Why would someone commit such a senseless act of violence against innocent children?
Why can’t we stop these school shootings from happening?
What’s wrong with us as a society?
These are among the difficult questions facing us in the wake of the brutal murder of 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
It’s shocking. Sickening. Unbelievable.
Unbelievable, until you recall that these kinds of shootings have happened in the not-too-distant past: at schools, in movie theaters, in malls.
And, it’s shameful.
It’s shameful because, too often, we have abdicated our responsibility as a society to take steps that would help prevent these horrible incidents from happening.
That’s not to say the perpetrators who commit these senseless acts don’t bear full responsibility for what they’ve done — they certainly do, and they will have to answer for it in this life or the next.
But it’s recognizing that we can do more as responsible citizens, worried parents and concerned Christians to make our world, our communities and our schools safer places for everyone.
Denial, then anger
Psychologists tell us that the first step in the grieving process is often denial. Many of us went through that last week. In the first hours after news broke about the Newtown shootings, we hoped the media got it wrong, that kids weren’t hurt, that it wasn’t as bad as we were hearing. Sadly, it was.
After denial comes anger — anger at the shooter, anger about why we seem unable to prevent massacres like this from happening, anger at elected officials who drag their feet rather than put politics aside to find real solutions.
It’s righteous anger, to use a biblical term. We are upset, and we should channel that anger into positive action.
The Newtown shooting has once again renewed the debate over issues such as gun control, mental health awareness and the moral health of American culture. There are no easy answers about why such shootings happen or how to prevent them. But the time has come, no matter your political views, to agree on some common sense and necessary actions that will help curb violence and build safer communities:
- We need to prevent the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity clips that too often get into the hands of people with malicious intentions. The killer in the Newtown shootings used such a weapon. When a federal assault weapons ban was in place from 1994 to 2004, the number of such weapons used in crimes declined by more than 65 percent, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The U.S. bishops support “reasonable restrictions on access to assault weapons and handguns.” No civilian needs access to an assault weapon, and we must reinstate a ban on them without delay.
- We need to improve access to, and funding of, mental health services. While we don’t know yet if the shooter in Newtown had a diagnosed mental illness, surely he suffered some kind of mental breakdown to go into a school and kill kids. Surely, there must have been signs beforehand that something wasn’t quite right.
Most people with a mental illness are not violent, but there’s no question that some can’t access the services they need to stay healthy and, in some cases, loved ones worry about the threat of violence.
One blog post that went viral in the aftermath of last week’s shooting was by a mother who wrote about the frustrations of trying to access services for her increasingly violent, mentally ill 13-year-old son. We need to ensure such services — which face funding cuts as the year-end “fiscal cliff approaches — are readily available and affordable to those who need them.
- We must also look in the mirror and acknowledge how we intentionally or inadvertently promote a culture of death — one in which human life and human dignity are degraded in ways that desensitize people and make it easier to envision and perpetrate violent and evil acts — not just mass shootings, but also the killing and abuse that happens every day in cities across America.
Violent video games, television shows and movies are one problem. A casual acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and torture (if it purportedly serves the national interest) is another. So is the secularization of society that often sees little value in the moral vision religion has to offer.
Building a culture of life
How much more violence are we going to tolerate before we take meaningful action? How many more Newtowns, Auroras, Columbines and Red Lakes do we have to suffer through?
We are better than this, and one doesn’t need to look any further for proof than to the heroes that emerged from that horrible day in Connecticut: the teachers who helped saved the lives of children, the first responders who showed incredible courage and determination, and the local priests and other clergy who ministered to the grieving families.
We grieve with them, too, and we continue to pray for the victims and their loved ones.
We, too, are parents who care for our children and want to protect them from every harm. And, we are concerned Catholics who want to curb violence as much as possible and help build a culture of life.
Nothing we can do can ever guarantee that an incident like the Newtown school shooting will never happen again. But we can take meaningful measures to reduce the likelihood.
The darkest day of the year is typically Dec. 21, the winter solstice. This year the darkest day happened a week earlier. But the waiting and darkness of Advent will soon give way to the light and hope of Christmas and the promise that God is with us, will comfort us, and help see us through this challenge as he does all others.