In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, the gun control debate has been uncontrollably heating up all around us and that comes as no surprise. Watching the media coverage in mute, one would assume that the political campaign is not over yet, with everyone still arguing over President Obama's birth certificate or Governor Romney's investments and not over a matter as delicate as how to prevent such reoccurring atrocities. This immense tragedy has instead become fertile ground for micropolitical agendas and yellow media exploitation, turning a tragedy into a marathon of informal fallacies, populist agendas and false dilemmas that aim at the invincible ignorance of a large populace. These toxic public interactions allow no space for the genuinely passionate dialogue of worried citizens seeking some sense out of madness through moderation and critical thinking. This is an immense desecration to the ones that have been directly affected by these crimes -- the victims, their families and local communities. For this exact reason it is paramount to take a step back, control our burning feelings and understand why we all have been drawn into this mess. Then we can ponder how complex it is and how we can move forward to a productive discussion.
The massive shock of the recent killings has once again triggered our strong need for a simple, coherent solution to an extremely perplexed problem whose complexity seems impossible to be fully conceived. In our desperate search for a single cause, we subconsciously place the blame at what we consider as the face of a phantom problem. This is when most of us get trapped in one of the two strong whirlpools of the gun control debate. These two distinct poles are a direct product of a greater, deeply rooted, sociopolitical chasm that has been infesting U.S. society and politics for a long time. The same polarization that has been the driver for the toxic rhetoric on both sides of the aisle has also been the major contributor to the gun control debate. It is easy to blame the 'hippy policies' of a vague Democratic stereotype for 'favoring social parasites,' as it is also easy to blame an elusive 'trigger-happy redneck' Republican stereotype who 'only cares about his rifles.' Instead of dealing with each other as the unique personalities we are, we only see a monolithic mannequin. These perceptual dummies have been evolving through myriads of unresolved grievances that constantly feed the socialization of an immensely diverse U.S. population from the Civil War onwards. As long as both sides treat each other in such collapsed, distorted stereotypes nothing will ever be adequately resolved. The vehement arguments will only stir more trouble dragging us deeper down the social quicksand. At this crucial point in our history, let's set what divides us aside and focus on what unites us. Let's consider the hot emotions that fuel both sides as a true testament to our common determination to making sure that nothing like this ever happens again. Let grief be our common ground as together we stare complexity in the eye.
Complexity Beyond Guns
Mesmerized by the swarms of statistics flying around the web and TV channels, one cannot help but selectively perceive the pieces of information that are congruent to one's point of view. The rest is simply disregarded. The truth, though, is still out there and it is a true testament that we are more than our stereotypes and the problem is more than just gun control. We need to take a macro perspective over an array of problems that seem to be interrelated. The truth is hidden inside the stories of the victims and the perpetrators themselves.
Michael Carneal was only 14 years old when he opened fire on his fellow praying students just a few weeks before Christmas of 1997 in Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. As Karen Samples Guttierez points out in her article in the Cincinnati Enquirer back in 2002, "the terrible irony is this: More than anything, Michael Carneal wanted to be liked." The schizophrenic fears that made him hide kitchen knives under his bed and walk on furniture "to avoid the floor, where he thought people with chainsaws were waiting to cut off his feet," remained undetected by his family. So did his pleas for attention and inclusion towards his classmates when he brought guns to school, showed them to his fellow students, joked about taking over the school, even delivered violent stories as homework without getting any response. Numerous warnings of a troubled soul went unnoticed, resulting into the tragic loss of innocent lives. As William Glaberson of the New York Times accurately pointed out in his article back in 2000, "Guns, mayhem and grief can flourish when good friends do nothing." For the undiagnosed Michael and the victims and families of Heath High School, gun control would most likely have done nothing; education on mental health most likely would.
