In the days following the Newtown, Connecticut shooting I have found myself (as I believe many Americans find themselves) awash with sorrow, grief, and disbelief at what is one of the most horrific acts of violence most of us could imagine.  This terrible act of shooting down 27 people, mostly children in their elementary school is almost too shockingly horrible to believe.  If only it wasn’t real.  If only last Friday had been just another school day in the midst of the busy holiday season.  Sadly, for the families and friends grieving, the holidays will never be the same again.  Before I say another word however, let me offer my personal and heartfelt condolences over this dreadful event.  The families and community of Newtown have been in my prayers and thoughts every day since the shooting and will continue to be so in the weeks and months that follow.  This event has ripped a hole in the consciousness of the world and our nation, and we are right to feel these wounds for some time.  Only with time and concerted thought, speech, and actions will we be able to heal and transform ourselves and our nation to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.

As I’ve watched the news and read articles and posts about this massacre, I’ve seen both the best and worst of humanity; the unbelievable compassion of a grieving community and nation, the support of our President and the commitment of his office to prevent the conditions of this massacre from existing in the future, and the enormous outpouring of love and concern for the victims and their families.  At the same time however, we have been exposed to the chaotic swirl of the media’s sensationalistic coverage of the event, the deeply entrenched opposition of sides in the gun control issue, and the appalling plans of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest the funerals and memorial services of the victims. In watching it all unfold, and with no little amount of reflection, contemplation, and meditation, I’ve begun to deepen my understanding of the issues that are at the heart of this tragedy.  I would like to share them with you here.  If my observations and insights resonate with you, great.  If not, that’s fine too, I just hope that you recognize that these are my opinions based on my experiences and understanding.  I’m not a parent or a gun owner, but that doesn’t mean I can’t grapple with these issues and try to understand them.

What causes a young man to force his way to an elementary school and brutally kill first graders and their teachers?  How does such a thing happen?  Is there a simple or single answer?  I truly doubt that.  I have heard the argument that such mass shootings are due to the explicit and violent culture we live in.  Television, film and video games have become unprecedentedly violent.  Young minds are being exposed to (and desensitized to) violence wherever they turn and without the psychological maturity and development necessary to understand right from wrong or life from death, it’s easy to believe that it’s only natural to want to be like the hero or character in the latest film or video game.  In my mind there is no question that such influences shape the minds of young, easily influenced children.

There is another factor, the parents.  Raising children in our current society is one of the most challenging endeavors imaginable, and clearly some are not up to the task.  The responsibilities of parenting are immense, no small part of those is seeing to the healthy mental development of their children as they grow.  In the aftermath of this shooting, criticism has been leveled at the parents of mass murderers as the source of the problem.  If they had been better parents it is believed, some switch in their child’s head wouldn’t have flipped and the carnage could have been prevented.  I’ll acknowledge that I believe there is a valid argument here as well.  If parents don’t do their part to lead a child from adolescence to maturity with care, compassion, responsibility and love, an imbalance will most certainly result.

Add to the mix the very real possibility of mental illness.  After reading an article in the Huffington Post, (Here) I’ve come to recognize that even with the best parents and values in place, mental illness can rear a very ugly head and turn an otherwise normal individual into a raging, distorted version of humanity that if left unchecked may eventually erupt in a catastrophic expression of violence.  Such individuals become increasingly impossible for their parents or caregivers to manage and without professional help, they have little hope for finding a place in our society.

While violent cultural influences, irresponsible parenting and mental illness bare some of the blame in these tragedies, it’s far more complicated than we believe.  Warped by violent societal influences, ignored, abused, or misguided by poor parents, we can’t imagine what goes through the mind (or lack thereof) of such an individual.

It is at this level that the pro-gun community believes we need to address the problem.  If we can effectively treat mental illness, stop people from growing up dysfunctional and seeing violence as an acceptable outlet for that dysfunction, the cycle will be broken.  To an extent, this makes sense.  I believe that the cultural and societal influences we are exposed to need to be evaluated.  The balance between free speech and violent films, video games, and other media must be carefully examined to maintain and uphold the values that support healthy emotional and psychological development.  At the same time, parents need to both be held accountable for the environment in which their children are raised as well as given the support to deal with cases of mental illness.  If these conditions set the stage for sociopathic or psychopathic behavior, we must find tools and means to help parents raise children in a supportive and healthy environment.

With this being said, I don’t see how this approach can provide any relief in the short term.  While creating cultural change on this level is definitely needed, it would take years, if not decades to create the organizations and institutions required to affect this type of change on a national level.  The regulatory bodies that monitor the amount of violence in film, television, and video games aren’t going to change overnight.  Further, providing counseling or social work options for improved parenting would be a monumental undertaking, and once in place who and how would oversight be provided to ensure that the morality and values of our country would be maintained? Not to mention the outcry of parents recoiling at the government or some outside body that would tell them how to raise their children. In addition, treating mental illness can be a very slippery slope in that it can often go unnoticed for years before expressing itself.  Even if all of these things were accomplished, how long would it be before the changes started to be seen in the culture at large?  I believe it would take years to see significant reduction in large scale violence, and as evidenced by the shootings in this year alone, we can’t wait any longer.

