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This Needs to Stop. Now.

December 16, 2012

After the horrible school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, I felt the need to reach out to several friends and tell them I was glad they and their children were safe, and to also express my love for them.  Dan Blair, one of my dearest friends on earth, wrote this in response to my email:

“When I heard CT State Police say that the public was safe and the scene had been secured, I wondered what sort of dark humor that was … when have we been safe from …that?  We’ve returned to what things were the moment before it started and we weren’t safe then, either.”

There’s a reason we all thought Dan was the smartest guy in our grad program a few years back.  He was right a lot back then, and he’s right about this.  My school district’s Superintendent–after saying nothing about this to her staff the entire school day–sent out an after school robocall to everyone in the district assuring us that the schools were safe, and that we had instituted new safety procedures.  The problem was not simply that the Superintendent clearly read this prepared statement in a Watson Compter-like monotone.  It’s that many of those new procedures were also in place at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

When you are an educator and something like this happens, it affects you in a very particular way.  You look at you school differently, you look at your leadership differently, you look at your students differently, you look at yourself differently. You can’t help but think:  that could have been here.  If it had been, what would I have done?  What could I have done?  Every time something like this happens, all of us in this profession lose something we can’t get back.  And while statistically schools are still some of the safest public places in the world, we become very cognizant of what can go tragically wrong in the environments we work so hard to cultivate as positive, secure spaces.

A recent Mother Jones article showed that over the last thirty years, there have been 62 mass killings in the United States, defined as a public killing of more than four people.  That’s an average of more than two a year, but that doesn’t tell you the whole story.  Seven of those have been in the last twelve months.  The profile of the killers is very consistent: males in their twenties who suffered from untreated mental illness who had access to legal automatic weapons.  Morbid as it may have been to study this, it tells us two very important things about the country we live in.  One, our mental health system has failed.  Two, our gun safety laws have also failed.  This is clearly what we have to address.

We need to make mental health a priority again. It hasn’t been in quite some time, because it is deemed too expensive.  There are also no political consequences for attacking the mentally ill, as we generally have little or no sympathy for them in our society.  Programs get cut, few people notice or care.  Yes, it will be expensive–but we certainly have the money for costly wars and drone attacks.  Having a fully developed mental health care system would be a lot cheaper and actually keep us safer than attacking farmers in the Pakistani mountains.  Also, notice the irony that we have billions of dollars to commit acts of violence around the world, yet no money to help a mentally unstable person who might somehow get the impression that violence is an acceptable solution to his problems.

Secondly, our gun control laws must change.  Yes, I am aware that guns don’t cause violence and people do.  I am not suggesting we ban all guns.  I am suggesting we make it much, much harder for people to obtain automatic assault weapons like the Glock.   If you make it harder for a mentally ill person to kill dozens of people at once, two things are going to happen:  the violence will either not occur or it will be far less extreme.  The reason the people in Arizona were allowed to stop Jared Laughner was that he had to pause and reload after firing off dozens of rounds.  What if he had to after firing off just a few?  The situation would have been far less tragic.  Will this stop all of the mindless killings?  Of course not.  But since we can’t stop them all, why is it we can’t take any steps to stop some?

Yes, there are professional criminals who still be able to get automatic weapons illegally, but we aren’t talking about criminal mafias and drug cartels.  We’re talking about mentally ill loners unable to grasp the consequences of their actions.  Does anyone actually think that any of the mass murderers of Columbine, Aurora, and now Newtown would have been savvy enough to obtain their automatic weapons illegally?   This is not a radical idea.  We already agree there is a line. Even the most vociferous gun rights advocate would not argue that the average citizen should have access to rocket launchers, hand grenades, and weapons grade plutonium.  I am just arguing where I think the line should be.

Maybe you disagree with that, and that’s fine.  What you cannot claim is that nothing should be done to address our failed mental health system.  So argue that people should still have access to automatic weapons. But argue just as strongly that we need to invest in and overhaul our mental health system so the Adam Lanzas of the world get the treatment they need.  We won’t be able to help everyone, I know.  But we can help some, and that to me seems like a worthwhile endeavor.  Imagine what would happen if the National Rifle Association (who believe it or not, used to support gun control)  actually put its considerable political clout into lobbying for an increased investment and expansion of mental health in this country, instead of worrying about really important things like President Obama sending in UN troops to confiscate their shotguns.

So it’s up to us. All of us.  We need to fix this, and we know how.  We just need to have the courage to say that we want all of our communities to be as safe as they can be, and do what needs to be done.  And we need to do it now.  We failed the children in Sandy Hook.  We can’t fail any others.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Parlin permalink
    December 16, 2012 6:01 pm

    While I do wholeheartedly agree with the idea that something is in due need of overhaul, I find it difficult to determine where. With regards to the mental health system, I agree that further funding needs to be allocated to help those who truly are in need of psychological assistance. However, it is very difficult to define ‘in need’. It is not easy to determine if a ‘troubled kid’ will have violent tendencies. Even if that is positively determined, at what point do we intervene? It is a matter of ethics- we cannot infringe upon one’s privacy and independence just because there is some degree of risk associated with his/her mental condition. The reality is that some of those afflicted with unstable personalities don’t wish to be treated or ‘fixed’. Should we force such people to be ‘treated’ when they wish not to be? The issue of mental health is very difficult to resolve.

    Instead, I think we should first focus our efforts on ending media sensationalism. From my perspective, it seems that one incentive to perform a mass-murder-suicide is the associated fame. These killers know that their name will be burned into the minds of millions- potentially billions- and that gives them even more of a reason to follow through with it. We first need to end the hype. I should not know the name ‘Adam Lanza’ and nor should anyone else unrelated. Let these troubled people see that their actions are totally worthless and purely destructive. Only then should we focus our efforts on the more complicated issues.

  2. December 16, 2012 6:15 pm

    Those are all valid points, and any attempt to address our mental health system will have to confront them. They will not have easy answers, and some individuals will continue to slip through the cracks either by error or by choice. However, the system that we have at present–one that is underresourced, and offers little in the way of options, even for those who want help–needs to be addressed. When we go throught three decades averaging about two of these events per year, and then suddenly jump to seven, something has clearly shifted. It behooves us all to find out what this is.

    And that’s why it’s not just about mental health. If there are still going to be people out there we cannot help who want to commit these horrid acts, let’s make it harder for them to find the means to do so.

  3. Valerie permalink
    December 17, 2012 5:24 pm

    Addressing the needs of those with mental illness will never be easy, but it needs to be done. We have bright people in the world ready and willing to solve these problems. It is time to give them a chance. It is time to put our hearts and minds towards good. We need not fear politics. It is just a system. It has no soul. WE have a collective soul. WE have to speak up NOW.

    Thank you, Kevin, for this message. I think you should send it to the press. xo

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