So here we are, nearly two weeks later, and grief has turned to a nationwide low-level panic.
“Later” needs no explanation, unless by chance you’re reading this in archived form far in the future, in which case I hope you’re living in a saner time and place than I am.
Those of us living in America at the end of 2012 have been thrust into a national debate about how to protect children at school — a debate that bounces wildly from one “solution” to another: armed troops at the door, handguns for teachers, bulletproof backpacks on little shoulders, a transformation of the school atmosphere from its supposedly overly feminized and secular nature. In other words, more guns, more God, more guys.
Given that guys with guns are the problem to begin with, and God has been noticeably silent on the matter, these “solutions” smell an awful lot like desperation.
One of the most painful things about this topic — beyond the unfathomable event that brought it to the top of the national agenda to begin with — is that it pits equally well-meaning people against one another. We all want the same thing: to protect children. Yet the divide over how to achieve that is as great as any I’ve seen on any topic — abortion, religion, gay marriage, war. Over the past 12 days, I’ve seen friends turn on each other and otherwise mild-mannered people erupt in rage. I’ve almost entirely withdrawn from social media, because the emotions are so raw, the conversation so heated. The presidential campaign was a model of civility by comparison.
When I heard that a group of mothers in Johnson County had started an online petition on the school-safety topic, my initial reaction was a roll of the eyes. Ah, yes, the online petition, in which armchair cultural warriors conquer the world, one feel-good click at a time.
The group, which calls itself JOCO Metro Moms, wants an armed police officer or active-duty military service member at every school in the country. At the risk of losing my status as a card-carrying anti-gun liberal, I’ll confess that I understand where they’re coming from. I understand the urge to fight fire with fire, to take concrete action, to send a message to twisted, disturbed individuals who are emotionally capable of gunning down children.
And that is exactly the problem. When we decide to send messages, we assume a common language. As a normal person, I can look at a situation, weigh the consequences of the action I want to take, and decide whether that action will accomplish my goals without a significant risk of unintended consequences. My “language” is the language of typical human emotions and rationality. Anyone who tried could figure me out pretty easily.
When it comes to preventing school massacres, though, we are not dealing with the emotions, thought processes or behaviors of a normal person. Any attempt on our part to look into the mind of someone so deeply disturbed is doomed. Yes, armed officers would deter you and me from approaching a school with an assault rifle in hand. But we are not the ones who would do so to begin with.
So, then, the issue isn’t deterrence. It’s stopping mass murders in progress. That’s the thinking of the National Rifle Association, whose leader declared last week that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
That works as a sound bite, but not much else. Would a police officer, even a highly trained one, be able to stop a determined madman carrying a military-style assault rifle equipped with a high-capacity magazine? Not likely. And certainly not if that madman saw the police officer first.
That’s why so many of the “safety” measures suddenly being implemented in schools across the country are absurdly pointless. Installing security cameras and locking doors? Seriously? One Joco day care center — probably several of them, actually — is now stationing extra workers at the door during drop-off and pick-up times. To do what? Wrestle with a disturbed individual for control of an automatic weapon?
I almost admire the NRA, for its sheer nerve. Think about it: You lobby for decades to expand access to firearms — not just the kind used for hunting deer, but the kind used for hunting people. Your lobbying is wildly successful, and you now are comfortably settled in a nation with a gun culture unlike any other in the developed world. Then, when one of the guns you’ve fought to keep legal finds its way into the hands of a deranged individual who murders more than two dozen people — 20 of them young children — you boldly declare that the solution is … more guns.
You point out, and rightly so, that mental illness issues need to be addressed. But you seem more interested in tracking people with mental illness than in tracking the weapons that you hope never fall into their hands. And you fail to acknowledge that mental illness is exponentially more complex and difficult to deal with, as a society, than controlling guns would have been, if we’d done it decades ago.
So how about this, NRA: I’ll cave. Let’s do it your way. Although I won’t sign the JOCO Metro Moms’ petition for armed police in our schools, I also won’t fight it. If armed officers show up in my son’s school, I’ll stay as far away from them as possible, because I fall squarely into the segment of society best described as Not Gun People. I don’t even want to be near one that’s holstered on the hip of a police officer.
And when one of America’s guarded schools is someday the site of another mass shooting involving a weapon that no civilian should ever have, I’ll tune in to your news conference.
I’d recommend that you start working on your sound bite now.
Sarah Smith Nessel, a 913 freelance columnist, writes The Bubble each week.