It is from this standpoint I believe that if we truly want to prevent these types of shootings, we must take a serious and hard look at our current gun legislation.  I know this is a volatile and multifaceted subject but we must ask ourselves how many victims must die for our nation to have a mature and rational discussion on the possession of firearms.  While some may find it inappropriate to discuss these matters so soon after a mass shooting, I must point out that the same argument was made following the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin earlier this year; however, it seems the discussion never took place.  Indeed, it’s not too soon to have a national discussion on gun legislation; it’s clearly much too late.  If we refuse to face this issue and continue to sweep it under the rug, we will be doomed to repeat the past again…and again.

Before I continue, know that as a trained martial artist, I completely support the right for us to protect and defend ourselves as necessary, including the use of firearms.  I have fired guns, trained with them, and understand how to handle them safely.  I am neither a firearms noob nor a complete and total anti-gun liberal.  I do, however believe that there are some huge misconceptions about the role firearms play in our society.

When the First Amendment was adopted in 1791 it read:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

At that time, the early American settlers saw their right to bear arms as important to one of the following purposes, in no particular order:

  • Deterring a tyrannical government
  • Repelling invasion
  • Suppressing insurrection
  • Facilitating self defense
  • Participating in law enforcement
  • Enabling the people to organize a militia system

Colonial America was a rough place and the frontier could be as close as your back yard, and with the recent separation from the Crown, no one knew how long the American experiment would last before the British might come knocking.  In addition, the early Colonies didn’t have a police force per se, so if there was an issue, local officials might need to arm themselves and band together to deal with a problem.  Not only that, consider what “Firearm” meant in those days.  A musket was hardly an efficient weapon by today’s standards.  It was a long, heavy weapon that fired a single shot following a 15 second reload period and had an effective range of between 100-150 yards.

Under these conditions, the original language and interpretation of the First Amendment made a lot of sense.  However, no one can argue that times have changed and the purposes for the First Amendment might look a little different in today’s context: With few exceptions, most Americans don’t live on the edge of the wilderness, and even if they do, they’re usually a short drive to a more urban environment.  Secondly, we (as the civilian populace) aren’t required to defend our borders in the event of an attack; that’s what our Armed Forces are for.  We have the largest and most well armed military in the world and if there’s an issue they can’t manage, it’s not likely that an unorganized civilian population is going to pull it off.  Likewise, law enforcement organizations now exist that are designed to protect the domestic population.  And while some might argue that we live under a tyrannical government that we need to be prepared to rise up against, we clearly have it better than many, many places on this planet that truly are tyrannical and oppressive states.

However, what does remain in our times is the need to defend ourselves. And when I say self defense, I’m referring to a personal attack to myself or my family; something that represents a clear and present danger to my personal health, safety and welfare.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, this justification for owning a gun has taken on an enormous amount of psychological and emotional baggage.  When people think of their guns, it often strikes a very patriotic chord, associated with the image of our country’s roots, our forefathers, the Constitution, fighting for our freedom, protecting our rights, taming the wilderness and the bulwark of the American Dream itself.  Indeed, this association is made brutally clear in the well known statement in favor of gun ownership, “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hand.”  In other words, I would rather die than give up my gun.  It should be clear by now that the concept of guns in this country goes far beyond a tool for self protection.

Ultimately, a firearm is just a tool.  But it’s a tool that can be extremely deadly.  I think that’s where we get ourselves into some murky territory.  Gun right activists are keen to point out that a gun is just a piece of hardware, and hardware doesn’t kill people.  That may be true, but an important distinction is understanding the intention behind that piece of hardware.  The intention behind a firearm isn’t like the intention behind a hammer.  The intention behind a firearm in its most basic form is simple – to kill.  Some might argue that the intention is to protect or hunt, but how does a firearm do those things?…by killing.  And while it’s true that many other tools can be used for killing (baseball bats, kitchen knives, hammers, hands, fists, etc.) the point here is that a gun has no other ultimate purpose than to kill.  And as such, I believe gun ownership invokes a higher level of responsibility than the ownership of other tools.

Now as a point of comparison, consider driving an automobile.  To have the privilege to drive in this country several things are required: First, one must have adequate training in the proper use of an automobile, both in theory and in practical experience.  Second, a driver must be insured to protect both him or herself and the other motorists on the road in the case of an accident.  Third, the driver’s vehicle needs to be registered on a yearly basis.  Lastly, one must have a license to operate a vehicle that is regularly renewed to ensure that certain criteria for safe driving are still being met.  All drivers are familiar with these steps, and while they can be a pain, I imagine most of us recognize their necessity and don’t consider them to be unreasonable.

