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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lantos

School shootings and political will

Americans love their guns. They vote based on that passion.

Politicians follow the votes.

A recent Pew poll shows a deeply divided country.

About half see gun violence as a big problem. Half don’t.

The percentage of American who favor stricter gun laws decreased from 60% to 53% during the pandemic.

Thirty percent of Americans own a gun. 40% live in a household with a gun.

Gun sales have risen by 20% during the pandemic.

The most common reason people buy a gun to is to protect themselves.

There is a huge, predictable divide between Democrats and Republicans but the trends are the same in both parties. Given that voters have sorted themselves into geographic areas, and then gerrymandered the maps, politicians know which stand on guns in which districts will get them elected. Anyone who wallows will face backlash from their base.

Given this baked-in formula for political paralysis, we are left only with the predictably nauseating political rituals. The Democratic President will be compassionate and angry. Liberals will call (again and again) for gun control.

Conservatives argue (ludicrously) that we need to arm teachers and harden targets.

Lip service will be paid to, and budgets slashed for mental health services.

Tongue-in-cheek conservatives will exhort liberals to not politicize the issue.

We will all stare, unable to turn away, full of numb outrage, at the intrusive pictures of parents and grandparents devastated with grief.

And at heartbreaking pictures of the child victims, so full of innocence and promise.

The rituals of outrage ared disgustingly familiar and disturbingly meaningless.

Ritualistic response to senseless mass murder has become America’s brand.

When I heard about Uvalde, I was reading Squirrel Hill, Mark Oppenheimer’s book about the mass murder at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Oppenheimer focuses on the responses by people around the neighborhood, the city, and the country. He describes how rituals such as chanting Havdalah prayers, washing the bodies of the victims, or building Star-of-David memorials channeled the outrage and partially tamed the terror that many people were feeling. In the face of absurd tragedy, people chose the sort of common human decency that led Camus to conclude that there is more to admire in men than to despise. Yes, we do what we can in the moment for those suffering in the wake of tragedy.

But can we avoid the tragedy?

Psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl has studied gun ownership and firearm deaths. Meetzl acknowledges that there is much we don’t know about the motivations of the shooters or about how to identify and stop them. He says that we need to abandon the idea that there is a simplistic connection between violence and diagnosable psychopathology. Mental health assessments or background checks won’t work. Most shooters do not have a mental health diagnosis. Most have not had encounters with the mental health system. Even if they have, it is difficult to predict future violent acts. Even the FBI acknowledges that it is impossible to reliably predict who will go on a killing rampage. They write, “There were very few demographic patterns or trends (aside from gender) that could be identified, reinforcing the concept that there is no one “profile” of an active shooter.”

Metzl calls for “well-funded interdisciplinary research that is informed and implemented through the sustained engagement of researchers with affected communities and other stakeholders in gun violence prevention.” It is not a solution that addresses our in-the-moment moral outrage but it is a long-term program that would eventually give us the knowledge we need to design better prevention programs.

Nicholas Christof, former op-ed columnist and candidate for Governor of Oregon, has some simpler suggestions that might garner bipartisan support. He calls them baby steps. One, raise the age at which one can legally buy a gun from 18 to 21. A third of states do that. Two, ban the sale of high capacity magazines. Nine states and DC do that. There used to be a federal ban on such devices. It expired in 1994. Since then, the use of high-capacity magazines and assault rifles in crimes has tripled. Third, require a permit for open or concealed carry. States are overturning such laws. Police are outraged and believe such laws make police work more dangerous and less effective.

I keep coming back to the actions of the people in Pittsburgh, so similar to those in Camus’ fictional plague-stricken town of Oran. In both, unspeakable tragedy struck. In both, the survivors had to make moral choices. In both, people were brought face-to-face with the tragic absurdity of human existence in which we are all vulnerable to being randomly exterminated. It could be by a bacillus, an accident, or the actions of our fellow humans. Camus divides the world into killers, victims, and healers. He puts the statement in the mouth of Tarrou, the a non-physician who decides that he must help the doctor who is caring for the dozens and hundreds of patients who are painfully dying. Tarrou says, “there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with pestilences.” One way to avoid siding with the pestilences, without becoming a victim, is to recognize a third way, a third possibility. Again, Tarrou, “I grant we should add a third category: that of the true healers. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims’ side, so as to reduce the damage done. Among them I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace."

To do nothing, to give up, is to become a victim. The most difficult thing is to try to be a healer, especially knowing that the plague will never be defeated, the battle will be endless, and our work more hospice than hospital. Hard as it is to channel our outrage fatigue, we should continually try to find the path of the healer, doing small things and large. We must bind the wounds of the injured and comfort the bereaved. We must work to heal society, too, by understanding its bizarre and unique psychopathology and work to find a cure that will make our communal world a safer and more just place.

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