sandy hook elementary school

Gun Control, Sandy Hook, and Dylan Hockley

The other day, a friend of mine – who I respect and love dearly – commented on Facebook that he was tired of hearing about Sandy Hook. He lamented that policy was being driven by emotional ploys, and that the media was manipulating public opinion.

Now, this friend is a reasonable individual. We have pretty pronounced differences in opinion when it comes to matters of public policy, and gun control is no exception. He’s not opposed to all forms of regulation; he just thinks we need to be smart about it. I can get behind that.

But I bristled at dismissing the Sandy Hook stories as part of our dialogue on gun control. It was the same reaction I had when people voiced similar frustrations in the wake of Aurora, or the Sikh Temple shooting, or the Virginia Tech massacre, or the Tuscon shootings… or any of the other dozens of mass shootings.

The thing is, if we exclude these personal stories, all we’re left with is data. Data isn’t necessarily bad; indeed, it’s a critical part of effective decision making. In this instance, there is data which suggests gun control, when implemented carefully and consistently (consistency being the key), can decrease gun violence. Such data is frequently (and sometimes, to some extent, with merit) criticized and dismissed by those opposed to increased gun control. The problem is that these debates over data points remove us from the reason we’re having the conversation to begin with: human lives.

Rachel Maddow had a truly fantastic segment at the beginning of her show the other night on the impact of the Sandy Hook narratives on the Senate’s approach to the gun control debate. Watch it. It’s not long, and it’s important. And the rest of this post won’t make much sense if you don’t.

I cried when I watched it live. I’ve cried every time I’ve watched it since. Part of that has to do with the fact that my daughter is on the autism spectrum. She has one of those weighted blankets at Nana and Papa’s house for sleepovers. When the world gets to be too much for her to process, a hug is the only thing that works. And Dylan…

I can’t even write about it. I’ve tried, for days, and the words come out mangled by grief. There is no way to gracefully express the kind of heartbreak associated with this story.

Once again, I am reminded of the importance of narrative. In the wake of past mass shootings, the reaction has been predictable. It starts with disbelief, and is quickly peppered with political statements. Then there is outrage over the existence of those political statements. Eventually, with the feeling that it’s a lost cause, the conversation fades into the background. The reason that a shooting which took place in December is still in the spotlight in April is that these parents aren’t letting us forget about it. These courageous families have put their lives and sorrow and pain on public display. It won’t bring their children back, but it might help someone else’s child, and that’s why they keep fighting. Regardless of where you stand on the gun control debate, most will cede that it’s an important conversation to have. The fact that these narratives are forcing us to have it makes them important, as well.

Whether the conversation would proceed was in question for a stretch there. After all, the NRA was scoring the vote to even hear the debate on the Senate floor. Let me repeat: they are evaluating whether or not Senators are effective defenders of gun rights based on how quickly they shut the conversation down altogether.

(As if I needed another reason to hate the NRA. Seriously, any group that actively works to PREVENT DISCOURSE is not an organization worth supporting. For being such huge fans of the Constitution, it seems like the Second Amendment is the only part they think has value.)

Now, I’m not saying that we should pass policy based on narratives alone; that’s gotten us into trouble on more than one occasion. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in our policy making approach. In this instance, it was the collection of narratives from Sandy Hook that forced us to move forward in the gun control policy debate. It was stories like Dylan’s that made the difference. Dylan was taken from the world much too soon, but even so, his contributions to our well-being may, in the end, be beyond measure.

This is Not About You

I want to tell you about my daughter.

Montage of AvaHer name is Ava, and she is four years old. She’s a little bit of a ham, if you know her well. She loves to sing and dance and show off. Lately, she’s taken to attempting to pirouette like Angelina Ballerina does. Ava’s version of a pirouette is to put her foot on her knee, try to balance, and then spin, so she spends more time on the floor than she does twirling, but she’s ok with that. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s getting ballet lessons, slippers and a tutu from Santa this year.

Her stuffed animals and dolls are some of her best friends, and they go on wild adventures together. In her world, the Princess usually saves the Prince. These games are usually played after dressing up in her own unique style. Recently, that’s meant one of Mommy’s dresses, a pair of my heels, and one of her own t-shirts worn as a head covering. She frequently disappears into my closet, only to come out, strike a pose, and ask with a smirk, “Whattaya fink?”

