gun violence. Rather than ask tough questions about why we have "gun rights" but not health rights, we drift into accepting gun violence as the norm that we can not change. We calmly forget the lives lost, accepting mass shootings as an aw-shucks inevitability rather than a preventable shame. Apathy, that serene complacency, may be comfortable and convenient, but it's cowardly.
Apathy is tough to prevent because it is so subtIe and insidious, and it is convenient when faced with repeated stories of gun violence. From time to time I'm probably as guilty of apathy as the next person. If you think you're immune to numbness towards mass shootings, then consider this. Prior to reading this sentence, did you remember that the last domestic terrorist attack on a place of worship was on August 5, 2012 at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a "lone crazed gunman" killed 6 people? Or was that tragedy just lost in "all the others"? Perhaps we forget because remembering every life lost would be overwhelming, but it feels like we have been on a dangerous path of accepting gun violence as a some kind of sick new normal.
America should pray for the wisdom to know the difference between changing what we can and accepting what we can not. We should act upon the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who in 1963 eulogized the girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL:
"They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream."
Dr. King's wisdom is exactly the blessing we need now. We must find the courage to make America a place where our health rights are championed long before any "gun rights." We must pray for the tenacity and stamina to transform America into a country free from gun violence. We must pray for justice born out of courage, wisdom, and action, because without justice, there is no peace, no serenity, for any of us.