There are unfortunately more crucial facets of the complexity of the history of mass killings hidden inside the stories of perpetrators over the years. From Howard Unruh, 1949; Charles Whitman, 1966; all the way to Arturo Reyes, 1997; and the Fort Hood massacre by Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan in 2009; another disconcerting detail keeps reoccurring. A disturbingly high number of the perpetrators were veterans or on active duty. Given our involvement in a long series of wars over the past decades and the hundreds of thousands of veterans seeking re-socialization, it is our duty to include the quality of post-deployment support in the discussion. This unique and inspiring part of our population suffers, for many reasons, because of the hardships they have encountered for the greater good. Reading James Dao's piece in the New York Times on the story of Robert Bales, the Army sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in March 2012, one cannot help but ponder on the degree of responsibility of a system that failed to detect how the inspiring, talented, social, reputable Bobby progressively turned into an alleged mayhem deliverer. Multiple deployments, financial struggles, a multitude of injuries and a number of career setbacks were allegedly responsible for breaking down the very psyche of a once charismatic individual and transforming him into an alleged cold-blooded murderer. Mental, social, professional and family support should be just some of the issues that need to be addressed as part of a greater discussion that would otherwise be neglected if we solely focus on gun control.
Numbers do not lie. For the past 30 years, most of the mass shooters' weapons were semiautomatic handguns obtained legally. America is also an unfortunate leader in recent research by Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University who compared assault deaths per 100,000 people since the '60s, in comparison to other OECD countries. This last statistic is crucial because it has to do with the fact that the gun control debate arises after every mass killing because of the shock factor, however the tens of thousands of homicide victims each year remain unnoticed. As CNN contributor Roland Martin accurately points out, "In Chicago alone, residents have experienced the equivalent of 19 Newtowns this year alone." An earlier CDC report, dated May 13th 2011, supports Martin's point, since it found:
During 2006-2007, firearm suicide and firearm homicide were the fourth and fifth leading causes of injury death in the United States, respectively. For youths aged 10-19 years, firearm homicide was the second leading cause and firearm suicide was the fifth leading cause of injury death nationally.
Isn't this fact alone enough for a productive discussion on more effective gun regulation? Effective does not mean that teachers should bear arms, as some extremes suggest. A surprised teacher with a handgun can only do so much against an armed gunman with an assault rifle and a vest. Focusing on more guns as a solution is simply playing with fire and in the end, it is a solution that has been tried in the past with no tangible outcomes.
At the same time, the U.S. gun control debate has tremendous collateral damage that extends beyond our borders. Just an arm's reach away, 60,000 people have died in Mexico's drug wars over the past five years, with a multi-billion U.S. gun trafficking industry taking advantage of the loose legislation and being ultimately responsible for supplying approximately 70 percent of the weapons. In Mexico, people keep getting killed by U.S.-exported guns, while the U.S. public remains divided because of micropolitical agendas. Does our social responsibility stop at our borders?
Unfortunately some of these tragedies were unavoidable, but a lot of them could be avoided. The problem, however, extends far beyond the narrow scope of gun regulation and includes an immensely complex web of issues that stigmatize our society. At this point, we need a two-tiered solution with a Quick Impact Policy that addresses our current needs while the crucial facets of the problem are being analyzed systemically for transformative long-term policies. Let's now take the next step. Let's open the discussion on structural violence and its role in our society and not further institutionalize it by giving arms to teachers. After all, what kind of democracy would we have if our teachers had to bear weapons while teaching our kids? Let's take something horrible and use it to stir up the conversation about some of the deeply rooted problems of our society, instead of masking our failures. Let's seriously talk about our education and its shortcomings. Let's talk about the social disparity. Let's talk about the problems of the modern American family. Let's use our grief to break free from the bonds of our division and talk about how to deal with complexity together and finally tear down the taboos of the past. We owe it to the 151 victims of mass killings this year, as well as the tens of thousands of handgun victims, bullying victims, veterans suffering from PTSD, families tormented by chronic mental illnesses and communities struck by social inequality. We owe it to each other. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our children.