I was talking to an old friend of mine several months ago, and he was reminiscing about his time in high school in rural Pennsylvania. Specifically, he was talking about how he used to bring his deer rifle to school during deer season and leave it in his unlocked locker at school until he went home. The idea was that if he decided to go home on the school bus to hunt with a buddy he would have his rifle with him.
This was a common practice in the school that he attended and it was approved by the school management. On any given day during deer season there might be 100 rifles in that high school and ammunition as well. No one was ever shot nor was there ever any safety incident involving a firearm.
You would probably be hard-pressed to find a school anywhere in the United States that continues to accept this practice. Yet the fact of the matter is that to this day in wide swathes of America gun violence is not an issue and not a concern. This is despite the fact that in most small towns and rural areas in the United States there are multiple firearms in every household.
In the small town where my father lived before his death there were perhaps a grand total of 200 inhabitants total. There were probably in excess of 1000 firearms in that town. No one was ever shot. No one had ever heard of anyone being shot. People did not fall asleep at night listening to the crackle of small arms fire in the distance.
My point is not to suggest that we do not need regulations and laws concerninig firearms. Wyatt Earp was enforcing firearms laws when he went to the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. We need to have background checks. We need to make sure that all relevant information is available in those background checks. We need to have reasonable restrictions on when and where firearms can be carried. I don't think a society in which everyone takes an M4 to the supermarket when they go shopping is one in which any of us want to live.
Yet, the fact remains that we have had guns in this society for hundreds of years without the phenomenon of mass shootings that we now experience. Something has changed, and it is not the availability of firearms. We need to think long and hard about what that is. We need to take a good long look in the mirror and have honest conversations with ourselves. I won't pretend to be able to catalog everything that is at play here. I won't pretend to have reached some final conclusion on the matter. I do have some suggestions as places where we might start.
Up until a few decades ago we had a mental health system that relied heavily on involuntary commitment. In response to undeniable abuses of that system we effectively dismantled that system. We replaced it with a whole lot of nothing. We talked about mental health clinics in the community. We talked about supposed new wonder drugs. We talked about a lot of things and did very, very little.
The community mental health efforts that we were supposed to be launching went largely unfunded. The new wonder drugs often turned out to be counterproductive and have very dangerous side effects. None of these things addressed the core issues in dealing with individuals who refuse treatment. It is one thing to make treatment available to a person who is willing to accept it. It is another thing to deal with individuals who will only accept treatment if compelled to do so.
We enshrined considerations of privacy to the detriment of public safety. In case after case we discover that mass shooters were long ago determined to pose a danger to themselves and others and yet that information was never made available to law enforcement or mental health professionals in a way that would've allowed them to intervene. I am all for the principle of individual freedom and keeping the government at bay. When we prevent the police from stopping mass murderers, however, it is time to re-examine the balance.
We have allowed or even encouraged a break up in family structure in this country. Children need to be raised by families. They need parents. It makes a difference, a massive difference, when children, particularly young men, are raised in an environment where they do not receive discipline, love and guidance.
We have treated the institution of marriage as something that is disposable. If you get into a rough spot, and things are getting tough it's just fine for you to walk out the door, flush the relationship and move on. Showing up every other weekend to see your children for a day or so is accepted as if it is somehow a substitute for being there all day every day.
We have also as a society allowed a general deterioration in morals and values. This is not code for any particular religion or philosophy. It means that there really are things that are good and there really are things that are bad. There are things you should do and things you should not. Your personal gratification should not be your prime consideration. Concern for others and concern for society and a desire to do the right thing should be.
When children grow up devoid of this guidance and devoid of structure they become animals, and they become monsters.
We need to have a conversation with ourselves. We need to stop trying to blame an inanimate object, a gun, for our failings. This will be a tough talk, one we likely don't want to have.
It will start with looking in the mirror.