- Editor's note: We're trying Jeff's column on Mondays and Fridays for awhile.
My initial reaction to the tragedy was to apply all my energy into coming up with the single solution that would forever relegate school shootings to history’s dustbin. But as I spent that afternoon speaking with local law enforcement officers, school administrators and parents, I quickly realized I was engaging in what could only be called a fool’s errand.
The truth is, even if we stationed a police officer at every school, it wouldn’t be enough. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying.
Whenever I hear people chalk mass killings up to “evil,” it makes me want to scream because that leaves us randomly dangling in the winds of a cruel fate. I refuse to believe in that kind of inevitability. Evil isn’t something that’s thrust upon us, it’s something we court with our own indifference.
So while there may be no single solution and whatever measures we do choose to implement will be far from foolproof, there are three steps that we certainly can take.
Though it’s the least important of the triad, let’s start with reasonable gun control.
Adam Lanza used an AR-15 Bushmaster, which is essentially a semi-automatic knockoff of the M16 assault rifle used by the U.S. military. These weapons aren’t used for hunting. The bullets tumble for maximum damage, and they come equipped with 30-round magazines.
AR-15s, and all other assault rifles were declared illegal under the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, but that law was allowed to expire in 2004. Now we need to prohibit them permanently,because they only make hunting human beings more efficient.
We’ve already talked about the second step. We, as a compassionate society, have to insist that our representatives come up with comprehensive nationwide plan to address and treat the debilitating effects of mental illness.
Virtually every mass-shooting perpetrator has been afflicted with some sort of serious emotional or mental issue. James Holmes in Colorado, Seung-Hui Cho in Virginia, Steven Kazmierczak in Illinois, and Adam Lanza in Connecticut all fit the same profile.
Most of you know I worked with the mentally ill for five years only to watch their funding cut year after year. It’s even worse today. Considering the most severe mental illness is treatable, what does it say about a society that chooses not to apply those resources?
That line about the least of our brothers tends to come mind. As my radio co-host Allen Skillicorn said, “Mothers with mentally ill children don’t have lobbyists.”
This failure to adequately address 10 percent of our population is one of the worst cases of being penny wise and pound foolish I could possibly imagine.
And part of ensuring that sufferers get the necessary treatment is removing the stigma we impose upon mentally ill. Remember, Kazmierczak, the NIU shooter, walked away from a social service agency because he didn’t like being labeled that way.
Would we deride a breast cancer patient? Would we shun someone with heart disease? Would we ignore an Alzheimer’s sufferer?
The final step is us.
In her recent CNN piece, Katherine S. Newman, co-author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, wrote that school shootings are never spontaneous, they never happen in a vacuum, and the shooter is always desperate to fit in.
Superintendent Don Schlomann put it perfectly in his email address to District 303 parents; “We cannot afford to allow our students to withdraw from others. You are a very important component in assuring the safety of our students. You know your student best, and if you know there is anything that is troubling them, let us know so we can work with you to get the help your student needs. Together we can work to do our best for all students.”
That opening line is so good I have to repeat it, “We cannot afford to allow our students to withdraw from others.”
As Newman noted, “Rampage shootings are never spontaneous. They are planned, often for months in advance,” and, “The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction.”
So it’s time to heed Superintendent Schlomann’s advice. If you hear a troubling rumor. If you start to see a peer sliding into isolation. If your instincts are telling you something isn’t right, please SAY SOMETHING.
Simply breathing a sigh of relief and quietly whispering “there but for the grace of God” isn’t good enough. When I see those Newton neighborhoods, the faces of the mourners, and the teachers who died, it reminds me far too much of Geneva.
The irony is, in the end, the answer was far simpler than I thought. Though we’ll never be perfect in the prevention regard, oftentimes we are the only thing that stands between tragedy and salvation.
So what it really boils down to this: Do we really believe we are our brother’s keeper? We love to cite the Bible when it suits us, but this Christian country has a strange propensity to hesitate if it becomes an inconvenience.
The problem is, if we don’t believe in that ultimate responsibility, the next time there’s a school shooting, all we have to do is look in the mirror.