Now in light of the firearms discussion, take a moment to consider that there aren’t similar guidelines for firearm ownership. While some states may require registration, and owners may choose to attend courses for concealed carry permits and the like, on the whole, the regulations are far less rigid in regards to firearms than automobiles.  Coming back to intent, recall that the intention behind a firearm is to kill, while the intention behind a car is transportation.  I think this recognition is important.  A tool to kill is less restricted than a tool for transportation. I recently read a Tweet that reflected this irony by pointing out that in America we fight over who can get a marriage license, but we seem not to be concerned with who has access to an assault rifle…

As we continue to dig deeper into this issue the paradoxes seem to become even more glaring.  For example, consider that a few years ago a failed attempt by a terrorist to detonate a shoe bomb on an airplane led to all of us having to take our shoes off in the airport, yet there have been 31 school shootings since Columbine and we still have yet to change how we regulate guns.  In light of this fact, gun right advocates continue to argue that more gun laws won’t change anything because criminals will just break the laws anyway.  But by that logic, why have traffic laws, or any laws for that matter?  Criminals are undoubtedly going to try to break laws, but I believe the point of the laws regulating firearms is to make the access of firearms by criminals or the mentally disturbed more difficult.  Since 1982 there have been 61 mass shootings in the United States, and in 49 of those shootings, the firearms were obtained legally.  I would hope we can all agree that firearms, especially assault weapons should not get into the hands of criminals or the mentally unstable.  In light of the long-term results associated attempting to reform the violent culture of our society, and to get the mentally imbalanced the help they need, a change in the way we regulate firearms may be the only step that will make a difference in the short term.  Granted, criminals will do their best to obtain firearms, but if one person’s life can be saved by stricter legislation, wouldn’t it be worth it?

Know that I’m not talking about banning all guns.  In the days after these recent shootings there has been a knee-jerk reaction by many gun enthusiasts to defend their firearms and point out the fact that a more armed populace would pose more of a deterrent to a potential mass killer than any existing or future legislation.  I saw multiple FaceBook posts following the Aurora, Colorado shooting in which someone claimed that if they had been in the movie theater with their handgun, they would have been able to stop the shooter.  While I believe taking out a body-armored homicidal lunatic using multiple semi-automatic weapons in a dark, smoke and pandemonium filled theater is possible, I think it’s much less likely to succeed than most would like to imagine.  I’ve practiced martial arts for over 25 years, training in many realistic-based scenarios to simulate and manage the fight or flight adrenaline dump that clouds thinking, slows reaction time, and distorts perception. And even with all that training, I realistically know there’s no guarantee that a given technique (or clean shot) can be pulled off under the pressure of a real threat.  Add to the mix the external conditions, the level of overall situational awareness, dealing with the surprise of the attack and target acquisition, it’s challenging to believe a shooter could be put down as easily as some suggest.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t attempt to resist in such situations, though.  I’m merely pointing out that some things are easier said than done.  If you have any doubt of this, I highly recommend you watch this video of an ABC clip that demonstrates the difficulty average people without specialized training have when responding in an active shooter scenario.  It makes a very clear point that even those with handgun training can rarely use their firearm efficiently in the face of a mass shooting scenario. Once again, this doesn’t mean we don’t do all we can to defend ourselves and stop the attack; I just thought it makes a pretty clear point.  It also paints a picture of a shootout scenario with the bystanders sometimes getting caught in the crossfire.

As I hope has become clear, this issue isn’t as black and white as either side wants to make it.  Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, has become the mantra of the pro-gun movement. I agree.  It’s preposterous to imagine a gun of its own accord killing a human being.  However, guns do make killing people easier and horribly more efficient than most other methods.  Coincidentally, on the very same day of the Newtown shooting, an equally crazed individual attacked schoolchildren in China with a knife, stabbing 22 of them.  Some say all this proves that killers will be killers no matter if they have access to guns or not.  However, the difference in these two situations is clear – the children in China survived their attacker.  The victims in Connecticut, as we know, did not.  Clearly the magnitude of the attack was mitigated by the type of weapon used in China.  Is a knife a deadly weapon? Of course.  But can a knife spray bullets in the manner a .223 caliber Bushmaster semiautomatic assault rifle can?  No.  It’s all about the ease in which a gunman can kill his victims in a rapid-fire, detached and distanced manner that makes all the difference.

As a conclusion, in light of these observations, it’s difficult for me understand those who feel that a deep examination of gun legislation is the wrong course of action.  Yes, mental health in this country is a very real part of the problem, if not the ultimate source of these tragedies.  But until we can make changes on that level, it seems that additional steps must be taken to insure that the deranged and twisted individuals of our world don’t get their hands on the tools to hurt us.  No one is saying you don’t have the right to defend yourself.  No one (as least not me) is telling you to give up your guns.  But I do believe we have a responsibility to deeply understand these issues and to make the hard choices that will protect us all in the long run.  We owe it not only to everyone who has ever died needlessly in a shooting, but to the future generations that we wish to protect from similar pain and suffering.