WHAT IF WE COULD STOP IT?

About a month ago, we marked the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  In a little less than two months, it will be the anniversary of the shooting at Santa Fe High School near Houston, Texas.  Next month, it will be twenty years since fifteen students were killed at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado – the one that started it this tragic trend.  Last December marked six years since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  The children murdered there would be entering their teens … if they’d been allowed to live and grow.  The victims at Columbine would be in their mid-thirties, building their families … developing their careers … had they not been killed by their schoolmates.

The day after the anniversary of events in Parkland, a mass shooting at a workplace in Aurora, Illinois demonstrated these things don’t just happen in schools.  Mass shootings happen in workplaces, too.  Aurora is also the name of the city in Colorado where a mass shooting took place back in 2012 at a movie theater.  Entertainment venues became risky places, too, as the shooting at the outdoor concert 18 months ago amply demonstrated.

Even places of worship aren’t safe from this violence.  There was the shooting at the Sikh Temple at Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012 … Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 … First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017 … Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania less than six months ago.

Now our plague of gun violence has spread abroad with the shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

When will it ever stop? Can it be stopped?

I’m tired of hearing it can’t be stopped; there’s nothing we can do.  Like many others, I really thought Sandy Hook would have been the turning point, the one that would finally push us, as a people, to do something about the scourge of gun violence that plagues our country.  I still remember that I was driving home from a quick shopping errand when I heard the news that December morning.  I almost came to a complete stop in my shock and horror at the account of little kids, not much past the toddler years … and their lives already ended … because someone had access to a weapon that was purposefully designed to kill lots of people in little time and the ammunition to do it.  Surely this tragedy (the most recent at that time) would finally move the tide of public opinion and determination to do something …that this time(!) something would be done.

I wasn’t alone.  I remember hearing the emotional struggle in President Obama’s voice when he had to address the nation, as presidents are called upon to do in such times.  Years later, I heard the stories of his visits with the families of the children and teachers who were killed … and how he kept a picture drawn by one the slain children in his personal office for the rest of his presidency.  He was determined that something be done, that there be no more of these events, that he never have to make another address to the nation in the aftermath of a school shooting.

Advocacy groups recognized the energy and worked hard to harness it, to rally people to press their elected officials for legislation that would make a difference … to allow the Centers for Disease Control to actually study incidents of gun violence so we might learn more about patterns and factors that lead to these events … so we can design effective solutions.  Clear distinctions were made between guns used for hunting and guns designed for killing people.  Limits on high capacity magazines were proposed.  Vice President Joe Biden clarified how this limit would not impact hunters at all: “If you can’t hit the deer in nine shots or less, you’re not a hunter – you’re a disgrace.”

So much energy, so much determination, so much grief and horror, so much momentum … and yet, as we all know by now, nothing changed.  After waiting a week or so, “out of respect”, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre convened a press conference and announced a doubling down on gun promotion rather than any sort of cooperation with sensible policy proposals to enhance gun safety.  He argued that we should have more guns … make it easier for people to have their guns on them at all times … arm the teachers so they can really defend their students … “a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun” – that’s the surest way to keep everyone safe, he said. I remember screaming at him through my kitchen radio that morning, shortly before Christmas, as he ended his “respectful period of silence” to make a public statement.

It was a fallacy then … it still is.  (Not that this stops such madness from being offered as “the solution” yet again in the aftermath of these most recent tragedies.)  I’ve yet to see a school design where the principal’s office affords clear sight of the school entrance or even the office entrance.  The shooter is always going to draw first, guaranteeing the “good guy with the gun” is going to be a few seconds behind … and likely to be killed in the act of getting the gun ready to shoot the shooter.  After last year’s two school shootings, the push to arm teachers that was suggested in the aftermath of Sandy Hook has markedly increased.  But even if teachers were prepared and willing to use guns to defend their students (and most of them are not emotionally wired or mentally prepared to kill another human being), the teacher would have to get the classroom gun from its secured location.  And yes, a gun in the classroom must be secured.  A little over a year ago, a third grader somehow managed to get his fingers into the school resource officer’s holster and pull the trigger on the gun inside.  The gun fired – but, luckily in this case, no one was hurt.  These nonsensical proposals for arming teachers, or at least strategic staff members, defy all logic and any common sense.  Such nonsense will not work, and political energy spent refuting this stupidity would be put to better use in other directions.

