The Only Country In Which These Kinds of Things Happen

The title of this sermon comes from a meme, a statement that a friend posts on social media every time there is a mass killing, and it goes something like this: “There’s no way to prevent these kinds of things, say the only country in which it happens regularly.” I’m sure it didn’t originate with my friend; it’s the kind of thing which gets reposted because it seems to respond to the horror, weariness, discouragement of gun control advocates. In one sense it doesn’t matter whether it’s true, for it articulates what we feel.

And that would be all right if gun control advocates were talking in a vacuum or to our own mirrors or in our own bubbles. But the reading I just did reminds us that many of our fellow Americans are quite happy with their guns and feel very protective of them. Each side is dug in behind its own lines and every argument made by one side becomes a justification for throwing more heat by the other. It behooves us on both sides to try to ascertain some facts before talking.

Larry Brown, an educator who has often preached from this pulpit, had a column Friday in the CC Times in which he said we were all being made prisoners of fear.

“A certain vigilance is appropriate, for we live in a very imperfect world. There is random misfortune and genuine wickedness that inflicts pain on purpose. Still, life in America has been safer than anything humanity has ever known. And yet look at us today. Fear is being urged on us from every side.”[1]

Is it true that America is the only place where “these kinds of things” happen? One of the great joys of working with the Board of Trustees in this congregation is the wisdom of Joe Zahka. On several occasions, Joe has urged us to take the engineer’s approach to solving problems, and the first step of this approach is to define the problem. In the issue at hand, what do we mean by “these kinds of things?” Are we talking about killings defined as mass events, with four or more people dead, not counting the perpetrator? Does the killing have to involve a gun? Are we only interested in killings in a school? How about killings in a church? How about killings at a music concert or nightclub? What exactly are we defining as “this” which supposedly happens in America and nowhere else?

Most of us would reply that it is school killings which are most disturbing. By some counts there has been a school violence incident every week in 2018, but included in this count are several in which the violence does not appear related to the school, and only the Parkland shooting involved more than four deaths. Sure, any death is terrible, but if we are trying to define the problem, we have to make some parameters.

Like most of us, I am encouraged by the fact that students nationwide seem determined not to let this issue die. I think it is marvelous that students are rising up and saying “#enough.” My niece Maddy out in Williamstown MA, a high school sophomore, helped organize a walkout at her school this week, and was quoted in the local paper urging the students to go to the march in Washington on March 24 and adding this:

“You also have the power to effect change as a consumer. Support businesses that align with your beliefs. If you are able, donate money to organizations like Everytown or Moms Demand Action. Be vocal about the cause on social media — that allows the word to be spread and shows that we are not backing down. Make it a point to have conversations with people about gun violence and reform, even the difficult conversations. Especially the difficult conversations."

Especially the difficult conversations. Thank you, Maddy. What do we say to people in rural America? Robert Leonard notes, further on in the reading I did earlier,

“Many people own guns because they simply enjoy them — shooting them, the feel of them, their history, their role in protection. They want guns for the same reason you might want a particular kind of car. They also believe that having a gun makes them less likely to become a victim. Here, [in rural America] guns are tools. We hunt with them.”

If there were truth to the statement we started with, that “these kinds of things” happen only in America, you might look to this kind of attitude as a reason for it.

But we have not yet defined what “it” is, much less determined that it is exclusively American.

If “it” is school shootings, a criminologist at Northeastern University right here in the bluest state of Massachusetts, question whether we are even experiencing a wave of school violence. The headline on a press release from Northeastern said this: “Schools are safer than they were in the 90s, and school shootings are not more common than they used to be, researchers say.”

The article under the headline leads off with these assertions:

“The deadly school shooting this month in Parkland, Florida, has ignited national outrage and calls for action on gun reform. But while certain policies may help decrease gun violence in general, it’s unlikely that any of them will prevent mass school shootings, according to James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern.

“Since 1996, there have been 16 multiple victim shootings in schools, or incidents involving 4 or more victims and at least 2 deaths by firearms, excluding the assailant.

Of these, 8 are mass shootings, or incidents involving 4 or more deaths, excluding the assailant.[2]”

Now that’s more than 20 years of data, and only 8 mass shootings. Further,

Four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today, Fox said.

“‘There is not an epidemic of school shootings,’ he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents. There are around 55 million school children in the United States, and on average over the past 25 years, about 10 students per year were killed by gunfire at school, according to Fox and Fridel’s research.”

Now we may be skeptical of this, and I for one would like to know whether the hand of the NRA is behind any of this research. However, it should give us pause.

Even if this research is good, however, it would not deter me from pursuing a ban on assault weapons. We had such a ban at the federal level and it was allowed to expire under pressure from the NRA. It should be reinstated.

Gun enthusiasts make something of a fetish of the Second Amendment, but the Second Amendment as currently interpreted does not give American civilians a right to own or use military-style weapons. In the case of Kolbe v. Tarde just over a year ago, the Fourth Circuit US Court of Appeals upheld the state of Maryland’s ban on assault=type weapons against a challenge that the ban violated the Second Amendment.

In that they were following Justice Scalia’s opinion in the ground-breaking case of District of Columbia vs. Heller, in 2008 which overturned two centuries of jurisprudence to find in the Second Amendment a personal right to keep guns in the home for self-defense. Heller was a corrupt decision and particularly hypocritical in that the apostle of original intent interpretation of the Constitution ignored all of the voluminous evidence of the intent of the founders and based his reading on the grammar of the clause. But even Justice Scalia put a hedge in the opinion:

“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions on the commercial sale of arms.”