She’s big into counting and letters right now. Anytime there’s a word emblazoned anywhere- a door mat, a t-shirt, a book cover- she takes the time to tell me what each letter is. She’s very proud of the fact that she can count to 20, and takes every chance she can get to show it off. Today, we were bringing water bottles up from the basement, and practiced counting how many she was holding, how many Mommy was holding, and how many there were altogether. Her face lit up with a sense of accomplishment as she completed the task and gleefully proclaimed, “I did it!”

Ava finds joy in everything. The “tickle monster” makes frequent visits to our household. We make each other laugh with silly faces, build forts out of blankets, duct tape and chairs, and take turns yelling at the protagonists in our favorite movies (a bad habit she picked up from me). I suppose it should then come as no surprise that she doesn’t like to see people sad. It’s hard to be sad for long around her, but on the occasions where she’s seen me cry, she has come over to tenderly push my hair back from my face, wipe my tears and console me, saying, “Don’t cry, Mommy. Everything is going to be ok. I’m here.”

When a four year old says something like that, you can’t help but believe it.

She’s my buddy and pal, frequent co-conspirator, inspiration, motivation, and raison d’etre. She’s saved my life more times than I can count, and will probably continue to do so. People often use the phrase as a cliche exaggeration, but in so many ways, Ava is my guardian angel.

Mommy and Ava

Why am I telling you all this?

I want you to know how unbelievably amazing and precious she is to me, because maybe then you’ll realize that this isn’t really about you. I need you to understand why I’m about to say what I’m going to say. I need you to know that this is not political. This is not about one party versus another, or a bunch of politicians in suits yelling at each other in a cavernous room, or an army of lobbyists in expensive cars trying to sway their votes.

This is about Ava, who is starting school next year, and will be about the same age as many of the victims from today’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

At this hour, reports indicate that 6 adults and 20 beautiful children were killed by a shooter who entered the school as the day was beginning. Those on the scene have stated that administrators in the main office, including the principal, were shot “execution style.” These shots were broadcast throughout the school via the PA system. The remaining violence created a scene gruesome enough that emergency personnel evacuating surviving students instructed them to cover their eyes and stay close together.

The national media descended upon the small town of Newtown, Connecticut with stunning speed. Much to my chagrin, I saw cameras shoved into the faces of traumatized children, with their frightened, bewildered responses replayed on a loop for the world to see. It was almost like a race to see who could break the stories faster… which, of course, led to the dispersing of a lot of false information. Now, we believe that Adam Lanza, a 20 year old man, shot his mother in their home, took her legally purchased firearms, went to the school, and began his murderous spree. His brother, Ryan Lanza (originally thought to be the shooter), has stated that his brother had a history of emotional and mental problems.

When I first logged on to Facebook, statements of shock, horror and sympathy filled my news feed, as one might expect. But just as quickly, comments about gun control started popping up. Most of it wasn’t inflammatory. People just put up statistics about gun violence, and asked if maybe the time had come for us to find a better solution. But then came the comments about people killing people, and not guns. Then came the posts about a man who attacked a school with a knife in China. I knew I wasn’t interested in having a full-on policy brawl in the moment- frankly, I was too nauseous over it to think straight- but as people responded to a tragedy that had claimed the lives of children not much older than my daughter by thinking about themselves, I got angry.

I’ll be honest; I engaged a little bit in the debates that followed, but my heart wasn’t in it. All I could think was that it wouldn’t matter if I won a digital debate. My arguments wouldn’t bring those innocent babies back, and the statements made probably wouldn’t catch the ear of anyone who could do anything about it. I thought morosely about how the next week would play out. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle would posture on policy, and yell at each other about politicizing the issue, and nothing would get done.

It was just so damn sad. There are ten days until Christmas, and for 20 families in Newtown, there is no joy to be had. There will be unwrapped presents and siblings angry with Santa for not bringing them back their brother or sister. There will be nary a dry eye in that town on Christmas morning. And I’ll be hugging my daughter extra tight, I’ll tell you that much.

Ava walked out of her room and saw me sitting teary-eyed on the couch as images from catastrophe scrolled across the TV. She came over and wiped my face, with a look of raw, honest, visceral concern and compassion sparkling in her eyes and tweaking the corners of her mouth upwards. She put a finger on each end of my mouth and attempted to contort my face into a grin.

“Smile, Mommy,” she said. “Everything is a-o-k. Right?”

Here’s the thing. Everything is not ok. There is nothing ok about 20 children having their lives snuffed out before they’ve even had a chance to live them. It is not ok that hundreds of parents in Connecticut tonight are having to explain to their children why they won’t see their friends or teachers anymore. It is not ok that there are families in Colorado that fear movie theaters, and loved ones in Oregon who are skittish about making their holiday purchases at shopping malls. It is not ok by any stretch of the imagination, and unless something changes, it’s never going to be. These things are going to keep happening.

