Friday, December 14, 2012

Guns and Tragedy

When a mentally ill man, armed to the teeth, walked into a movie theater in Aurora, CO and started shooting, I thought to myself: We need a national conversation about gun regulations.

I thought it. Others said it aloud and were shouted down for "politicizing a tragedy." And I thought, "Maybe now isn't the right time. We should grieve, honor the dead, get over this. Then we need to talk."

A few weeks later, when a hateful ideologue gunned down people in a Sikh temple, I thought to myself: We need a conversation about gun regulations.

I thought it. Others said it aloud and were shouted down. And I wondered if now wasn't the right time.

Not long after that, here in Stillwater, an adolescent walked into the local junior high school, pulled out a gun he'd gotten from somewhere, and killed himself in front of his peers. And I thought about this boy who, for some reason, needed to scream, to scream as loudly as he could, and who found a lethal way to do it.

I wrote about that tragedy, and I brushed against the issue of guns--but I hesitated to make it the focus. I didn't want to "politicize" the tragedy.

And now. Now after listening to horror while my wife and two children--my whole heart--were all together in the nearby elementary school; now as we confront the bloody aftermath of madness; now as the nation faces the corpses of babies, killed so easily; now, after I come home and hug my children and my wife and imagine some mentally unbalanced kid somewhere out there, here in Oklahoma where anyone may privately sell their gun to anyone else without background checks or waiting periods, where the tools for mass murder can so easily fall into the hands of those who are contemplating mass murder; now when it hits my heart, when I imagine my own children cowering in a classroom, my little girl who is so effortlessly and exuberantly affectionate, my son who is so endlessly creative; now, again, I find myself thinking that we need a national conversation, a serious and sober one, about what we can do, if anything, to make it harder for the lunatics to acquire the weapons that make unthinkable horror so easy to do.

It needs to be thoughtful and informed and realistic. It needs to take into account the reality of the gun culture in America, the fact that the guns are out there in large numbers already, the fact that most gun owners are responsible citizens, and the fact that there are legitimate reasons ordinary citizens have for wanting guns.

But it also needs to take into account the fact that it is painfully easy in this country for persons who are homicidally insane to get their hands on weapons that enable them to efficiently murder classrooms full of children.

It needs to be a conversation that takes seriously the middle ground, a conversation that's not a shouting match between the forces of total prohibition and the forces that treat every proposed regulation--even something as simple as a background check--as a fundamental assault on human liberty. It needs to be a practical conversation that integrates the interests of gun owners, the social and historical and cultural realities of contemporary America, and the desire to keep our children safe.

Such a conversation is both possible and necessary. But if it is going to be an intelligent conversation, there are things we need to stop saying. One of them is this:

You’re politicizing a national tragedy.


When our nation confronts tragedies like today's massacre of children in Newtown, CT, or the massacre of movie-goers in Aurora, CO, we are shocked. And we mourn for the lost. And we try to find ways to honor the dead, to lift up the heroes who died protecting others, to tell the stories, to weave some semblance of meaning out of the horror.

But something else we do is think about how to stop tragedies like it from happening again. This is not "politicizing a tragedy." It's responding to a tragedy in a natural and normal human way: We ask ourselves, "How do we stop this sort of thing from happening again?"

It is precisely with respect to this question that there is such a great divide in America. There are those who think we can reduce the frequency and severity of such tragedies by making it harder for madmen and hate-filled ideologues to get their hands on guns. And there are those who think that if more decent citizens have guns in their possession, the bad guys would be more quickly stopped.

More gun control will solve it. Less gun control will solve it. I suspect these alternatives oversimplify a more complex reality and create a this-or-that perspective on solutions that leaves out the range of creative alternatives that integrate concerns and insights from both directions. We need to think about these complexities.

National tragedies can and should be catalysts for that—events that move us to think about what we could do differently to reduce the frequency or severity of such tragedies in the future, and to act accordingly.

I suppose there are those who see tragedies as opportunities to further their own political career or score wins for their political party, because they see that the tragedy plays into their political platform. But that is not what is going on when a father hugs his child, thinking that it could have been his little girl or little boy, and then asks what can be done before the next time, the time when that's exactly who it might be.

To be moved by a spate of mass shootings to ask serious questions about what can be done about it isn’t politicizing a tragedy. It's confronting the reality of tragedy in one of the most pragmatic, useful, forward-looking ways that one can. Americans are historically pragmatic. We're problem solvers. The death of our children is a problem, and like it or not, ready access to guns is implicated in that problem.

And we affirm a principle of democratic government, in which civil discourse about our problems, public conversations about the issues that matter, are encouraged as a way to help produce wiser public policy.

To seek to silence willy-nilly those who raise these concerns by accusing them of politicizing a tragedy seems an attempt to shut down conversation--the conversation that needs to happen--perhaps out fear of where that conversation might lead.

If you have legitimate interests that you want protected, then participate vigorously in the much-needed conversations that tragedies can help to catalyze. Don’t try to shut down their catalyzing power by mislabeling the motives of people who are as horrified and grieved by the tragedies as everyone else.

1 comment:

  1. Best thoughts thus far on a reasoned response to the tragedy. Thank you.