Newtown and gun violence: One place where the political became personal

| Mark Pattison | December 5, 2017 | 9 Comments
Newtown family members grieve

Family members of victims grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, where a gunman opened fire on children and staff in Newtown, Conn. Five years ago the gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children. CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters

The numbers are inescapable: Dec. 14, 26 dead, five years.

Those are the basic grim numbers behind the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.

Newtown is where the political became personal.

“We decided to not refer to it as an anniversary,” said Msgr. Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown. “We choose not to celebrate. We’re going to have a Mass of remembrance. I asked him (Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut) to be the celebrant. It’s still quite emotional for me. I know this is going to bring more attention than the three-or four-year” interval after the tragedy.

Msgr. Weiss had been pastor at St. Rose 13 years at the time of the shootings, carried out by Adam Lanza, 20. He fatally shot 20 first-graders and six adults at the school, before shooting himself.

The priest had funerals for eight of the victims at the church, and had a private funeral for a ninth child of split Catholic-evangelical parentage. Within a year, both of his associate pastors had been transferred. So had the school principal. Other civic leaders in Newtown, elected and unelected, also had moved on. “I’m going to stay,” he said he resolved, until his retirement from active ministry.

“We can legislate all these gun laws and changes, but guns will always be available,” Msgr. Weiss told Catholic News Service in a Nov. 28 telephone interview. “You never hear the mental health issue anymore on the federal and state level. Just about everyone (responsible for mass shootings) has proven to have mental issues.

“We’re really screwing up, not taking care of that situation. I think people are more and more stressed, being more and more medicated,” he continued. Stress? Msgr. Weiss knows something of that: He never needed eyeglasses before, but the enduring stress of Sandy Hook had an effect on his vision, and his hearing as well.

“We’ve got to take account of the stress people are living with today,” he said. In general, he added, “people have become hateful to themselves and hateful toward each other.”

Tucson, Arizona, psychologist Joel Dvoskin, an expert on how to recognize danger signs prior to violent eruptions, said the notion that “we need to keep the guns out of the hands of the mentally ill” is “dishonest, it is inaccurate and it’s harmful.”

He added, “There is no correlation between serious mental illness and gun violence. It’s the worst and cheapest kind of scapegoating.”

Dvoskin said that instead, “the best indicator of future behavior is recent past behavior. Being symptomatic of mental illness doesn’t indicate violence; being violent does. If you want to be sensible about who shouldn’t be toting a gun, look at people who have committed acts of violence while they are intoxicated and they still drink. Look at people who have committed acts of domestic violence and they’re still in the same situation.”

On the congressional level, action is slow. A Nov. 9 letter to House leaders on both sides of the aisle urged Congress to take action to ban the purchase and sale of assault weapons, establish universal background checks and close the private-sale loophole, oppose reciprocity legislation that allows concealed-carry permit holders in one state to have the same privileges in other states, enact a law to bar the purchase or possession of firearms when deemed by a judge to pose a danger to self or others, and to close what is known as the “boyfriend loophole,” which allows convicted abusers and stalkers to buy and own firearms.

Among the Catholic organizations in Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, which wrote the letter, are the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Health Initiatve, Catholics United, Catholics in Alliance for the common Good, the Franciscan Action Network, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Catholic social justice lobby Network, Pax Christi USA and three women’s religious orders.

Indiana is one state that bans possessing or carrying a handgun by someone convicted of domestic battery, although possession is a misdemeanor and someone can ask for the right to be restored five years after conviction.

Maryland passed a law in 2013 in response to Sandy Hook, putting a 10-round limit on gun magazines and banning 45 kinds of assault weapons. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law earlier this year.

On Nov. 27, the Supreme Court chose to not hear an appeal, leaving the law intact. Two Maryland lawmakers have said they want to pass a bill to ban bump stocks, the device that speeds up the firing of semiautomatic weapons; a dozen were attached to guns used in the Las Vegas concert massacre that killed 59 and wounded hundreds more.

Assault weapons were used at Sandy Hook, and at a Baptist church in Texas this fall that left another 26 dead.

Msgr. Weiss told CNS that he thought the Sandy Hook tragedy would have changed people’s minds about gun safety. When a new mass shooting takes place, “I’m always hopeful this is the one that will spin people’s heads back on straight,” he said. “I don’t know how many more there will be. You’re not safe at home, you’re not safe at church, you’re not safe at a concert, at a movie theater.”

A new study on gun ownership showed some out-of-the-ordinary details on how much faith owners have in their weapons.

