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When it comes to gun safety, address the demons first: James Miller

Posted 2/28/18

I was in fifth grade when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold imprinted themselves on our national conscious by killing 12 of their classmates and one teacher at Columbine High School. I have no memory of …

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When it comes to gun safety, address the demons first: James Miller


I was in fifth grade when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold imprinted themselves on our national conscious by killing 12 of their classmates and one teacher at Columbine High School. I have no memory of that day, other than being released from school early and my mom oddly waiting for me when I got home.

The meaning of Columbine has been a reference point for each subsequent school shooting. The latest tragedy out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is much the same. We’re still left with the same questions after Nikolas Cruz ended 17 lives: Why did he do it? Why didn’t law enforcement, despite visiting Cruz nearly 40 times in seven years, stop him? Why was a clearly disturbed kid — and let’s be clear, Cruz, an adopted child shuffled around homes, was still a kid maturity-wise — allowed to buy multiple firearms? And, most importantly, what can be done to stop this kind of tragedy in the future?

The last question is the most relevant, and hardest to answer. The reactionary in many us immediately turns to controlling the spread of guns. Others more circumspect ask questions about mental health and how our society handles people who, while we may not be able to objectively define their behavioral maladies, are clearly in need of legal limitations. Then there are those who think more guns, whether in an increased security presence or teachers packing heat in their purses or briefcases, is the answer.

The subject is fraught, stretching the civic balance of the right to bear arms with the need for safety almost to a tear. The emotion pent up in the demand to do something, anything, can be seen in student survivors on television, entreating lawmakers to take action.

So much of the commentary lining the editorial pages of major papers is chock-full of generalizations, hackneyed phrases, empty sloganeering, and simplistic solutions that lack practicality or fail to pass constitutional muster. Some is radical: There are progressives who genuinely want to abolish civilian gun ownership. There are also right-wingers who seriously challenge the other side to seize their guns, a kind of reverse Clint Eastwood, begging would-be gun-grabbers to step on their lawn only to be blown away.

Far too much punditry is forgetting Kipling’s admonition to keep your head when everyone else is losing theirs.

The more level-headed proposals I’ve seen come from moderate voices who generally lean to the right. At The New York Times, religious correspondent Ross Douthat suggests heightening the age to buy revolvers to 21, and semi-automatic rifles to age 30. Over at National Review, David French makes the case for gun-violence restraining orders, which are legal decrees issued by courts that temporarily suspend a person’s gun rights after being properly petitioned by a family member. And at the Wall Street Journal, august columnist Peggy Noonan brokers a grand bargain: an assault-weapon ban in exchange for a ban on late-term abortion.

Life’s life, right?

The most surprising and sensical approach I’ve seen comes from Bret Stephens of the Times. Stephens, a moderate conservative, suggests what many progressives secretly want but never say out loud: repeal the Second Amendment. Stephens’ point cannot be clearer: “We need to repeal the Second Amendment because most gun-control legislation is ineffective when most Americans have a guaranteed constitutional right to purchase deadly weaponry in nearly unlimited quantities.”

After the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller upholding the individual right to own firearms, anything less than a full-blown repeal of the Second Amendment as drafted by our Founders will not be enough to restrict gun ownership. That’s the reality of our Constitution.

Our system of government is not unalterable, but the chances of abolition are miniscule. Getting 33 states to vote to toss out one of the hallmark pieces of the Bill of Rights is a fool’s errand. California and New York don’t constitute America.

So how to better protect ourselves and our children in a country with more guns than people? The aforementioned suggestions are helpful, but they fail to get to the heart of the matter. We must think broadly, and to a time before the famous footage of Columbine’s cafeteria changed how we regard guns in schools.

My dad often reminds me that it was only a generation ago that male teenagers took their hunting rifles to school with nary a raised eyebrow. Cultural bounds kept possible gun violence in check. There were no metal detectors, overly anxious teachers and administrators, or capricious punishment for kids cutting Pop-Tarts into make-believe guns. There was an informal but reinforcing code that kept maniacal impulses in check.

Decades of social anomie have eroded that shared cultural standard. More Americans report feeling lonely than years past. Our technological progress has benefited our living standards but left us isolated, addicted to glowing screens in our hand that project violence, sex and mindless distraction. Surely that’s been a factor in cheapening human feeling.

Our current crisis in authority, reflected in the depleted trust in institutions, only exacerbated things. The FBI was warned that Cruz admitted to wanting to be a school shooter online. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office was urged by family members to seize his firearms. An on-duty police officer refused to enter the building where Cruz was picking off students like clay pigeons for at least four minutes.

Who could possibly feel safe when the agencies charged with keeping the peace fall over one another in failure like a twisted comedy of errors?

Then there’s the disquieting truth conservatives hate to acknowledge: America is unique among nations when it comes to gun violence. We excel at it. One could even channel Barack Obama and say that having abnormal rates of school shootings is just who we are. Gun ownership may be falling overall, but the number of mass shootings continues to climb.

So what can be done with a shattered, distrusting culture that fetishizes guns and is legally barred from placing any kind of mass limitation on them?

Practical solutions can’t cure a rotting moral core. The first step in healing is recognizing the woeful lot we find ourselves in. Russell Kirk said that all political problems stem from conflict over the true spiritual nature of man. It is only by facing the inner evil lurking in our society that we see it for the dark hole of human suffering it is. Only then can we start to make it better.

If we deny seeing the demons who continue to haunt us, who put a gun in a teenager’s hand and whisper “do it, pull the trigger,” as we’ve done in too many past shootings, we’ll only live to rewatch this despairing episode again in the future.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Northern Virginia.