As I scanned the Internet looking for a way to understand the shooting in Newtown, I couldn't help but think of the last three mass shootings that scared us into... Well, I can't exactly say we were scared into action.
In the days after the attack in Tucson, Ariz., in January 2011, when a man killed six people and nearly killed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, I repeatedly watched President Obama's speech during a memorial at the University of Arizona. I remember one school night when I didn't care how long I stayed up and how tired I would be the next morning, and I just sat on my bed in my dark room and twice watched Obama try to console and inspire. I remember two segments of his speech in particular, woven in between the out-of-place (but surely cathartic) rallying cries from the audience:
"Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.
If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.
The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives—to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy—it did not—, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud."
I thought of those statements as CBS broke in with Obama's speech in Newtown:
"Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer's no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I've been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we've hugged survivors, the fourth time we've consoled the families of victims.
And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose—much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.
We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.
In the coming weeks, I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine."
After the speech, I felt hopeful that, finally, something would change. I still think it's possible for some positive and lasting change to come of this. I'm less hopeful today, though, in part because I was reminded that there have been pushes for this sort of change after, say, the shooting in Aurora. While looking for coverage on that shooting, I found this New York Times opinion piece by Roger Ebert, titled, "We've Seen This Movie Before":
Should this young man—whose nature was apparently so obvious to his mother that, when a ABC News reporter called, she said "You have the right person"—have been able to buy guns, ammunition and explosives? The gun lobby will say yes. And the endless gun control debate will begin again, and the lobbyists of the National Rifle Association will go to work, and the op-ed thinkers will have their usual thoughts, and the right wing will issue alarms, and nothing will change. And there will be another mass murder."
He was right. Sadly, tragically, yet not surprisingly right.
Something needs to change. The first thing to do is to learn more about gun violence and gun control, no matter what side of the debate you're on. I started on Friday with this data from Ezra Klein of The Washington Post. The info cuts both ways in a way only impartial data can. Then, earlier today, I found a year's worth of data from the Chicago Sun-Times that drives home exactly how much gun violence has been reported this year. (Way too much.) Start with the data (not anecdotes and bromides, but data), and then follow it to sound conclusions. If those conclusions mirror what Australia and the United Kingdom came up with, fine; if not, fine. Just be prepared to defend well whatever conclusion you reach.
But please, please come to a realistic conclusion, no matter how nuanced it may be (and how clear-cut it may not be), and don't just toss this important exercise aside. The first reactions to tragedies like those in Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, and Tucson are often grief, anger, and confusion. Those reactions are natural, and they are certainly understandable in the immediate aftermath. But too often, the second reaction for those not immediately affected is a complete return to normal life, leaving the tragedy (largely) forgotten and the problem (even more largely) unsolved. That can't happen again. Going on with our lives after this is important, but what's more important is making sure that the life we return to is safer than before.
We may never know why somebody would shoot children in an elementary school, and we may never know the best way to prevent it from happening. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to know. If we don't try to fix this sad state of affairs, or even learn something from it, we will be sticking our collective head into the sand, right where it's been before, ignoring the causes and carnage until another tragedy scares us awake again.