Turning schools into fortresses is not an answer, either.  That, too, is offered as an alternative in a sort of “Well, if you can’t have guns in the hands of the good people inside the school, then we have to find more ways to keep the bad guy with a gun from getting inside.”  Let’s have more secure doors, less glass, more locks … perimeter fences and guards … metal detectors like at the airport … in other words, let’s make our schools more like prisons.  Do we really have to lock up our children to keep them safe because guns must be free from regulation and readily available to anyone who wants one?  Is that the actual, baseline choice we are facing?  And if it is, do we really want to choose guns over our beloved children?

That might not be the choice we would consciously, deliberatively make.  However, the complete lack of any action that would make these tragic mass murders less likely demonstrates loudly and clearly that we do, in fact and in deed, choose guns over children every single time we have the opportunity.  Now we are a year past the high school shooting in Parkland, almost a year past the one near Houston, twenty bloody years since Columbine.  Much as we, as a nation, did after every single one that preceded these, we swore this time – this time! – things would be different.  But what’s changed?  We could choose to do things differently – that is possible.  But time and time again, we do not.

This is who we are as Americans in the USA today. I am not at all okay with this.  Are you?

It can be different.  We can make different choices.  We can reshape our cultural world.  This can be done.  I’ve seen it happen…

When I was growing up, we had several ashtrays around the house.  Neither of my parents were smokers by the time I entered their lives.  My dad did randomly smoke a pipe in the evening for a while … and then he’d stop for months, years … and then take it up again … he did this a couple of times.  But mostly the ashtrays were there for a friend or two and a couple of my uncles.  These occasional guests smoked, and when they were in our home, the expectation was that their smoking would be accommodated.

It wasn’t just in others’ homes; it was everywhere.  Smokers lit up in offices and workplaces, in stores and restaurants.  If a smoker felt the need to smoke, then he or she would light up there and then.  Working as a cashier in fast food and retail in the mid-1980s, I had customers smoke while I was assisting them, blow smoke toward my face … hold their lit cigarettes over my head.  But I couldn’t say anything.  It was their right to smoke and good social etiquette expected me to say nothing.

But things started to change.  It was gradual at first.  Public spaces started to create smoking areas separate (to some extent) from non-smoking areas.  The tobacco companies launched a “good manners” campaign, advising their customers to ask, “Do you mind if I smoke?” before lighting up around others and, if the answer was “Yes, I do mind,” then the smoker should refrain.  Similar advertising encouraged non-smokers to speak up and ask smokers not to smoke in their presence.  Good manners flipped.  Smokers started stepping out of the non-smoker’s house when they needed to smoke.  Gradually smoking was banned in most indoor places.

The result is that my children have grown up in a different world.  They have never seen an ashtray in our house because no one who lives here needs one.  They probably can’t remember me or their dad telling the host “non-smoking” when asking for a table in a restaurant.  They’ve never seen anyone walking through a store with a cigarette or smoking in public places.  In their world, smokers go outside to smoke – that’s just how it is.  They can’t imagine the way things used to be … before I reached the age they are now.

We could make a change like that again – if we choose to.  It’s not like we don’t know what needs to be done…

First, it IS the guns.  The authors of our constitution lived in a time when the best rifle in the hands of an expert was capable of firing maybe two shots in a minute.  They could not imagine our modern weapons capable of firing 45 rounds in a single minute. There is no way to project what they might have thought of such a world as we now live in … how our realities might have re-shaped their thinking about the Second Amendment … if they had known.  But they did not know, and we cannot treat their words as though they were written for our times and our current culture.

Our peer nations do not have this problem.  There are things we can learn from them … mandatory training, testing, licensing, registration.  We do all this with cars; we could do this with guns – if we chose to do so.  Closing the loopholes that allow gun sales to bypass background checks is a start.  But we should strengthen the background check … put it on the same level as what we require for people who will work with children or other vulnerable populations.  Those aren’t done in an instant; it takes a week or two.  If we can make day-care providers do this, we can require the same of gun owners.

