Who do we blame this time? Whose failing do we focus on; who gets the brunt of our outrage and anger this go-around? The NRA? The Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department? Gun culture? The girls who didn't fall in love with the shooter? A society that missed the signals? The parents who appear to have overindulged a narcissistic and disturbed boy?
Speechless though we may be, we're choking on it once again: the latest shooting, one that sounds so similar to so many others, so repetitive and painfully familiar to the point that we don't know what to say, how to say it, or if words even have any merit in a cultural narrative that defies and eludes them. So we shake our head, feel the knot in our stomach and look away, feeling helpless and impotent to change something that more powerful people have made sure we can't or is something so entrenched and endemic it rebuffs the efforts.
And yet, if it were your child lying on the floor of a deli bleeding to death from a gunshot wound inflicted by a "mentally disturbed" young man with legal access to guns, you could not look away. Just as a devastated Richard Martinez cannot look away. It was his son on that floor, his glorious 20-year-old college sophomore who was studying English and planning to go to London next year. His boy. A young man full of promise and enthusiasm for life just beginning. But that life is now over. Because another young man with a head full of rage and irrationality had access to guns and the hate to use them. We can't look away from that... I can't.
I have a young son who just graduated from college. He, too, hung around campus eateries with friends, walked down streets with other college kids and, like those killed in Santa Barbara, did so without concern that someone with a gun was lurking behind, compelled by an urge to "seek revenge." Why would he? Why would they? That's not what they're supposed to be worried about as they're studying, learning and transitioning into adulthood. So I cannot look at the image of Richard Martinez's anguished face, crumbled into tears as he talks about his young son, and not want to scream. But what do I say?
Michael Moore, agent provocateur of modern culture, had this to say about having nothing left to say:
"I no longer have anything to say about what is now part of normal American life," Moore wrote. "Everything I have to say about this, I said it 12 years ago. [...]
We won't pass the necessary laws, but more importantly we won't consider why this happens here all the time. When the NRA says, 'Guns don't kill people -- people kill people,' they've got it half-right. Except I would amend it to this: 'Guns don't kill people -- Americans kill people.' Enjoy the rest of your day, and rest assured this will all happen again very soon.
Clearly he's feeling some measure of the redundancy and helplessness I am. I, too, have had a lot to say on the topic over the years; I've covered the issue of guns in a number of pieces here at The Huffington Post, expressing my own frustrations and considerations from a variety of angles:
And these pieces, more than most others I've written, have elicited heated attention, sadly, mostly from people enveloped in the fierce conviction that the rights of gun owners trump all other considerations. It is, in fact, a cyclical, circular conversation that goes round and round and never seems to get us anywhere. We're persistently deflected to focus more on protecting rights than protecting life. And tell that to the father whose son died on the floor of a Santa Barbara deli, to the Sandy Hook parents, the Columbine, Aurora, Washington Navy Yard and Fort Hood parents and families. Which leads me to "the one more thing" I do have to say on the subject:
There is more than Congress, the NRA, the Center for Disease Control, the gun lobby and gun manufacturers between us and sheer gun-toting armageddon: Parents. I know, I know... that's its own heated topic. My mother used to get annoyed when anyone looked at an errant child -- of any age -- and placed any of the blame for that child's acts on the parents. And yet, let's face it: we are the first stop, the first line of defense. We are the ones who first get to know and understand these people we brought into the world. The ones who set a value system for them, who (ideally) model exemplary behavior; who set boundaries, teach ethics and morality, and guide and mentor those children toward becoming honorable, functional people. Given that, don't we have a significant role in how they conduct and comport themselves as adults?
Of course we do. Absolutely. We can holler, "don't blame the parents!"; we can pretend "there's no controlling them once they leave the house!" but there are many, many steps in which we're profoundly involved before they get to the point where we think we have no control (and even some after that). We may be obligated as parents to participate more than some would like in an adult child's life. But what seems clear, particularly for those whose sons may be apt to pick up guns and destroy lives, is this: We need to pay better attention. Be more involved. Stay connected and in good communication. Look beyond what we think we know and get objective. Go deeper, look harder, ask more questions. Look at their Facebook pages, their YouTube videos (if hundreds of strangers can, you surely can!). Do not abdicate parental responsibility and involvement just because they're of age or tell us they want us to butt out; we will always, always, remain connected to them in our unique role as parents.
And, clearly, if you are so concerned about your child that you're compelled to alert local law enforcement of that child's troubling behavior, you yourself MUST do more to intervene. It's that simple. This is not about judgement; it's about cultural and humane responsibility. Other people's lives depend on it.
The Santa Barbara shooter himself noted that he could have been stopped. After his parents contacted the Santa Barbara Sheriffs Department, the shooter wrote about how he feared his plan was about to be detected. From the LA Times:
In a 137-page document Rodger wrote, he mentioned the sheriff's welfare check last month, saying his whole plan would have been foiled had the officer found his guns and writing, which were in his room.
"That would have ended everything," he wrote. "For a few horrible seconds, I thought it was all over."
"Horrible," indeed. It's impossible not to feel a gut-punch of regret that it was not "all over." But here's the salient point: His guns were in his room. His 137-page manifesto was in his room. So close and easy enough to detect that he feared the sheriffs would find them had they walked into his room. What about his family? When was the last time they walked into his room? What would have happened had they taken more steps of their own; had they done more than alert others; had they been in his apartment often enough to have access to his room and perhaps find those guns? Would Richard Martinez's boy and all the others be alive today?
I realize this sounds suspiciously like judgment and I apologize for that. But we have to get beyond correctness, beyond sensitivities, because -- and not to be dramatic -- it is a matter of life and death. After all that's been said about guns, gun control, mental health, the NRA, a spineless Congress, the powerful gun manufacturers' lobby and the culture of fear, paranoia and conspiracy, the last thing to say is simply, parents, pay more attention to your children. Your young children, your teenage children, your young adult children, your grown children. It is those "children" of every age, the ones who feel isolated, angry, resentful and full of impotent, unresolved rage -- and who have access to guns --ￂﾠwho are systematically annihilating our society in mass murders that kill our families and wreak havoc on our sense of safety and community. Do what you're compelled to in terms of fighting for better gun control, advocating for changes in the law, promoting safe and responsible gun ownership, whatever is your particular bent. But what every single parent can do, before and beyond, is pay better attention to their children.
Don't leave it to teachers, therapists, priests, friends, spouses, co-workers or law enforcement. PAY ATTENTION. Certainly there are some amongst the mentally ill who are beyond parental influence, some for whom there are no parents to look, but in cases beyond that, which is most cases, I am utterly convinced that if every single parent paid attention to their children to the greatest degree possible, with no limitations or planned obsolescence, we would not be having as many of these dreaded conversations.
I promise I am approaching parenthood that way; I hope everyone reading this will do the same.
UPDATE: Given my rhetorical questions regarding the actions of this specific shooter's parents, I'm adding this link to updated information about the efforts they made in the day leading up to the shooting to intervene, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Father/son image by Ben Newton @ Wikimedia Commons