“Politically conservative gun owners feel more empowerment from their firearms than liberals,” said the study, “Gun Culture in Action,” by F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese, published online Nov. 20 by the academic journal Social Problems. Rural dwellers also feel greater attachment to their weapons.

“White men who aren’t very religious and who own guns tend to have a very strong connection to gun ownership — makes them feel patriotic and makes them feel strong,” Froese, a sociology professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, told Public News Service. “This increases dramatically based on economic problems they faced in their lives.”

Gun owners are, on average, more likely to be white, male, married, older and rural, and have good incomes but less education. Froese said they also tend to be more alienated from society. Those who are most empowered by guns said the weapons give them a sense of power and control over their lives.

Women and minorities who own firearms do not place as much importance on them. One segment of gun owners, though, labeled “insurrectionist” in the study, believes it would be morally justifiable to take up arms against the U.S. government.

Susan Silk, a psychologist in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Michigan, went onsite to the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007 and two Michigan post office mass shootings before “going postal” became part of the American vernacular. One common thread she noted after the fact when considering the gunmen: “Not that they were in therapy.”

Silk said the shooters’ inability to be aware of their deteriorating mental condition is a factor. Anger and rage are “well within normal human behavior. But I think what we’re looking at (is) where the anger turns to rage and the rage turns to some kind of violence.” With mental health coverage in many employee health plans, not everyone who seeks treatment should be considered a potential shooter.

“In most cases those who had been convicted of some kind of violence, I don’t know. Aren’t they already turning in their guns? I’d like to think so!” Silk said.

Psychologist Dvoskin said researchers of gun violence are hamstrung because “Congress passed a really stupid law 25 years ago that prevents the CDC (the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) from studying gun violence. The recommendations need to be based on data, and we can’t have the data because of this really stupid law.” He added, “Intentional ignorance is a very bad way to run a country.”

In the absence of hard data, Msgr. Weiss has anecdotal evidence of the Sandy Hook aftermath. “We had all the behaviors they predicted: alcohol, prescription drugs — especially for sleeping and depression — an increase in domestic violence situations, marital breakups. Not to an overwhelming magnitude but they became very evident.”

What is noteworthy is the sense of loss. Parishioners with no connection to Sandy Hook come to Msgr. Weiss for counseling, and he said he has to remind himself they deserve the same level of pastoral care he’s given to surviving family members. He added children whose siblings were murdered at Sandy Hook, are now, years later, expressing feelings of abandonment because parents have spent so much time doting over their dead children.

“You have so many poignant moments, you have great moments, but you remember the painful ones as well,” he said: “what sports they would have taken, whether they would be dating, or what they want for Christmas.”

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  • Charles C.

    There are many complex questions raised by this article, but at least one very simple one.

    Stop saying that people are killed by “assault weapons.”

    As soon as someone complains about “assault weapons,” it is a certainty that they are either completely ignorant on the subject or they are blinded by a political agenda which is causing them to be dishonest. There is no justification for it. Americans don’t get killed by assault weapons.

    Nor does it make any sense to talk about “assault-style weapons,” as that means only that they look scary. “Assault-style weapons” don’t put out more bullets per minute, or bigger bullets; they are no more deadly than hunting rifles, indeed, less so as hunting rifles often shoot larger bullets than what are called “assault rifles.”

    Painting a volleyball black doesn’t mean you have a “bowling-style ball.” Putting racing decals on your Prius doesn’t mean you have a “NASCAR-style car.”

    For too many people, a false fear and emotionalism is the best (or only) argument they have in the gun debate. Once we get past that we can look at the real questions.

    • Dominic Deus

      Charles! Good to hear from you–I’ve been in Arizona. I agree when it comes to studies, we have to be objective and ask for the evidence. However, I am disturbed by the tendency in some to not even acknowledge the emotional trauma of mass shootings, especially those with child victims. I suggest that, going forward, the various factions agree that the tragedy of events be acknowledged first and gun issues not be raised as a counterpoint until later and in the context of facts. That would help in doing away with any suggestion that “My gun is more important than your child’s life.” Decent gun owners don’t believe that anyway.

  • Matt Wagner

    I sure am getting tired of reading another leftist propaganda article in The Catholic Spirit. Why has this paper become an outlet for the political views of the left?

    The first half of the article was legit, up until the paragraph starting with, “On the congressional level, action is slow.”, then all the politics are slipped-in.

    Disappointing.

    • Charles C.

