This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community. Go to www.oaklandeffect.com for updates on his reporting.
A debate is brewing in this country about gun violence. In the wake of the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children were murdered, the broad outlines are already taking shape. This discussion is framed, it seems to me, by two wildly divergent views.
On the one hand are people like Stephen Hargarten, chief of the emergency department at Froedert Hospital in Milwaukee, who say gun violence in America is a public health issue, an epidemic of sorts that requires a systematic public policy overhaul.
On the other side is the National Rifle Association, which broke its post-Newtown silence last week. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, said the best remedy for "a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." He then proposed that armed police officers be posted at every school in America.
Where you stand on this issue reflects, I think, a fundamental philosophical stance around which we build our lives, our fortunes, our hopes and dreams, and also our many fears.
There are problems with both approaches. Accepting the first premise means accepting, to a certain extent, that gun violence is deeply indicative of many other problems. It means accepting that our country's mental health, by which I mean our collective sense of well-being and saneness, is in jeopardy. This, I think, is what President Barack Obama was talking about when he lamented that we, as a country, failed the children of Sandy Hook.
Critics of our cultural norms -- many of them gun rights advocates -- are correct to point out that guns alone can't be blamed. Someone needs to stand up and shout out very loudly that life should be worth more in those parts of our city where it seems it is not worth very much at all. That is not just a gun-rights issue; that is a moral, a philosophical and a familial issue. And, yes, it is a public health issue, but that's an awfully dry way of thinking about it. Try it on with a more personal feel, for instance. What if the children dying were -- or are -- your own? What if your daughter was hit by a stray bullet, like the 48-year old woman killed in East Oakland on Thursday? That is a gun issue, yes. But it's also a neighborhood issue.
Now let's look at the second approach, the one advocated by the NRA. OK, so let's post armed police officers at every school. And what happens when, eventually, we find out that one of them is unstable, violent or even psychopathic, only we find out too late? After more children have died? What then? Do we send in the National Guard? Do we arm every teacher?
It is true, I believe, that unstable people who want to kill will find a way to do it, no matter what. This is one part of the NRA's argument, and it is worth consideration. But this approach casts the world in black and white, good guys and bad guys, and in the wake of Sandy Hook that is certainly an appealing way to think about the world. The killer was evil, and a "good guy" should have taken him out. But this is a view that also shoots itself in the foot, as it were. Because if we accept that unstable people who want to kill will do so, then we must also accept that we, as a society, need to do something about it. Because if not, what then? Just let them get away with it? That's an awfully fatalistic approach to take.
As wholly American and appealing as that world view is, it is also woefully inadequate to the reality we live in. The world is not actually as simple as it sometimes seems after tragedies like Sandy Hook. When we realize that, we will have taken one more step toward growing up as a country. The other shortfall of this approach is that it fails to address the gun-related killings by people who don't fit into the neat categories that Adam Lanza fulfills for us. What do we do about the thousands of cases of violence that are not necessarily "evil" in nature but "traumatized" or "sick" or "I grew up this way and don't know anything else" in nature?
I don't think violence in this country is a problem you can shoot your way out of -- no matter how sexy John Wayne or Tarantino or Tupac make it look. Ask anyone in East Oakland who has been shot and survived to tell the tale. It's a sad one. It's also an American one. The rest of us need to hear that tale now and take it to heart.