Tree of Life.
Borderline Bar and Grill.
Fifty thousand incidents of gun-related violence so far this year.
The United States has a gun problem. I’m not saying guns are our only gun-related violence problem, but pretending guns are irrelevant makes as little sense as arguing that alcohol isn’t a factor in drunk driving.
Alcohol, like guns, is abundant. While most Americans abuse neither, some of us harbor unhealthy attitudes toward one or both. Those attitudes, coupled with the abundance, lead to staggering episodes of heartbreak and chaos. The dangers associated with drinking explain why we’ve enacted laws governing how we sell and use alcohol. Those laws don’t, and can’t, prevent all the destruction, but presumably, they reduce how often it visits us.
The application of preventive gun laws is complicated by the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court’s most recent ruling confirms an individual right to own guns but makes clear that “right is not unlimited, not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
No right is unlimited. The proverb that my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, attributed variously to Mr. Lincoln and Justice Holmes, applies equally to all our dearly held liberties.
The Second Amendment’s guaranty that the right to keep and bear arms “shall not be infringed” is no less absolute in tone or diction than the First Amendment’s declaration that “Congress shall make no law” prohibiting or abridging the free exercise of religious, speech or press rights. Yet, I can’t exercise my freedom of speech by stating my views at the top of my lungs outside your window at three o’clock in the morning. I can’t slander or libel you. I can’t justify murder on the religious grounds that I’m an Aztec practicing ritual human sacrifice. Laws exist that preclude those abuses of the protected right.
The court’s Second Amendment ruling asserted that jurisdictions can regulate the sale of guns, prohibit weapons considered “dangerous and unusual,” and keep guns out of the hands of people deemed dangerous, including felons and the mentally ill. No set of regulations will prevent all gun violence, but it should be possible to reach a respectful, reasonable consensus as to the particulars of weapons and background checks, provided the discussion isn’t monopolized and consumed by the most extreme voices on both sides.
Some among us advocate addressing the mayhem by “hardening the targets.” This approach has given rise to prescriptions like President Trump’s after the synagogue murders — that we post armed guards in our houses of worship. While common sense recommends taking reasonable precautions in the hope of warding off danger, we need to consider the civil and spiritual fallout from locking the doors while we practice our faiths. We need to count the cost of posting sentries in our sanctuaries.
At school, since the Parkland shootings, officials have spent “tens of millions” on school safety. These initiatives, prompted and funded in part by state appropriations and the federal STOP School Violence Act, range from fortifying entrances and installing bullet-resistant glass to training staff and deploying police and security forces. Recommended response protocols oscillate between hiding and running, with some experts proposing that students as young as elementary school throw their books before charging a shooter armed with an assault rifle.
It’s necessary to note, and understandable, that researchers and school officials are expressing concern about the “potential adverse effects” of these measures and their impact on “students’ perceptions of school,” including findings that they leave some students feeling “less safe.” In keeping with his enthusiasm for “bullets flying in the other direction,” the president has recommended arming “highly adept” teachers, of which he insists “there are many.” If metal detectors and active-shooter lockdown drills leave students on edge, I can easily imagine how my students would feel if they knew or suspected I was carrying a concealed weapon. Our students deserve a solution that doesn’t involve turning their classrooms into armed camps.
Setting aside proposals to equip English teachers with sidearms, researchers find “scant” data supporting the effectiveness of new school safety measures. RAND analysts have concluded that “rigorous research about the effectiveness of these technologies is virtually nonexistent.” Anecdotal evidence likewise casts doubt on the value of schools’ substantial investment in security systems and hardware.
While each post-atrocity debate typically focuses on gun control and enhanced security, we face a more essential question: Why have extraordinary measures become necessary? Why are these atrocities more common than they used to be?
We’ve always had a surplus of guns. While semiautomatic weapons are increasingly lethal, I didn’t grow up in a world where schools and malls were routinely attacked by gunmen wielding that day’s state-of-the-art revolvers. The 1966 clock tower shooting was an anomaly, not a commonplace.
The shift from inpatient to outpatient mental health services may be a factor. Weapons technology has undeniably amplified the tragedies. While the rash of mass shootings predates the Trump administration, his tweets and incitements have stirred and legitimized latent malice.
But, over my years as a teacher, I’ve concluded the root of the change is more fundamental. We have taught ourselves and our children to expect so much, we have so inflated our sense of entitlement, that we feel aggrieved to the point of madness when what we receive, whether rewards or respect, falls short of what we’ve come to expect as our birthright. All the well-intentioned talk, all the touted “best practices,” from self-esteem and guaranteed success to the current growth mindset nonsense that “you can be as smart as you want to be,” have, without intending, helped bring us to this forlorn, desperate moment.
We have all but trained ourselves to be narcissists.
Many of us don’t look at life that way and for most of us, our disappointments never advance beyond private discontent.
But the fruit of grievance is anger.
And anger is the father of violence.
As we debate the practicalities of guns and glass, I hope we’ll pause to consider the deeper matters that make us who we are.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.