      I’m willing to accept “political views of the left” if they are based on the long held (older than Vatican II) teachings of the Church, truth, and reason and logic. I want to stay open to those ideas, but I don’t hear much that compels me to accept many of the positions advanced by the Left.

      When someone attempts to make national policy on some issue using nothing but emotion for an argument, I get very cautious indeed.

    • Dominic Deus

      Dominic Deus here–Matt, I’m happy to read that you considered the first half reasonable and I’m trying to find the dividing line but I admire your willingness to assess or reassess matters. This may surprise you: I recently purchased a Sig-Sauer 320 semi-automatic handgun to do some recreational shooting at the range. (For readers who don’t know the back story here, I, or more properly my author, is a retired Army officer with 27 years of service.)

      I am dead serious (no pun intended) on finding a solution to the problems of gun violence as a matter of personal conscience and Catholic faith. After all, I spent many years teaching others in the lethal use of weapons of war and it seems to me there is a kind of permanent responsibility that comes with that.

      I decided I would have to get back in the company of normal people who just like to shoot at paper targets, keep their guns locked up and are unlikely to be a risk to anyone.

      Matt and I disagree on a lot of things but I’m trying and I think he is, too.

      Just to repeat what Matt and Charles already know, I am strongly opposed o the presence of weapons of war like assault rifles or any knock off variation thereof, especially in elementary schools, but in civil society. Also, I don’t believe in the private ownership of artillery, mortars, belt fed machine guns, helicopter gunships or UAV’s carrying Hellfire missiles, or strategic bombers but that’s just me.

      We do need sociological research and some of it is going to be uncomfortable in its findings. Single studies are informative but not conclusive so we have to be willing to ask for more and read them. And I have to be willing to go to the range.

      More later,

      Dominic

      • Matt Wagner

        Dominic,

        Thanks for the reasonable reply.

        To share a little about myself and why I am so passionate about this… I’m a man in my 40’s with a young family of 5 kids (oldest 16, youngest 4). I go to Mass just about everyday, try to go to confession weekly, have been through the Catechetical Institute (class of St. Paul!), took my two oldest kids to World Youth Day in Poland last year, send all 5 kids to Catholic schools, etc. I’m trying my best live my life in the will of God.

        That said, this world has gone crazy. It appears most of the time to be peaceful, but then random acts of violence breakout at public venues when people least expect it. And it’s not just in far-flung places, but places near me!

        We can debate the reasons why this is happening, but as the father of my family I’m really only concerned with the objective reality of the situation. Can I trust that my family will be safe when we go out to eat at Culver’s or not? Will we be safe when we go to Walmart to get some groceries, or are we going to be met by some crazy guy running up and down the isles randomly stabbing people? (like what happening the St. Cloud mall stabbing in fall 2016)

        I no longer trust that we have implicit peace out in public. Not when the potential cost is the safety of my children.

        You can try to tell me that I shouldn’t worry, that the police will protect me. But that’s a bunch of hogwash. The police can’t be everywhere. And it’ll take them 10-15 mins to arrive after the fact anyways. They’re great at cleaning-up and documenting the scene, but they just literally can’t be there in the immediate moment when the violence occurs (usually).

        The Catechism paragraph 2265 says: “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.”

        I have legitimate authority of my family and am charged by God to be the protector of my wife and children. Thank God, I have the right to conceal carry a pistol to defend my family!

        So then, with that out of the way, the political approach of the progressive left is to label all guns as evil and advocate for their confiscation, and by association to try to plant the idea that those that own guns are backward, deplorable rednecks.

        We have an example of this attempt at association in the article above:

        ——
        “White men who aren’t very religious and who own guns tend to have a very strong connection to gun ownership — makes them feel patriotic and makes them feel strong,” Froese, a sociology professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, told Public News Service. “This increases dramatically based on economic problems they faced in their lives.”

        Gun owners are, on average, more likely to be white, male, married, older and rural, and have good incomes but less education. Froese said they also tend to be more alienated from society. Those who are most empowered by guns said the weapons give them a sense of power and control over their lives.

        Women and minorities who own firearms do not place as much importance on them. One segment of gun owners, though, labeled “insurrectionist” in the study, believes it would be morally justifiable to take up arms against the U.S. government.
        ——

        Unless you’ve been living in a cave lately, you should know that there is a very strong narrative coming from the progressive left media to paint anyone white as being less than desirable (they have white privilege! and are implicitly racist!). And doubly so for white males. And again for those white males being married, older, and rural (which MUST mean they are also BIGOTS and don’t support same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues), etc etc etc.

