Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fire arms

The first thought, one of many, I drew for The Stockton Record after a mass shooting at
Cleveland Elementary School nearly 24 years ago.
Every grownup hoping for children, I suppose, collides at least once with the idea: What's the point?

Into this world?

My collision came in 1989, when a troubled young man named Patrick Purdy opened fire with an assault rifle on a Stockton, Calif. elementary school playground, an hour south of where we live. He killed five children and wounded 29 more, and a teacher, before killing himself.

The killings riveted the nation with a notion too horrible to imagine. School children, playing.

How naïve we were.

Since then, of course, the slaughters continue, the body counts rise, as if a contest is under way; Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Oikos University in Oakland, Calif. Now the murder of 20 children and six adults — teachers — last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That's just some of the schools, just some of the 62 mass shootings in the United States since 1982.

Not to mention about 30 people across the United States murdered every day by guns.

Patrick Purdy's onslaught was, if you'll forgive the worst possible analogy, child's play.

With the Sandy Hook murders, it's easy for me now to expect that at any time in America, someone with mental illness, someone unmoored by drugs or alcohol, someone mis-wired for social mores, someone unable to control anger or depression, someone lacking or losing a sense of right and wrong, will slaughter innocents.

Just add a gun.

What will it take, now, to prevent it? Are 20 little first graders enough? Do we need more little ones to die? Need they be younger still? A preschool, perhaps?

What will be — another poor word choice — the trigger?

Though I don't know the answer to this, I know it can't be more of that same. That would mean we are indeed waiting for something worse to happen, more of the same. President Obama told the Newtown folk Sunday he would "use whatever power this office holds" to prevent tragedies. But what?

My search for answer only snags more troublesome questions, which circle back to Sandy Hook.

Limit the number and kind of guns in the United States? Most people who own guns are reasonable, I get it. Hunters I've met are extremely safe, extremely respectful of their weapons, almost to the point of making me wonder why they bother to hunt.

I just can't understand why reasonable people would own handguns and assault weapons, designed for killing humans in large number. I've never reconciled how having one would keep me safe without also — and more likely — putting me in grave danger.

Why would anyone, for instance, want a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, the kind used to kill those at Sandy Hook? "Why should anyone want a Ferrari?" someone named Philip Van Cleave answered. He's the head of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and he said in the Washington Post that Bushmasters "are absolutely a blast to shoot with. They're fast. They're accurate."

I wonder if he said that in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. I wonder if he realizes how he sounds.

Guns flourish in the United States, enough for almost everyone to have one, and the Supreme Court has reaffirmed our right, by the awkward sentence construction of the Second Amendment. Regulations are already in place to make purchases difficult — Connecticut's is one of the nation's most stringent — and to prohibit their sale to people who exhibit mental illness, but they don't work and people who shouldn't have guns get them anyway. Laws were supposed to emasculate assault weapons, but a rivet here and semantics there, and the National Rifle Association and gun advocates have restored their firepower.

Even if somehow the most reasonable laws come forth to keep guns out of the hands of those who would kill others, they would only affect guns yet unmade. Millions are still out there.

Arm everyone? Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, among others, proposed arming teachers and principals. Gohmert said he wishes Sandy Hook's principal had an M4 (a military assault weapon) and "takes his head off." More arms, not fewer, will solve our problems, they say.

Imagine a teacher, already trying to master the manifold skills needed to produce educated, happy children, also training in tactical weapons. Imagine states and the federal government, already unable to provide all districts with enough books, paper, pencils, let alone the resources for excellence that children deserve, paying for that training. Imagine the gunfights in the hallways among the unstable and untrained and unstained.
• Odd aside — wouldn't you think by now weapons technology would have come up with something deadlier and easier to use than a gun? I mean, how long has the gun been the go-to weapon in war — 250, 300 years? Each era of war won by those with better guns, but no one has invented something better — or worse — than a gun?
Ban bullets? Comedian Chris Rock had it right when he once said bullets should cost $5,000, that bullet control is the answer. One push now is to ban large clips and limit access to ammunition; the odd result, I guess, is that only nine children would be killed in the next shooting, rather than 20?

Maybe it weakens the arms we already have. Maybe more likely people who want to shoot a lot of bullets will still find a way to do so.

Help the helpless? Salvation lies within. As the camps entrench over gun control, all can agree our mental healthcare is woeful. The only problem we can really hope to solve is the most difficult.

Our anger and grief are misdirected. It's not the guns we should focus on in that horrible killing. It's the young man who killed, in the place he killed.

We must be part of a sea-change, bringing mental illness to light rather than shunting it to dark corners, depriving it of our care and our money. Stories are emerging of the struggle the killer's family made in raising their son.

Read the heartbreaking story of another mom who finds help for her young son so hard to find, and dreads what will come of him. Soon you'll also find criticism of that mom, denouncing her fate, denying her veracity, and we are back where we started, not helping. Instead, waiting.

Some say the killing is pure evil, the result of sin, of God removed from our schools. As in, did the devil assign the killer to shoot up a school made weak by lack of prayer? Prayer can't hurt — prayer of mourning, prayer of supplication — but consigning the horror to an act of evil serves instead to free us from the responsibility of doing anything about it.

I fear we'll tire of this, and inertia will ensue.

But then I think of my own children, growing and going places in their lives.

Whether because he was first born or just built with keen emotions, our son especially embraced the world as wonderfully dangerous, or the other way around. Almost every new thing he learned became a new thing to wonder at and be wary of. He worried a lot. Come elementary school, he felt stress, and it manifested in peculiar repeated twisting of his arms and hands, a repeated sideways nod of his head, and a lot of blinking. The tics slowed about this time of year, disappeared by spring and resumed with the new school year.

Once, when both our kids were young, about the age of the first graders at Sandy Hook, we had signed them up for summer day camp in the park across the street. It was ideal; they'd play and swim each weekday for most of the summer, and I'd get work done from home.

Not a week into camp our son, already frightened of cigarette smoke, too much sun, and all the things he had heard us say were harmful and that he decided could kill him immediately, was in a bathroom stall when some older kids came in from the park and began smoking. Our son decided he was about to die, suddenly and alone and unnoticed in that stall, and when he didn't, he absolutely refused ever to return to camp.

Even the mere suggestion he give camp another try ignited yelling tantrums and flailing of limbs, so I stopped suggesting and he stayed at home. It took me months to find out why, because it took our son that long to tell my wife his problem — imagine all the possibilities I pondered.

Now I'm trying to imagine our son as this little boy again, already fraught with a first grader's heavy regard for the world, trying to understand a troubled man firing and firing a high-powered weapon.

We can't do nothing.

Raising our children is our first job, President Obama told the people of Newtown Sunday. "If we don't get that right," he said,  "then we aren't getting anything right."

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