Here I want to step back. The proposition we set out to examine was whether mass shootings were a peculiarly American phenomenon. Professor Fox at Northeastern is saying there is no mass shooting epidemic in American schools. The other side of that equation is that yes, mass shootings do happen in countries other than the US.

In 2011, a man named Anders Behring Brievek committed two attacks in one day in and around Oslo, Norway which claimed a total of 77 lives. A spree shooting occurred in the Serbian village of Velika Ivanča in the early hours of 9 April 2013. Fourteen people (including the gunman) died and one, the gunman's wife, was injured. Police identified the gunman as 60-year-old Ljubiša Bogdanović, a relative of many of the victims. In 2015, two killers forced there way into the headquarters of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12. Later in 2015, eight Muslim men carried out coordinated terror attacks in Parish which left 135 people dead.

The last two of these, of course, can also be classified as terrorist attacks, and at first blush it would appear that there are meaningful differences for purposes of public policy, between terrorists, people motivated by political aims, and a school shooter who is an alienated youth. Yet Nikolas Cruz, the alleged shooter in Parkland, is found on closer examination to have right-wing literature. After all, who are the foot soldiers of terrorism? Usually males in their twenties who are alienated from the worlds in which they grew up and find some attraction in the militant stance.

Let me try to put this in another context. There is some pushback against having a major gun-control battle arise out of this shooting. This was a relatively affluent public school and many of the families affected were relatively well-off. This type of school shootings with multiple victims does not seem to occur in poorer communities or among people of color. In those communities, there is a constant background level of violence which is in total much more deadly than the school shootings which make the news.

I was upset when the sister of Dylan Roof, the convicted shooter in the Charleston church attacks from three years ago, was arrested with weapons at her high school; one of the things that upset me was that it was my own alma mater, which when I attended it was an affluent suburban school not unlike Parkland. Another is that she was posting on social media statements putting down the students who were walking out in support of Parkland. And two other students at A.C. Flora High school were also arrested with weapons. This brought home to me how far we have come from my teenage years.

Let me touch on one more before I close here. The reading that I did suggested that there was a theological difference between the two major parties, that liberals believe that people are inherently good and conservatives believe that people are inherently bad. This is close to theories espoused by the linguistic theorist George Lakoff. Thus when something like a school shooting happens, liberals will say it’s the fault of society in allowing people to have military-style guns, while conservatives will say no, it’s the fault of the shooter, he’s just evil like most of us only maybe a little more so.

I do believe that most people are basically good most of the time. This is an article of faith, not of science, with me: I choose to treat people as if they are basically good, hoping that this treatment will induce them to live up to my expectations. And I think that if we could get inside the head of someone like Nikolas Cruz, we would learn a lot more about what makes people commit mass shootings and possibly head one off in the future. To call a person like Cruz evil, as I have said before, is to stop looking for the causes of his behavior. The world evil does not explain anything.

We can never completely get inside someone else’s skin, but we know enough about Nikolas Cruz to get some feeling for the pressures he was under. He had lost his father some years before and his mother fairly recently. He moved in with friends. The nest of meaning which had held him was stripped away; the only locus of meaning left was the school, but he couldn’t conform his behavior to its rules, and so left the school no choice but to expel him. And with the last structure of meaning no longer available to him, he acted out.

Could we recognize the next Nikolas Cruz among the millions of students in high schools and colleges across the country? Very doubtful. Every teenager goes through stages of shedding their old skin and trying to adapt uncomfortably to new realities, social and sexual and intellectual. Only a very rare needle in this vast haystack will prove lethal.

Yet seventeen innocent lives met a very unjust end, and the students are asking, what are we doing to ensure that “this kind of thing” never happens again? On the other hand, the gun owners of America, largely rural but not exclusively, are reminding us that their firearms are lawful, they play by the rules and it would be unfair guilt by association to confiscate them for something that one lone shooter did. As my niece says, these are difficult, uncomfortable conversations. Let’s have them. Amen.

Reading:”How Small Town America Sees Guns” by Robert Leonard, New York Times Op-Ed March 17, 2018

[A police officer friend in a small town in Iowa] says gun control has never stopped criminals from getting guns, and never will.

To understand why many conservatives in rural America believe this, you must start with first principles, because the argument ultimately isn’t about guns; it runs even deeper than the Second Amendment. At a 2015 campaign event during the Iowa caucuses, J. C. Watts, the former congressman from Oklahoma, spoke about perspectives on original sin. It helps illuminate the differences in worldview between many conservatives and liberals. Mr. Watts said Democrats think people were born basically good, so when good people did bad things, something in society (in this case, guns) needed to be controlled. Republicans think the fault lies with the person — the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done, in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides.

The reaction to mass shootings highlights this difference. Liberals blame the guns and want to debate gun control. For conservatives, the blame lies with the shooter, not the gun.

To my conservative friends, it’s a matter of liberty and personal responsibility. Even after a horrific event like the school shooting in Florida, where 17 people were killed, more gun control would be compromising those first principles. For them, compromising those principles would be even more horrific and detrimental to society than any shooting. What my conservative friends see is not gun control, but rather control, period.

[1]“Living in a World of Fuel Makes Us Fear a Match,” Larry Brown, CC Times, March 16, 2018, p A11.


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