12/18/2012 01:21 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Disarming America's Gun Culture

The horrific massacre of 26 people, including 20 young children, inside a Connecticut elementary school was an act so evil, so vile, so unconscionable, and so shocking, that it is hard to believe it could have happened. Coming less than two weeks before Christmas, the rampage is one of the world's worst mass shootings and the nation's second-deadliest school shooting. Coping with the tragedy of losing a child, let alone in such a tragic and unthinkable way, is an unspeakable heartbreak. Like you, my heart and prayers go out to the victims, their families and other loved ones.

Especially in our so-called post-modern society, I must ask: what is the world coming to? Unfortunately, the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, is not an isolated incident. It was only last Tuesday that two people were killed in a shooting at a mall in Happy Valley, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. Moreover, there have been a number of media reports of other acts of violence with guns in other parts of the country within the same week. Again, what is the world coming to? What is going on?

It's time that we as a nation get serious about not only treating the "symptoms" of violence, including gun violence, in America but also its root causes. Talk is not enough, nor is simply reacting to each tragic event in isolation. Rather, it's time for real solutions that will make a meaningful difference in what appears to be an epidemic sweeping the nation. It's time to disarm America's gun culture from both the top-down and from the bottom-up.

Once again, and legitimately so, we are witnessing calls to renew the debate over gun laws in Congress. And the debate over guns -- whether people have a right to be armed in public -- is moving closer to the U.S. Supreme Court for judicial review and final judgment. Time will tell if either of these decision-making avenues brings the nation closer to the kind of solution needed to stem the tide of violence and prevent another tragedy like what occurred in Connecticut and Oregon.

This said, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that violent crimes are committed for reasons that go beyond access to guns. While gun laws are certainly needed to ensure that such deadly weapons don't get into the wrong hands, I also believe that there is an argument to be made in support of the saying, "if guns are outlawed then only outlaws will have guns." In other words, gun control is only a part of the answer and, in the final analysis, may only treat the symptoms of what is a societal disease rather than its root causes. Yet, I'm afraid that there are many alarmists and others who advocate for such extreme measures -- seeking with good intentions the "holy grail" of doing away with violence once and for all -- and who are missing other key elements of what should be a comprehensive strategy for disarming America's gun culture in a prudent and meaningful way.

Before I suggest what these other elements should be, let me make clear that I'm not a person who is against the right to keep and bear arms as established in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a part of the Bill of Rights. In point of fact, I admit that I hold a concealed handgun license, after having been certified as completing a National Rifle Association of America (NRA) "Basic Pistol Course." Moreover, as a U.S. Army veteran, I'm no stranger to the use of a wide variety of handguns, rifles, and automatic weapons. Importantly, I respect them all and have no intention of using any gun to harm others, be it their person or property. Indeed, it is precisely because of my training and certification, including that which I experienced to obtain my concealed handgun license, that makes me confident about how and why I would ever want to use such a weapon of deadly force.

Because I am a lifelong martial artist (black belt in karate and juijitsu), I respect all kinds of weapons, many of which can cause mass, including collatoral, damage even though they are not guns per se. The bottomline is that I am not a violent person and, in fact, am quite the opposite. As anyone who knows me and my meaning-focused work, I hold all of life to be sacred. I am not someone who "clings to guns or religion" even though I'm prepared to defend myself, my loved ones, and my country as well as am a person of strong faith. For years, moreover, I taught self-defense classes for women and children both for their practical, physical value and their emotional value as a way to build self-esteem/confidence.

So what does all this have to do with disarming America's gun culture? For one, it suggests that outlawing guns, in and of itself, will not "fix" what is ailing the nation. Like a cancer, the disease is much more pervasive and insidious. There is no quick fix, nor will one path serve as the remedy the American people are seeking. Yes, we need to ensure that appropriate background checks are conducted so that emotionally unstable and criminally-inclined people don't have access to what have essentially become weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, we need to have laws on the books that hold all people accountable for their actions, laws that fit the crime and demonstrate the certainty of punishment in addition to its severity. We also, of course, need to make sure that people who make the conscious decision to exercise their right to keep and bear arms know how to use them properly, be it through training, testing, and/or certification. These measures, I believe, should be treated as "givens" in the face of the epidemic of gun violence before us.

This said, such laws are not enough for they still primarily treat the symptoms of the disease rather than the root causes. As I mentioned above, there are other elements that should be part of America's strategy or "treatment plan" for dealing with violence, including that involving guns. To set the context, let us first briefly examine two words in the title of this post: disarm and culture. Among the various definitions of the verb "disarm" are the following: (1) to deprive of a weapon or weapons, (2) to remove the fuze or other actuating device from (e.g., to disarm a bomb), and (3) to divest or relieve of hostility, suspicion, etc. The first definition pertains to the goal of many gun control advocates, involving calls for explicit changes in public policy, law, and regulations. The second and third definitions are perhaps more subtle in their implementation and effect. Aside from removing the "fuze" or threat of violence by imprisonment or by commitment for bona fide mental health reasons (Definition #2), the latter definitions reflect preventive measures that are dependent upon education, training, counseling, and other types of acculturation strategies and interventions for individuals, families, neighborhoods, organizations, and the like.

