07/24/2012 10:16 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2012

Our American Sin

When I first heard about the Colorado shooting, I was immediately brought back to the seventh grade. Columbine. Even though it was hundreds of miles away, I remember clearly sitting on a new couch from Walmart, watching the news, and crying. During college, on my twenty-first birthday, it was Virginia Tech.

I am disgusted by those who suggest these events are the price we pay for living in a "free" society.

Our greatest national sin in this new century is the sin of no longer trying. I made that up -- I guess you could group it under sloth -- but it's deeper than laziness. It's giving in, giving up and checking out. We have given up on too many social problems that we used to see as solvable.

It's a sin of cynicism that's deeply destructive and callous. This weekend, as I looked up at the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, I thought back to the Puritans, a people so completely disaffected and alienated from their native land. In the Mayflower Compact, they promised to:

... covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

Government, in a very long sentence. Yet we see government very differently than we once did, and that is a more critical problem than a single issue, such as gun control.

I don't really want to write about gun control, but it's unavoidable. It's a terrible way to start a conversation on decreasing violence; it instantly puts an NRA member on the defensive. It's like mentioning abortion access as an opening argument for how to decrease teenage pregnancy.

I grew up with guns and never really thought twice about them, nor thought of them as a problem. As boys, we got air rifles and paintball guns, and we showed off the size of our bruises from those horrible round pellets. My grandfather kept a closet full of guns, which I never thought of touching. Women carried handguns in their purses in case of an emergency. My relatives shot off rifles in a cotton field after Thanksgiving dinner, harmless bullets shattering the sky. And my grandfather? He shot his own turkey and was featured in the local paper.

So I was always confused by people who were opposed to guns altogether, and I sided with those who were totally opposed to any restrictions on what they could carry, purchase or sell.

But in my first week of teaching, a student was shot, and our school was sent into turmoil. I visited other schools with metal detectors, even in elementary school. And those handgun "emergencies"? I saw them used more often in petty domestic disputes, and in drunken rages.

Again, I can't claim to know what sort of gun control laws we should have. But it's not simply about gun control -- it's about acknowledging government as capable of solving big societal problems. Problems that we can't face alone. Saying that government is the problem is cynical at best. It's a brand of defeatism disguised as conservatism that's a drag on our nation.

It's time to put aside our American distrust of government. Even when it fails us, we should resist the impulse to generalize. Mass shootings are products of a complex system of failures, but one of them is our neglect of our mental health system, and our unwillingness to discuss how to identify those who need mental health services. Even Obamacare treats health care as a commodity, not as a moral good, so we should not be surprised at the Republican governors who brandish defiance as a conservative credential.

I recognize that solutions to gun violence, to mental health care, and to our educational inequity require political compromise. But we can't treat compromise as a philosophy. Our American dream should be to form a more perfect union, with government as a tool and not as an enemy.

We've changed the paradigm on bullying; we've dismissed it as a rite of passage. We can do the same for violence. Gun control is a political flashpoint for a larger problem. But even in this case, our semantics are backwards -- we're not controlling the number of type of guns for the sake of control.

We're trying to save us from ourselves.