        So why is this important? The progressive left’s attempt to paint those who are pro-2nd-Amendment as evil is a huge insult to those of us that are in law enforcement or have served in the military. Any field that requires the use of a firearm as an important tool. That we are at minimum “spiritually unclean” because of our association with firearms. They use the phrase “gun violence” for this association. “Violence” is evil. Therefore “gun” is evil.

        When they use a platform like The Catholic Spirit or insert their anti-gun politics into writing the petitions read at Mass, they try to usurp the voice of the Church to condemn gun owners as being out of line with the Church. It’s incredibly insulting!

        Do you think we’d be seeing an article like the above about “SUV violence” if in Newtown, Connecticut, Adam Lanza had stolen his mom’s SUV and drove it through the playground of Sandy Hook Elementary at recess time, killing the same number of children? No, we wouldn’t still be considering it because it doesn’t fit the progressive left’s anti-gun narrative.

        If they wouldn’t care about discussing the important issues around “SUV violence”, do you think they really care about the lives lost in that tragic event? Or do you think they only care about using that event to further their agenda because it involved an “evil assault rifle”?

        The truth is, the inanimate object used to commit the violence is not the issue. It is to the left because it’s politically useful to their agenda, but in reality, the issue is evil in the human heart. You can take away the guns and we’ll still have this issue with knives. We’ll still have this issue with rented moving vans being driven through crowds. We’ll still have this issue with improvised pressure cooker bombs. Bad guys are creative.

        Most of what the left is aiming at with “gun control” would detrimentally affect me, a good guy just trying to protect his family. They don’t want national reciprocity for conceal carry. Why not? Should I not be allowed to protect my family when I cross the state border into Illinois? Does my God-charged right to protect my family somehow magically end at that border? Is Illinois not part of the United States and my 2nd Amendment rights do not apply in that territory?

        The only difference between an AR-15 and semi-automatic hunting rifle is generally the capacity of the commonly available magazines. They are not magically more “deadly” just because they’re painted black. Constantly referring to them as “assault rifles” is an attempt to plant in the minds of those that don’t know, that these are somehow uber deadly rifles just by virtue of their label. Politics.

        Why should I be limited to a California-style 10-round capacity magazine for a weapon that I use to defend against a home invasion? Have you ever been in a gun fight? Do you not realize that in that moment when under extreme duress, 10 rounds probably won’t be enough to do the job? Especially when there are more than one drug-crazed bad guy trying to overcome you?

        I won’t get into the issue of gun ownership of trusting the government, as that opinion has already been labelled as being an “insurrectionist” in the article above. But I do firmly believe that an armed populace provides an important check on potential totalitarian governments. And I am not naive enough, when considering world history, that our US government is somehow magically exempt from such totalitarian tendencies — they’ve already started down that road!

        Matt

    • Matt Wagner

      Dominic,

      Thanks for the reasonable reply.

      To share a little about myself and why I am so passionate about this… I’m a man in my 40’s with a young family of 5 kids (oldest 16, youngest 4). I go to Mass just about everyday, try to go to confession weekly, have been through the Catechetical Institute (class of St. Paul!), took my two oldest kids to World Youth Day in Poland last year, send all 5 kids to Catholic schools, etc. I’m trying my best live my life in the will of God.

      That said, this world has gone crazy. It appears most of the time to be peaceful, but then random acts of violence breakout at public venues when people least expect it. And it’s not just in far-flung places, but places near me!

      We can debate the reasons why this is happening, but as the father of my family I’m really only concerned with the objective reality of the situation. Can I trust that my family will be safe when we go out to eat at Culver’s or not? Will we be safe when we go to Walmart to get some groceries, or are we going to be met by some crazy guy running up and down the isles randomly stabbing people? (like what happening the St. Cloud mall stabbing in fall 2016)

      I no longer trust that we have implicit peace out in public. Not when the potential cost is the safety of my children.

      You can try to tell me that I shouldn’t worry, that the police will protect me. But that’s a bunch of hogwash. The police can’t be everywhere. And it’ll take them 10-15 mins to arrive after the fact anyways. They’re great at cleaning-up and documenting the scene, but they just literally can’t be there in the immediate moment when the violence occurs (usually).

      The Catechism paragraph 2265 says: “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.”

      I have legitimate authority of my family and am charged by God to be the protector of my wife and children. Thank God, I have the right to conceal carry a pistol to defend my family!