This brings us to the notion of culture. Again, there are many different definitions and ways to look at the meaning of this simple-sounding word. Culture, in short, can be viewed as a set of shared attitudes, beliefs, values, goals, and behaviors that characterizes some group of people in a place or time. Moreover, if we consider that culture depends upon learning and specifically the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties of people, especially by education, then we can begin to see how "culture" and "disarm" are closely related. By whatever definition, to disarm anyone or anything involves change. On a societal or collective level, this process must also involve a change in culture which, as we all know, is easier said than done. However, in order to achieve such a meaningful value and goal as disarming America's gun culture, and by implication its deeply-embedded culture of violence, failure is not and should not be an option. And recognizing that it will take time, all options for advancing positive culture change must be on the table for consideration.

So what options should be on the table? Naturally, the debate over gun laws needs to be carried out with all deliberate speed. And as I have already mentioned, violations of whatever laws exist, both today and in the future, need to be dealt with swiftly. People, in other words, need to be held accountable for their actions; and they need to know with certainty what the consequences of their actions will be before they act.

But in addition to being held responsible, people need to be responsible. This raises to the surface of the overall debate another important dimension of culture. How do we change people's "attitudes, beliefs, values, goals, and behaviors" so that they become more responsible, i.e., able to respond, and in this particular case, less prone to violence? We already know that having laws on the books are not sufficient for achieving such a societal aim. We need other options for disarming America's gun culture by removing the "fuze" or threat of violence over the long term. And this will take a different form of personal and collective responsibility; one that extends beyond laws and law enforcement and penetrates deeply into the fabric of American popular culture.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," as the saying goes. It's time to examine what truly ails us as a nation and as a people. It's time to really look at what "systems" we have in place to deal with what one of my former professors, the late Dr. Walter Fisher, a mental health professional in Chicago, referred to as the country's "Gross National Deviance." When will we finally demonstrate that mental health services are no longer the Ugly Duckling of our health care establishment? When will we fully support and integrate them into our systems of care with dignity and easy access?

Let's go deeper. What about our education and training systems? What is and what should be their roles in helping to advance positive cultural change in America? What responsibilities do educators at all levels, including parents, friends, and neighbors, have in helping others, especially the youth, build their capacity to respond and thereby become responsible? We all know, for example, that bullying, a lower-level form of violence, is detrimental to students' well-being and development, leading to unknown consequences in the future. Let's not forget that it was bullied students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who carried out the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. It's time to "disarm" our schools and leverage their capacity for advancing the public good, starting at the youngest age possible and working smarter, not just harder, to ensure that students don't fall through the cracks. Let's move to stop America's youth from choosing the path to violence from the get-go rather than waiting until it's too late.

I would be remiss if I neglected another option, the elephant in the room, that needs to be on the table if we are going to disarm America's gun culture: the media and entertainment industry. I'm afraid, however, that this industry, broadly-defined to include movies, television, music, and video games, is no longer just an elephant. It has become the "sacred cow" (i.e., you can't touch that!) associated with violence in America. But, nonetheless, it needs to be seriously addressed if any substantive progress in disarming America's gun culture is going to happen.

Paradoxically, while it may be "politically incorrect" to play cowboys and indians in America today, it is acceptable to play video games that allow you -- and even encourage you -- to shoot and kill others, even policemem! What does this say about our culture? Check out the number of "first-person shooter" genre, best-selling video games on the market (not even counting the popularity of video game web sites). It is astonishing! Surveying the best-selling video games of 2012, it is pretty clear that violence is a common theme, with many of them displaying guns ablazing in a "virtual reality" world, all part of what Business Insider calls "the next trillion dollar industry."

To be sure, the jury is still out on the precise link between violent video games and human behavior. Whether this link is causal or correlational, it deserves to be examined closely across different age groups, especially among minors, as well as across personality profiles, mental health diagnostic categories, etc.. The citizens of America (and the world) deserve no less. "For good and bad, video game players are learning lessons that can be applied in the real world," concluded Ohio State University's Professor Brad Bushman, co-principal investigator of a recent study that revealed first-person shooter video games can teach people how to shoot guns more accurately and aim for the head. Final jury determination or not, it would appear that the matter of violent video game effects on aggression warrants further study.

Not to single out video games, what about the effects of violence on television and in the movies? And what about the hateful and violent lyrics that so many people, especially young people, hear in music today? Don't they too need to be examined in a cultural context? Mental instability and criminal inclinations notwithstanding, what do such messages say about -- and how do they influence -- our culture, our core values, our relationships with each other, even among those who may have been given a so-called clean bill of health? Aren't we all in some way accessories to the crime?

We're in the midst of a holiday season, presumably the season of good will to all men and women. The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has left a terribly sad mark on what should and ordinarily would be a joyous time of the year. We must never forget what happened on that dreadful day and we must make sure that we learn from it. However, as the late Dr. Stephen Covey wrote in his foreword to my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, "To learn something but not to do is really not to learn. To know something but not to do is really not to know." We must therefore challenge ourselves and each other to do something with what we now know and have learned about the culture of violence that is spreading across America. In the spirit of the holiday season, let's disarm America's culture of violence and honor those who have fallen because of it.

Dr. Alex Pattakos is the co-founder of The OPA! Way® paradigm of "Living & Working with Meaning" and the OPA! Center for Meaning in Santa Fe, New Mexico USA. A practicing political scientist, he has worked closely with the White House under three presidents and was one of the initial faculty evaluators for the Innovations in American Government Awards Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. You can find out more about Dr. Pattakos, author of the international best-selling book "Prisoners of Our Thoughts," in his full bio.

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