Yes, people can kill people with all kinds of things.  But semi-automatic firearms with high capacity magazines make it much too easy.  Let’s make it harder, not easier.  Restricting access to certain types of firearms and, especially, high capacity ammunition magazines makes a lot more sense than the current insanity that we’ve been tolerating for far too long.

I’m not so naïve as to believe stronger regulations and laws alone will fix everything.  This problem has multiple facets and requires solutions from several angles.  The stories we tell ourselves fuel the appetite for destruction and death.  We have to change the stories we tell about retribution, violence, and what’s right.

For starters, we need to fully face the realities of the present situation.  Sure, we can feel the sorrow and emotional pain when we see parents crying and screaming at the deaths of their children.  We can laud the courage of those who risked everything to save others, the first responders who helped the wounded to survive.  We can celebrate the resiliency of those recovering, the determination of the student-survivors as they not only returned to their violated schools but became national advocates for changes in gun policies.  These are pieces of the story – and important ones at that.

But there is an important piece missing in our tellings of the tragedies of these episodes: the carnage.  Yes, it would be gruesome to the point of nausea … yes, it will be horrifying to the point of nightmares, but we must see our reality.  We have to see the bodies, our young children, lying in pools of their own blood with the damage the bullets did as they ripped their paths through human flesh.  Images like this are what it took to get us out of Vietnam.  Images like these are what turned the tide of the Civil Rights struggle.  Nothing less than full reality is going to force us to get real about gun violence in our culture.

We have to see the reality because we’ve been fed too much of the fantasy.  It’s not just the first-person shooter video games.  It’s all the stories we tell about the necessity of violence.  Wrong-doers must be made to pay for what they’ve done – in pain and blood, and even death.  If the authorities invested with this responsibility can’t – or won’t – enforce the punishment, then the wronged one has the unassailable right to vengeance.  How often does this pattern play out in the stories we tell (and sell) … on screens big and small … how we shape the narratives in reporting current events … how we fashion the stories of our own lives.  Someone does you wrong?  Don’t just get mad; get even – or better.

We, who are people of Christian faith, have to rethink how we our most sacred story.  For too long now, theologians and preachers have taught a hyped-up version of Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement to the people … and the people have concluded that this is the only true and correct understanding of what Jesus’ death and resurrection was all about.  The satisfaction theory is summed up in the slogan “Jesus paid a debt he didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.”  In itself, that is an accurate summation of the satisfaction theory, very much rooted in Anselm’s experience in the feudalistic society of his time.  But this theory has been amped up, melded with the penal substitution theory, and made to be about satisfying God’s righteous anger at the horrors of human sin.  God’s anger is amplified to such proportions that it must be vented somehow … which leads to emphasis of the physical horror of the crucifixion to show how Jesus absorbed the violence of God’s wrath on human flesh.  The story is about God getting even and taking vengeance – just as we think we should do when wronged.  This is making God into our image.  It’s wrong and we have to stop it … we have to stop it for the sake of our children … we have to stop it to be faithful to the gospel.

It’s Lent … we’re headed toward Holy Week and the annual remembrance of Jesus’ death.  We can tell our most sacred story differently.  We can talk about the tragedy of sin … and that this is what sin does: it kills things … kills people … killed Jesus.  We can talk about the love that took it all in, to transform us, so that we might love in the same self-giving way, changing the world by love.  We can talk about the language of covenants … how God made a covenant with Abram by passing between the carcasses of slaughtered animals to vow “may this be done to me if I break my covenant with you” … and so Jesus, in his dying,  paid the price to break that covenant and break it open – not just a few people, but for all people.

If we want the culture to change its narrative, we have to change ours.  If we want the violence to stop, we have to stop telling stories that praise the violent retribution and start telling stories of reconciliation and mutuality. If we want a better world in which our children can live and thrive, we have to call it into being with both words and actions.  Good thoughts and prayers for safety will not do it.  We have to act out our thoughts; we have to live out our prayers.  That means we have to change our language, change our policies.  The lives of our children – and maybe our lives, too – depend on it.