In general, I try not to be a provocateur on social media's chosen issue of the day. I prefer not to rile people up, in part because it’s a time suck and in part because you rarely hear substance over the shouting.
But given our family’s circumstances, it’s impossible not to talk about mental health issues, especially as they relate to children. And with the staggering increase in mass shootings in this country, all too often tied to people with mental health problems, it’s becoming more difficult not to say something about gun violence.
So here goes…
We might not agree on gun control, but I think we can agree on gun violence. And there’s way too much of it these days.
Two weeks ago, a 26-year-old gunman killed nine people at an Oregon community college before committing suicide. Earlier this year, nine people were killed at a church in Charleston, S.C. Before that, there were mass shootings at a movie theater in Colorado and a school in Connecticut.
And the list goes on and on. Between 2004 and 2013, according to numbers compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 316,000 firearm deaths. More than 1,000 mass shootings, an all-time high, have occurred in the U.S. since 2013. This year, in Chicago alone, there have been more than 2,300 gun-related crimes, and it’s estimated that someone is shot in the Windy City every three hours.
Yesterday, Jill was visibly moved and affected after attending a daylong “Domestic Violence Awareness Summit” in Washington, D.C. Hosted by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who suffered a severe brain injury in a 2011 mass shooting that killed six and injured 13, the summit featured various speakers who talked about the ravaging effect of gun violence on their lives.
Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, formed the group Americans for Responsible Solutions to talk about ways to stop gun violence, particularly against women. They have raised almost $25 million for a political action committee to promote legislation that will address gaps in gun control laws.
The statistics they cite are just as staggering as some of the others I’ve cited:
• Women in the U.S. are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if that person has access to a gun.
• More than two-thirds of spouse and ex-spouse homicide victims between 1980 and 2008 were killed with firearms.
• More than half of all murders of women in the U.S. are committed with a gun.
“We don’t have to agree about everything, but we can agree on this,” said Giffords, who believes people convicted of stalking and domestic abuse should not be allowed to possess firearms. “We can change our laws. We can fight for responsible solutions.”
Just after the Oregon shooting, I walked into a local gas station. A TV was tuned into CNN, which was running non-stop coverage. I shook my head and said to the clerk, “This is sad.”
The clerk, who was either in her late teens or early 20s, put her fingers up in air quotes and said, “Yeah, and I’m sure they’re going to call it a mental health issue.”
That’s when I knew I had to start saying something about this. Yes, the majority of mass shootings occur because someone who is mentally ill gains access to a firearm. But it terrifies me that mental health issues and gun violence have become inextricably tied.
Here’s another fact: Most people with mental health issues are not violent, but the potential exists. As a parent of a child with a mental illness, the thought of her ever coming near a gun frightens the hell out of me. I see her impulsivity and her potential to flash to anger while manic/depressed/mix of both, and I can't imagine what would happen if she had a firearm in her hands at the point when things are totally irrational.
What does it say about this country’s attitude toward difficult issues that we can talk about mental health awareness and services only in the face of record gun violence? I think it says a lot.
Recently, while working on a freelance story about trauma-informed public schools, I interviewed several people with experience in dealing with crisis situations. One interview was with David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.
Earlier this year, five students and three teachers filed a lawsuit against the Compton Unified School District, saying the system fails to educate kids who are exposed to repeated violence and trauma. The lawsuit also will test whether “complex trauma” is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act; if so, schools could be required to direct funds to ensure students receive adequate care.
Schonfeld, who is not involved in the Compton lawsuit, said he is not sure whether the case has legal validity. But he then told a stirring story about the effect of long-term poverty and violence on a community.
“I was talking to a group of teachers recently in an inner-city school system that is known for having gang violence and extreme trauma, and one said to me, ‘If 20 children die in a suburban school district, it’s called a natural disaster. When it happens here it’s called a typical day’,” he said.
Schonfeld was shocked by the teacher’s seeming belief that “it was ‘normal’ for children to be in gangs and ‘normal’ for children to murder other children.”
“That’s never normal for a child,” Schonfeld said during the interview. “Common maybe. Tragic definitely, and something that happens with alarming frequency, but as soon as your staff starts to think it’s normal than they’re not going to help the kids try to do something about it.”
The teacher later apologized for his remarks, but Schonfeld said they illustrate the crux of the problem in many school districts where violence is common.
“These kids experience so much loss, and adults don’t try to help with it because they’re overwhelmed and don’t know what to do,” he says. “So the kids stop asking for help and turn to their peers, gangs, and other forms of support. Just because they stop talking doesn’t mean they don’t need help. In reality, they need it more than others.”
The previous story has limited bearing on the current gun control debate, and is only tangentially related to the issues the panel brought up yesterday. But I was surprised by how affected I was by the interview.
Just like you, I don’t have a definitive answer, only opinions informed by my individual and familial circumstances. I’m not, despite what you may think, against responsible gun ownership.
Jill and I know people who collect guns for their historical value. They are responsible, good citizens on this planet. They take safety seriously, make sure all the rules are followed, and are firm believers in the 2nd Amendment. They feel just as horrible as anyone when something like this happens, and they're working to do everything they can to encourage responsible ownership.
What people don't seem to get in this debate is there’s no either/or solution. I would never own a gun, but that's due to my personal situation. I don't see how anyone with a child/friend/loved one who is lacking in stability would even consider owning a gun, especially if child/friend/loved one could gain access to it in some way.
The key here is that we’ve got to put our polarized views aside long enough to find some reasoned, thoughtful solutions. We've got to do something, sooner rather than later.
Gun control has been a debate in this country for generations. There should be no debate about preventing gun violence. #StopGunViolence