Eradicating violence isn’t only about changing laws
On Sunday we urged that Americans let this week belong not to a Connecticut killer, but to the school victims and their common cause, the education of the young. We expressed hope that education can bring the peace that anti-violence legislation and public fury have not.
On Monday that focus riveted all of us on the funerals of Jack Pinto and Noah Pozner. With this week’s funerals comes the urge to keep such devastation from happening again. One imperative suffuses the cries of many American citizens to their elected officials: “Do something.”
We concur. But we’re not yet certain what that something should be. As this investigation unfolds, all of us may come a little closer to comprehending the incomprehensible. For the moment, though:
As longtime advocates for tighter gun laws, we’re frustrated that this episode occurred in a state with some of the nation’s strictest statutes.
As longtime advocates for public awareness of mental health issues, we’re frustrated that this case will intensify the groundless suspicion that people with these illnesses or disabilities are, by definition, uncommonly dangerous.
As longtime advocates of personal responsibility as a crucial ingredient in making communities safer, we’re frustrated that for so many Americans the imperative to “Do something” about violence is really a demand that someone else do something.
Thus we approach the quest to thwart another Connecticut much as we approach the hundreds of homicides in Chicago every year:
With frustration, yes. But with resignation, or fatalism, or futility? No. As the last decade’s decline in Chicago’s murder rate attests, there are ways to move these numbers. Job One is to find those ways.
The search for policy solutions begins with the acknowledgment that we’re a historically violent society — settled by invaders, riven by civil war, and prone to resolve personal disputes with weapons that allow us to stay physically distant from one another. The most common cause of our gun deaths? Suicide.
Nationally, our gun homicide rate has been in sharp decline — as has our rate of gun ownership. Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy has calibrated the U.S. rate of all “deaths due to assault” — by gun, knife or other means — as more than double the rates in comparable First World democracies. But that U.S. rate has fallen by half since the late 1970s, and today is approximately what it was in 1965.
Among the statistically safest places in this country: the 132,000 schools where we send 55 million of our children. And in the two decades since school violence peaked, those schools have been getting safer. Hurt a school, we wrote Sunday, and you hurt us all. But school assaults dominate our consciousness in part because they are so rare.
If there is any solace after Connecticut, let it include not only the heroism of several adults but also their evident attention to preparedness and protocols. The educators at Sandy Hook Elementary had made safety a paramount concern, with entry controls and training and drills. We’ll never know how many lives their selfless actions and professional reactions saved.
We continue to hope that lawmakers in Washington and state capitals can craft smart and constitutional solutions to all armed violence. We say that with the uncomfortable realization of how difficult it will be to thwart future assaults at schools through legislation. Gary Kleck, a Florida State University criminologist, has concluded the typically lengthy period of preparation for these attacks — days, weeks or longer — reflects the criminals’ “persistent ongoing desire to acquire the tools of murder, not a transient short-term desire.”
While all of us search for policy solutions, each of us can try to influence how the other people in our lives, particularly the young people, view violence.
Think about that when someone in your household decides which TV show to watch or which movie to attend. Think about that when your adolescent requests certain video games as Christmas gifts.
Think about that when you can steer a family discussion to Connecticut, not just as a shocking event, but as a reminder that all of us should report threats voiced, or typed, by our acquaintances.
We’re about to have a loud discussion in this country about gun control, about mental health, about safety in public places. The goal is fewer funerals, for first-graders in the exurbs of Connecticut and across the land.
That discussion needs to be about the quest for policy solutions. But it also needs to be about personal responsibility — the small ways in which we as individuals can begin the long process of diminishing violence in our culture.
We can wait for lawmakers to make America safer for all of its children.
Or we can look in a mirror and murmur, “Do something.”