We have a short window of time to have a real conversation about gun control and mental health in this country. Since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary last month, the internet has exploded with responses and solutions. It is tragic that the lives of children were the catalyst for this discussion, but let’s not lose what little momentum we have by arguing over which issue is most important.
One woman, Liza Long, tore up the internet by talking about mental health through a personal anecdote about her son. “I love my son. But he terrifies me.” She wrote. She listed off potential diagnoses but concluded that they know neither what he suffers from nor how to help him get better. Long discusses her son’s threats to hurt himself and her family and how she has to carry with her, in a Tupperware container, all the sharp objects you would find in a normal kitchen.
She laments that the United States has done little to advance Mental Health care and instead has shut down many mental health facilities. She notes that the nation’s largest psychiatric institutes are at Rikers Island, LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois. She makes the point that it does not bode well for the mentally ill-or the rest of the population- if their best options for treatment are available only after they have been charged with a crime.
In response, Laura Beck at Jezebel.com wrote That Woman Is Not Adam Lanza’s Mother, And She is Distracting us From the Real Issue. Although she agrees that we do need to talk about mental health, she stresses the point that people who are mentally ill are more likely the victims of violence, not the perpetrators. Beck makes the case strongly for gun control. Mental health problems may have been what drove Adam Lanza to mass murder, she notes, but the ease of access to guns were what made it possible.
She points to a report by the Children’s Defense Fund that states that 5,740 children and teens were killed by guns in 2008 and 2009. The report goes on to break down this number in ways that change it from a statistic to comprehensible, relatable facts about a the problem this country suffers from. The reality is that black children and teens accounted for 45% of the gun deaths in the U.S. whereas they are only 15% of the total population. The total number of children and teens that were killed by guns outnumbered how many U.S. military personnel were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of preschoolers killed nearly doubled the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in the same years. The report concludes by telling parents to get the guns out of their households and demand stricter gun laws to protect our children.
Another commentator on Jezebel, Katie Baker, focused on race and racism; what if Adam Lanza had been a different colour? She asked. If the shooter had been a different colour we would be talking about his race or religion. She questions why we aren’t talking about the culture of privileged white men and their fetishizing of guns and power. Her article, Have You Noticed White Dudes Keep Mass Murdering People?, points out that Adam Lanza used a gun made by a company who’s advertisements equate having an assault weapon with being a real man. Baker raises a good point, it’s true that a lot of the mass shootings have been white males. We should definitely reflect on that and question why we attribute their atrocities to mental illness but when the person is of racial or religious minority we villainize them.
David Muhammed, on the other hand, questions why we react so strongly when it is the deaths of many white children but not so when it is the deaths of poor, inner city, black and brown kids. He points out that in 2010 in Chicago alone, 700 children were shot and 66 of them died. Children are being gunned down everyday on the streets of our cities but President Obama is not crying for them on national TV.
These are all valid, important points in a multifaceted complex problem that is disproportionately present in the United States. There is no single reason upon which we can put all the blame for all the shootings and mass murders in this country. Just as there is no one solution that we could legislate to stop all the potential future gun violence.
I do believe there is a wrong solution. I think it would be wrong to let the strength of the National Rifle Association control this debate and push the country down the wrong road. I believe the NRA does not have our best interests at heart when they stated at a press conference that the best way to protect our children is to arm them against potential killers. The NRA likened “gun free zones” to hanging a sign on schools that says “open hunting season”. They employed fear to rally their troops behind the second amendment. They told parents their children were unsafe unless we bring more guns into this world. More guns is not the answer.
So, let’s not get distracted from what’s important. Let’s not fight over which reason is THE reason or which solution is THE solution. Let’s talk about these problems and how they relate to each other, without assigning priorities or silencing opponents. Let’s find a way to get the guns out of the hands of the angry and the mentally ill. Let’s find a way to get the mentally ill help. Let’s find a way to keep schools, and the children in them, safe