Unfit to Own a Gun

by Katharine Blake McFarland

I was in my office at the Children's Defense Fund when I heard that someone had shot and killed an unknown number of children at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. I picked up the phone and called one of the top gun safety organizations in the country, and asked to speak to their policy director. When I told him who I was, and where I was calling from, he said, “Wow, I'm so sorry. What a day for you guys.” I digested the misplaced apology—there I sat, safe in my office in Washington, D.C. while mothers and fathers pulled in to the Sandy Hook Elementary School parking lot—but managed to say something like, “you, too.” Then there was a beat of silence that would have felt uncomfortable on another day, like standing too close to a stranger, but on that day it was forgiven because words prove themselves deficient on days like that, and in the face of events for which we are all to blame, apology might be the truest beginning. “So, what are you guys going to do?” I finally asked him, and we starting talking strategy.

This is how it felt in D.C.: even in the earliest moments after the earliest Newtown headlines, change seemed close enough to touch. The shooting was like a terrible wave rising in the distance, but it was a wave that might carry us to shore if we could catch it and the current stayed strong. It was opportunistic, surely, but the alternative seemed worse: to grieve and then do nothing, to let it pass, until the next mass shooting when we would grieve and do nothing again.

So I did what we do in D.C. In my role at CDF, I attended and organized meetings, rallies, and press conferences. I went to events on Capitol Hill and at the White House. We asked volunteers to call and visit their elected officials, and we supported the work of incredible grassroots groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. I researched numbers and drafted statements. I hugged mothers who had lost their children in previous mass shootings, like Virginia Tech and Aurora. I hugged mothers who had lost their children in the crossfire of gang violence in Chicago. This was my first time working on guns, in my first job out of law school, but it was not new subject matter for CDF, who first began collecting data on children and guns in 1979.

How do you get people to listen? Numbers help put it in perspective. If you add up the soldiers killed in action in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, you get 52,183 lives lost. During that same time (1963 to 2010), 166,500 children and teens were shot and killed by guns here at home. That's three times as many children as soldiers in war, and averages out to 3,470 children and teens killed every year. Or, 174 classrooms of 20 children a year. Or, 174 Newtown's a year.

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The Sandy Hook massacre–one year on

by Emrys Westacott

Here are three sad predictions for the coming new year:

  1. One day during 2014 there will be yet another shooting rampage somewhere in America.
  2. The killer will be a male aged between fifteen and forty.
  3. Although there will be renewed calls for stricter gun control, the political establishment will neither address nor even discuss the fundamental questions raised by these periodic killing sprees.

ScreenHunter_472 Dec. 23 10.00In the wake of the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, when twenty children and six adults were killed by a lone gunman, there was much talk about the need for stricter gun control. President Obama urged Congress to pass laws that would strengthen background checks, ban assault weapons, and limit magazine capacity to ten cartridges; but a bill including these measures was defeated in the Senate. At the state level, over a hundred new gun laws have been enacted in 2013, but two-thirds of these loosen rather than tighten restrictions on the buying and owning of guns.

This is regrettable. Without question, laws that make it harder for potential killers (particularly individuals exhibiting signs of mental instability) to acquire guns (particularly semi-automatic assault weapons) would be a good thing. But we are kidding ourselves if we think the availability of such weapons is the main problem.

We need to ask this question: why is it that every few months somewhere in America a young man goes on a killing spree? The regularity with which this occurs suggests it is a symptom of a cultural malaise. So if we really want to address it meaningfully, we have to identify the underlying causes. That means we must first ask these questions:

  1. Why is our society producing these alienated, depressed, angry and mentally unstable young men?
  2. Why does their anger and alienation express itself in the form that it does—typically, a sudden volley of random violence?

Unless and until our response to these tragedies includes trying to tackle questions like these, it will remain superficial and ineffective. Sure, we can increase security at elementary schools; but the killer can always walk into a college classroom, a hospital, a restaurant, or a shopping mall. We can—and should—ban assault weapons; but a dozen people can still be killed with two revolvers. We can more or less eliminate some hazards: tight airport security reduces almost to zero the chances that someone will smuggle weapons or explosives onto a plane. But we cannot eliminate the possibility that a mentally ill person will get hold of a gun and shoot some strangers. No society can. All we can do is try to reduce the likelihood of such incidents. It's all about probabilities.

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