I’ll worry about a lot of things when Ava starts school, but I don’t want a gunman with a semi-automatic weapon to be one of them.

Some people I really respect and admire have made calls not to “politicize” the events in Connecticut today. They argue that it cheapens the suffering in this community, and turns tragedy into a political football. But in this case, the political is personal, because this could just have easily been my daughter. I’m not interested in assigning blame for today’s events on a given political party or person, except for the shooter. What I am in favor of is us finding ways to prevent us from having to have these conversations again. I can think of no greater way to honor the memory of the public servants and children we lost today than to work towards a solution. We will never be able to say they didn’t die in vain; there is never a good reason for children to die. But we can still honor them through our work.

I am not a legislator, or a person of influence, but I am a mother, and I have a voice. I would be remiss to not try to do something, if only to protect my daughter. So here’s my argument:

We need stronger, smarter, and more consistent gun control in the United States.

I won’t advocate a total gun ban. Prohibition, historically, for anything, has not been effective in our country. It has resulted in increased violence and public harm at the hands of shadowy criminal networks.

My only exception to this rule pertains to automatic and semi-automatic weapons. These firearms were designed with one purpose- the ability to inflict maximum damage on the largest amount of targets possible in the shortest amount of time. And when I say targets, I mean people. The AK-47 was not created to hunt deer. There is absolutely zero reason for any civilian to ever own one of those weapons.

Is it enough to ban such weapons from the civilian populous? No. I am for a more stringent framework for obtaining and keeping a gun. In my mind, there are ten components to instituting smarter gun control:

  1. You should have to pass a firearm competency test. This should include a written exam related to gun safety, cleaning, use and storage, and a practical exam for the class of weapon you seek to purchase.
  2. You should have to pass a psychological evaluation prior to purchase to vouch for your mental and emotional stability, along with all household members who would have easy access to the weapons.
  3. You should have to pass a criminal background check (including a check for presence on the national terrorist watch list), with no history of violent offenses, along with all household members who would have easy access to the weapons.
  4. You should have to provide proof of a safe means of storage and protection of your intended firearms.
  5. You should be subjected to a mandatory waiting period of two weeks prior to being able to purchase your gun.
  6. You should only be able to purchase a gun from a licensed dealer; no more gun show purchases.
  7. You should have to renew your license, and provide proof of continuing eligibility (see #1-4), on an annual basis, subject to repossession of the weapons and a fine should you fail to comply.
  8. Your weapons should be repossessed and your license stripped in the event of indictment on a violent criminal offense.
  9. We should establish a tip hotline for citizens to use in order to report concerns about stability or use intentions of a firearm owner.
  10. Mental health professionals should be given access to a database of firearm owners, and be required to cross-check the database whenever working with an unstable patient. Should the patient be a registered firearm owner, the licensing authorities should be notified of the change in possession eligibility.

To summarize, if you want a weapon, I want to know that you know how to use it, you’re not hearing voices, you have somewhere safe to put it, you don’t have a history of hurting people, you don’t NEED it tomorrow for some reason, the people selling to you are playing by the rules, and that there are ways for us to respond to any changes in any of these areas. No, I don’t think this is unreasonable. If you are a law-abiding gun owner, this may provide you a bit of a headache, but your inconvenience pales in comparison to the impact of lives lost. If you are a law-abiding gun owner, this mild irritation should actually provide you comfort.

There are those who will argue that this is an infringement of their Second Amendment rights. Let us revisit what the Second Amendment actually says (emphasis below mine):

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

The way I read that, it means the Founding Fathers wanted you to have a right to bear arms, but for the purpose of maintaining a militia. At the time that the Constitution was written, they were fearful of government. They were fearful of another country invading. At the time that it was written, the Second Amendment made all the sense in the world. But since then, it has been interpreted by many a gun advocate to mean that there should be no regulation on weaponry, with even the Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 that the protection did not just extend to militia use. However, in that same decision, the court held that:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any  manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

In other words, yes, you have a right to bear arms, no matter what I or anyone else think. But that does not mean that you have a right to bear arms without caveat. In fact, the Court found that several of the stipulations I listed above (limits based on mental health and criminal record) are reasonable, Constitutional restrictions.