      So then, with that out of the way, the political approach of the progressive left is to label all guns as evil and advocate for their confiscation, and by association to try to plant the idea that those that own guns are backward, deplorable rednecks.

      We have an example of this attempt at association in the article above:

      ““White men who aren’t very religious and who own guns tend to have a very strong connection to gun ownership — makes them feel patriotic and makes them feel strong,” Froese, a sociology professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, told Public News Service. “This increases dramatically based on economic problems they faced in their lives.”

      Gun owners are, on average, more likely to be white, male, married, older and rural, and have good incomes but less education. Froese said they also tend to be more alienated from society. Those who are most empowered by guns said the weapons give them a sense of power and control over their lives.

      Women and minorities who own firearms do not place as much importance on them. One segment of gun owners, though, labeled “insurrectionist” in the study, believes it would be morally justifiable to take up arms against the U.S. government.”

      Unless you’ve been living in a cave lately, you should know that there is a very strong narrative coming from the progressive left media to paint anyone white as being less than desirable (they have white privilege! and are implicitly racist!). And doubly so for white males. And again for those white males being married, older, and rural (which MUST mean they are also BIGOTS and don’t support same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues), etc etc etc.

      So why is this important? The progressive left’s attempt to paint those who are pro-2nd-Amendment as evil is a huge insult to those of us that are in law enforcement or have served in the military. Any field that requires the use of a firearm as an important tool. That we are at minimum “spiritually unclean” because of our association with firearms. They use the phrase “gun violence” for this association. “Violence” is evil. Therefore “gun” is evil.

      When they use a platform like The Catholic Spirit or insert their anti-gun politics into writing the petitions read at Mass, they try to usurp the voice of the Church to condemn gun owners as being out of line with the Church. It’s incredibly insulting!

      Do you think we’d be seeing an article like the above about “SUV violence” if in Newtown, Connecticut, Adam Lanza had stolen his mom’s SUV and drove it through the playground of Sandy Hook Elementary at recess time, killing the same number of children? No, we wouldn’t still be considering it because it doesn’t fit the progressive left’s anti-gun narrative.

      If they wouldn’t care about discussing the important issues around “SUV violence”, do you think they really care about the lives lost in that tragic event? Or do you think they only care about using that event to further their agenda because it involved an “evil assault rifle”?

      The truth is, the inanimate object used to commit the violence is not the issue. It is to the left because it’s politically useful to their agenda, but in reality, the issue is evil in the human heart. You can take away the guns and we’ll still have this issue with knives. We’ll still have this issue with rented moving vans being driven through crowds. We’ll still have this issue with improvised pressure cooker bombs. Bad guys are creative.

      Most of what the left is aiming at with “gun control” would detrimentally affect me, a good guy just trying to protect his family. They don’t want national reciprocity for conceal carry. Why not? Should I not be allowed to protect my family when I cross the state border into Illinois? Does my God-charged right to protect my family somehow magically end at that border? Is Illinois not part of the United States and my 2nd Amendment rights do not apply in that territory?

      The only difference between an AR-15 and semi-automatic hunting rifle is generally the capacity of the commonly available magazines. They are not magically more “deadly” just because they’re painted black. Constantly referring to them as “assault rifles” is an attempt to plant in the minds of those that don’t know, that these are somehow uber deadly rifles just by virtue of their label. Politics.

      Why should I be limited to a California-style 10-round capacity magazine for a weapon that I use to defend against a home invasion? Have you ever been in a gun fight? Do you not realize that in that moment when under extreme duress, 10 rounds probably won’t be enough to do the job? Especially when there are more than one drug-crazed bad guy trying to overcome you?

      I won’t get into the issue of gun ownership of trusting the government, as that opinion has already been labelled as being an “insurrectionist” in the article above. But I do firmly believe that an armed populace provides an important check on potential totalitarian governments. And I am not naive enough, when considering world history, that our US government is somehow magically exempt from such totalitarian tendencies — they’ve already started down that road!

      Matt

      • Dominic Deus

        Thanks Matt. Same to you. More later. I’ve been ordered to get the Christmas tree up

    • Matt Wagner

      I’d just like to note for everyone that my comments are continually being censored by The Catholic Spirit. They mark them as “SPAM” because they voice an opinion different than the popular Zeitgeist. Typical of the tyrannical left, they talk about “discussion” and “considering the opinions of others”… but they really mean that they’ll use their power and position to silence critics.