It’s Not Just About Guns
Again and again we hear that innocent people have been killed or wounded by a deranged gunman. It happens in schools mostly, but recently it has been done in movie theaters, malls, and churches. It used to occur in office buildings, as disgruntled employees would open fire on their coworkers. For a while there was a rash of killings in post office warehouses, prompting someone to coin a phrase to describe such massacres: “going postal.” So much has happened since those days, it’s easy to forget the earlier incidents. But it’s especially heart-rending when little children are murdered in schools.
So it’s happened again. And every time it does, we try to pinpoint the problem. On Facebook, on talk radio, and wherever discourse takes place, the subject turns to gun control. “If it wasn’t so easy to buy guns in this country,” we say, “these deaths would not have occurred.”
I’m no friend of guns, nor do I defend the Second Amendment with the same vehemence that I defend the First. But I am quite convinced of one thing: we have a problem… and it’s not just about guns.
Take away guns and our headlines will only become more bloody. Mass killers are usually quite resourceful. If necessary, they will resort to bombs, knives, bows and arrows, or anything else at hand. They will find ways to sabotage a building’s air circulation system or poison its water supply. We can surmount a herculean effort, both politically and logistically, to rid America of guns, and when we’re finished we will find that the problem persists.
For the problem is not just guns.
Our problem is a convergence of two facts. First, there is a deeply violent tendency in the human race, which manifests itself more in some individuals than in others. Even if we don’t recognize it within ourselves, we know it’s true of our species. Just during my adult life (from the late 1970s to the present), there has been much in the news about snipers, road rage, tainted mail, bomb threats… and the list goes on. Some of these people have ideological reasons for attacking the innocent, but many of them are just “deranged,” whatever that may mean. But if we’re honest then we’ll acknowledge that there is lower-level violence occurring all the time in the communities in which we live: abuse both verbal and physical in homes all around us, but it stops short of murder and therefore doesn’t make headlines. We are a violent race.
Second, we live in a society in which we are highly interdependent and therefore highly vulnerable. We cannot thrive in a perpetual state of distrust. That’s not how society functions. The pizza delivery guy can’t do his job if he expects to be robbed by every patron. The local bus driver can’t live in fear that every backpack contains a bomb. We just can’t do the things we have to do if we’re crippled by such worries. And yet, because we do trust one another most of the time, we make ourselves vulnerable. Anyone can take advantage of our trust at any moment, and it will be the last mistake we ever make. But I repeat: if we succumb to that realization, then we will be unable to function within this society. Even though it’s true that we are vulnerable, we cannot maintain a constant suspicion. We have to trust each other, or else we cannot do the things we have to do as a society.
So the problem is much deeper and more troublesome than the proponents of gun-control laws seem to realize. It’s not just about guns. It’s about the fact that we must all depend on one another, even though significant numbers of people will take advantage of our trust. I’m not even going to say it’s because those people are evil. From all accounts, they seem to have mental health issues. We won’t get anywhere by demonizing them. If we want to solve this problem, we’ve got to understand it.
The solution comes down to this: vigilance. Every single one of us must do what we can to make the society safer for everyone else.
If I’m a professor and I think one of my students is losing touch with reality, I have a responsibility—both to that student and to everyone else at the school and in the larger society. I must not only talk to him but also reach out to my support system at the university, asking them to intervene as needed.
If I’m a parent who has a child with mental health issues, my society is depending on me to do something about it, and so is my child.
If I am aware that a coworker is losing his grip on reality, I need to do everything I can to help. When he marches in with a gun, it’s too late. I must be vigilant long before that happens.
Does this mean we need to pry? No. Must we become suspicious of each other’s motives? Again, no. But we can read pain in each other’s eyes. We can hear disappointment in each other’s voices. We can sense when those around us are hurting. Yes, I know. Friends and neighbors always say, “He was such a nice guy. I never would’ve thought he’d do that.” But they usually didn’t know him well. And sometimes we have to wonder if anyone did.
I have already started getting a flood of emails and Facebook entreaties: let’s push for gun control. And maybe we do need to do that. But it’s not just about guns. It’s about the way this society is constructed. Our laws alone cannot keep us safe, nor can the people who enforce our laws. We must all take responsibility—each and every one of us. Ultimately, our hope is not in legislation but in each other.
And that is the scariest thought of all.