Others argue that increased restrictions on gun ownership denies people their legally protected right to defend themselves, their kin and their property. The thing is, the restrictions outlined here do not deny eligible gun owners that ability. You don’t need an automatic weapon to defend yourself, and if you don’t present a risk to others, there’s no reason you can’t have a different weapon. In a world where there’s mandatory training and competency testing associated with gun ownership, you’ll probably be able to better defend yourself anyway. And for those deemed ineligible, there are always other means of defense.

Some believe that a ban on weapons leads to an increase in gun violence. The example cited most frequently to support this argument is Washington D.C. They highlight the statistic which indicates that gun violence led to a murder rate 73% higher on average than it was prior to the handgun ban. To this, there are several responses. For starters, the regions surrounding Washington D.C. at the time (and today) had much more lax gun control regulation in place. One hour North or South, and a D.C. resident would likely have little problem attaining a firearm, as permits are not required in Virginia or Maryland. Inconsistent policies in the region undermined the efficacy of Washington D.C.’s efforts. The data is also reflective of the total murder rate, and fails to take into account alternate causalities (think: police funding, size of police force, political tensions, and so forth).

But really, that’s neither here nor there. If anything at all, the D.C. instance proves that a ban on firearms- particularly one that is regionally inconsistent- is likely to backfire. Good thing we’re not proposing a ban… and good thing we’re talking about federal regulation of the matter, so inconsistency can’t be the problem.

Plus, every time someone makes this argument, I’m reminded of a comment made by the character Toby Ziegler on The West Wing:

If you combine the populations of Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, you’ll get a population roughly the size of the United States. We had 32,000 gun deaths last year, they had 112. Do you think it’s because Americans are more homicidal by nature? Or do you think it’s because those guys have gun control laws?

I’ve been through the contextual debate on this statement and others like it. My favorite is when people point to Switzerland where, “basically everyone has a gun.” Yeah, they do. They’re also all conscripted into military service. At least they’re trained (see stipulation #1 above).

I know that some have a major problem with the idea of having a mental health evaluation. It’s viewed as an arbitrary, fluid standard and an invasion of privacy. Here’s the thing- current regulations on possession of weapons by the mentally ill rely solely on court adjudication. Proving incompetence in a court of law requires motivation and substantial evidence. There are far more unstable individuals in this nation than there are those who are proven so in a court of law. By establishing a standardized evaluation to be used for gun licensing, we are better able to keep weapons out of the hands of unbalanced individuals.

Further, I’m not arguing for a database of individuals ruled to be psychologically unsuited for gun ownership. It’s literally just for the licensing purposes. It’s not invasion of privacy. Psychological evaluations are part of careers in law enforcement and the military (though imperfect… and that’s a topic for another day). We’ve done this before, and we can do it again.

More controversial is probably the proposal that these background elements be established for all individuals with access to the weapon- i.e. household members. I can hear the reductio ad absurdum arguments now- “Anyone could have access! Do I have to provide a list of everyone who enters my home ever?!”- but that’s not even close to true. These same principles are applied by insurance companies, who will frequently condition auto coverage on whether or not individuals living in a household (and therefore, will have consistent potential access to driving the vehicle in question) have a history of DUIs or other moving vehicle infractions. Vehicles have a purpose outside of inflicting pain and death in some capacity (even if they do that, on occasion). Guns do not. And you’re telling me that applying these same types of standards in this instance is somehow unreasonable when we tolerate it there? Give me a break.

The idea of evaluating household circumstances isn’t new to government programs, either. Consider that an applicant for Welfare is asked about the net income of the household. The fact is, by establishing a brightline based on capacity of the subject to present a substantial risk of harm to the public, privacy remains intact. This doesn’t have to be a slippery slope. If it were, we’d have seen similar implications by now.

And then come the arguments about the black market. The general idea is that if someone wants a gun badly enough, they can always use back channels. This is correct. That’s why I’m in favor of cracking down on black market providers and increasing penalties for both selling and buying on the black market. But further, the added danger involved in a black market transaction, and the potential legal repercussions, will likely deter some participation in the black market. And something is better than nothing.

Some point out that an individual who wants to hurt someone else will always find a way to do so. I’ll fully admit that stricter gun regulation will not ELIMINATE ALL VIOLENCE, but it can mitigate the rate at which it occurs. Why? Psychology, and execution. To begin with, multiple studies in the military- where individuals are trained and tasked with killing- have indicated that aversion to killing increases with proximity to the intended victim. For instance, a solider is less disturbed by using a grenade than a rifle, and less disturbed by using a rifle than inflicting a deadly blow in hand-to-hand combat. In other words, it’s easier to pull a trigger than it is to kill a person with your own hands. Perhaps that’s why the National Insititute of Justice reported:

In 2006, firearms were used in 68 percent of murders, 42 percent of robbery offenses and 22 percent of aggravated assaults nationwide.

