My heart is still heavy. The news that a gunman – whose name I will not repeat, since it deserves to be stricken from history and turned into dust – murdered more than 50 people and injured more than 500 hit me like a sack of bricks.
Luckily you’re all still too young to be aware of news events like this – or I’d like to think so, although I’m continually surprised by what you absorb. But how would I explain how an event like this could be possible if you did ask?
Hell, how do I explain it to myself?
The individual “why” as to why this particular person did what he did is difficult to answer. It’s too early to know – if we can ever really know – what causes a person to act in such a way. I can tell you about mental illness and the many forms that it takes, even though the overwhelming majority that suffer from it are non-violent toward others. Even at your age, you can somewhat comprehend what it might be like to be sick (whether physically, mentally, or spiritually) and how sometimes that hurt you feel can stir up other emotions and actions you might find difficult to control. Hurt, anger, sadness, jealousy, retribution, justice- those are all concepts within your developing emotional vocabulary. I wish I could tell you those emotions get easier to deal with as you get older, but they don’t. At the very least, you can use your own experience in wrestling with those negative emotions to have compassion in others when they do.
The metaphysical “why” question – “Why do bad things happen at all?” – is the easiest question to answer, ironically. The answer is – it’s really unknowable. We can talk about how various religions answer that question, but the entropy of the universe will claim its victims. There never should be a question of whether or not people “deserve” what bad things happen to them. They don’t. Ever. You know that’s what we believe, even if Schadenfreude creeps into our thoughts now and again.
That’s not to say that there aren’t consequences to our own actions. Our actions are the only things we can truly control.
And that leads into an element of “why” that’s more difficult to explain. Why does our society allow dangerous tools that amplify the whimsical rage of a person? In other words, we know that the human psyche is fallible. Even if a small percentage of people were unstable – even one thousandth of a percent – that leaves thousands of individuals in our country alone without the self-control that’s foundational to the social contract we all live under. These extreme events happen with frightening regularity, so much so that we’re getting close to the point where the geographical short hand we’ve been using to identify these historically (Sandy Hook, Columbine, Orlando, etc) will not be enough. I can imagine a disheartening confusion when you learn about these events in the not-too-distant future. (“Which Orlando shooting was that, daddy?”)
But even setting aside these extreme events, there are daily reports of accidents that happen within our homes. A two year old shot dead, because another child in the house found a gun and decided to play with it. This happens with such regularity that it is no longer considered front page news, it has become a somehow acceptable risk of living today. Even if the vast majority of guns were properly supervised, just a small percentage of negligently stored firearms means that there are thousands of potential accidents per day.
So we know this, we know we’re fallible. Yet we allow an instrument that requires less than five pounds of finger pressure to unleash devastating consequences upon innocent people?
Yes, I’m talking about guns.
As soon as anyone starts talking about guns, the polarization crystallizes. The forces that support increased regulation and outright bans are lumped together as anti-freedom and anti-constitutional. Consequently those responsible gun owners and those who view any infringement of their constitutional rights as abhorrent are called “gun-nuts”, callous and heartless. The extremist positions are the ones that tug at each other, while the moderates on either side feel helpless and end up either taking up common cause with those who scream the loudest or throw in the towel because it seems hopeless. Meanwhile. the tug-of-war rages on while more people die.
It’s time to just drop the rope.
I’m not getting going to get into the individual arguments for and against guns. Thousands – millions? – of words have been expended on the subject on either side, millions spent on fortifying the positions.
The only way to come together with someone you don’t agree with is to start with your common ground.
No matter where you are on the gun debate, it’s safe to say that we all can agree that events like Las Vegas and Sandy Hook as well as the “accidents” that occur daily are more than unacceptable. They are tragedies. Whether you are Republican, Democrat, blue, red, purple, socialist, liberal, libertarian, conservative – we can start with that.
Then we can start to try to understand the WHY of the side we find difficult to connect with. Those that exercise their second amendment right? They aren’t “gun nuts”, even if we try to use the term in jest. Is it truly that difficult to understand that in an unpredictable and unsafe world one would seek some measure of protection? Both from the vagaries of humanity and the potential tyranny of those who hold power, in whatever form? The search for safety is a universal condition, and it’s understandable that one would seek a measure of that in one’s own hand as opposed to the uncertainty of having it being provided for you. It’s telling that after every shooting the sales of guns RISE, because of those that are seeking that security, regardless whether it is real or imagined. Even those adamantly opposed to guns must admit that self-defense is an unalienable right. Is pepper spray acceptable? A taser? There must be a lower bound by which one can defend one’s self without opening up the risk to mass casualty.
And those who seek to ban guns? Is it that much of a stretch to empathize with those who do not trust firearms, full stop? Ironically, those who seek the safety of a firearm validate that very distrust, for its the same distrust of the “other” that drives them to carry a firearm. And even those who firmly believe in the sanctity of the second amendment have to admit that there must be limitations. You wouldn’t your neighbor owning fissionable material, for example. Or chemical or biological weapons. That’s the upper bound by which reasonable people – even those that espouse the “slippery slope” argument – can agree that there must be some restriction on ownership.
Between those two bounds is a conversation worth having.
So why haven’t we found our common ground yet? For some reason we tend to focus on the words that divide us as opposed to the emotions that connect us. Until we can stop shouting across the divide and instead reach across it, we shall continue to fail your generation. That’s one lesson I hope you learn from our persistent mistakes.