But it’s also just a matter of function. Killing a large group of people with a knife is a little more difficult than shooting into a crowd with a semi-automatic weapon. In fact, in the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut, I saw a number of people citing a knife attack in a Chinese school as an indication of the fact that violent attacks will happen regardless of whether guns are involved. The part they left out in their example? No one died in that attack. 

Perhaps the most laughable argument I hear is that a better armed populous deters violent crime, because people are afraid of getting shot. If that’s the case, with private gun ownership at an all-time high today, why are we seeing an increase in mass shooting frequency? Why has violent crime not been eliminated? And what would you have suggested at Sandy Hook? That our children obtain conceal and carry licenses? Or that teachers, who more frequently than they should be are subjected to muggings and violence at the hands of their students, carry firearms? I’d love to introduce you to a host of educators who would be terrified of such a world.

These are usually the same people who will indicate that “gun free zones” are a hazard. They point to the fact that most mass shootings take place in these same areas. That does not justify the elimination of these zones as a panacea to gun violence. All it does is introduce the additional possibilities of accidental or moment of passion shootings in areas where people shouldn’t have to worry about them (school, church, court, etc.), while assuming that an attempted mass attack would be mitigated. Not prevented, but mitigated. On balance, there’s an increase in the risk of violence under this scenario. It makes a lot more sense to maintain those areas and try to ensure those with access to firearms are competent enough to do so. Will it be a guarantee? No- but risk calculus tells us it’s a better route.

Oh, and we can’t forget the arguments about protecting ourselves from the government! It’s not that I’m the biggest fan of our government all the time. And I understand the historical precedents people reference (i.e. Nazi Germany confiscating weapons as a means of consolidating power). But that being said, Ruby Ridge and Waco stand out as two excellent examples of why this argument is a terrible one. Even with the loosest of gun control laws, the U.S. Military is better armed and trained than a civilian populous could ever hope to be.

(Zombie apocalypse?  Please. Oh, and every survivalist worth their salt will tell you you’re better served by being skilled with a knife or crossbow at that point, as ammo is pretty finite absent mass production. Just sayin’.)

At this point, the arguments usually devolve into specific circumstances. Already, I have seen comments about how stricter gun control may not have prevented Mr. Lanza from committing his heinous acts. After all, the weapons he used were legally purchased by his mother. But think about this- at least one of the weapons was a semi-automatic. In a world where semi-automatic weapons were no longer legal for civilians, the lower firing rate and the requirement of more frequent loading of the gun might have limited his inflicted damage by providing more time in which to catch or disarm him. In a world where mental health checks would be required of those having access to the firearms in the house, if Mr. Lanza’s brother is to be believed, the mother may not have owned the weapons in the first place.

And let me put it this way- most of these arguments have been contextualized in terms of mass violence. The statistics on individual shootings across the nation are a whole different level of nauseating.

Look, I won’t say I have all the answers. There may be people out there with better ideas about effectively regulating gun ownership in this country. But let’s have the conversation. No more putting the issue off until after a crisis has hit- that is the PERFECT time to have this conversation, because the urgency of the matter becomes palpable. It may seem crass, but people stop caring as painful memories fade to the background. It was too soon after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tuscon, Aurora, and Portland, too. And now, for the 26 dead in Connecticut? Perhaps Ezra Klein put it best:

Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable, but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not… As others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late.

And for those opposed, I seriously dare you to give me a single justifiable reason that outweighs the lives of 20 innocent children for why anyone should be allowed to possess a semi-automatic or automatic weapon. I dare you explain to me why consistently enforced enhanced regulation of guns- not a ban, but smarter regulation– is a bad thing. I dare you to tell me why waiting for two weeks to purchase a weapon is more important than the prevention of much deadlier crimes of passion. Because you can’t. 

I want to tell my daughter that it’s all going to be ok. I’m not a legislator or person of influence, but I am a mother, and I hope you’ll join me in calling on Congress to develop smart, effective gun legislation in the coming session.

Because if not now, when?

Please consider petitioning Congress to address this issue in the coming Congressional session. It is not specific to the proposals outlined here, so if you disagree with a portion of my suggestions, please don’t feel dissuaded from signing your name to the cause. On the other hand, if you support the proposals, please feel free to contact your representatives with the information.

You can do so here.