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School Shootings

Because my job is providing advice to parents, one day after the school shooting in Newtown I wrote this op-ed for the Arizona Daily Star.

On this tragic day, every American is a parent. We are all grieving parents to the 20 innocent children who were slaughtered yesterday in their elementary school classroom (and to the many other children who were traumatized by being at the school that day).

We are becoming painfully accustomed to the phrase “collateral damages” a term that refers to innocent civilians killed by a military action.

The twenty children killed on December 14 were collateral damage in a peculiarly American war. It is a war between the rationalists and the gun lobby. The rationalists realize we live in the complex, often crowded, sometimes confusing and chaotic culture we call contemporary civilization.

The gun lobby, and the many politicians who actively support the views of this lobby (or don’t dare to question these views), are living in an unrealistic bubble where not many rationalists dwell. This bubble is a simplistic version of a world where nobody needs government but all people need to defend themselves with guns.

Rationalists understand that we need both regulation of firearms and resources to help the mentally ill and to educate their families and friends about ways to get help.

The weapon of choice in mass killings, regardless of what motivates the killer, is a gun. Semi-automatic weapons are especially deadly as they can be loaded with multiple rounds to kill multiple people.

For any reader who wants to scream at me, “People can be killed with a broom so I suppose you want to ban brooms!” I give you a rationalist’s answer. Yes, it is theoretically possible to kill a person with a broom. Human aggression, including the ability to kill a threatening person, helped our ancestors survive. But the civilization that gave us Mozart and penicillin also brought us semi-automatic guns, the perfect weapon for a mass murder.

Rationalists understand that both the instrument (the gun) and the deranged person (the shooter) are necessary for the mayhem of December 14 to occur. To prove this point, today the New York Times reported that a knife-wielding man wounded 22 school children and one adult outside a school in central China. There were no deaths.

Americans have come together in the past to protect children. In 1874 the first reported case of child abuse in the US occurred in New York. A church worker learned that Mary Ellen, an 8-year-old girl living in a tenement with her foster parents, was being starved and beaten. The church worker tried to remove the child from the home but neither the police or the Department of Charities would intervene. This persistent woman appealed to Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866, who persuaded the courts to hear the case on the grounds that her treatment at home was cruel and she was a member of the Animal Kingdom. Mary Ellen was removed from the home, the abusive mother was imprisoned for assault and battery. Mary Ellen died in 1961 at age 96 after marrying and raising four children.

By the way, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was not established until 1875, a year after the Mary Ellen case. It took a while for pediatricians to admit to themselves that some natural parents could actually abuse their children. However articles about child abuse were written by concerned pediatricians in the 1940’s and 50’s and in 1962 a landmark paper published in JAMA by Kempe, Silverman, Steele et al with the can’t-ignore-any-longer title, “The Battered-Child Syndrome” changed things rapidly. Within 4 years of its publication all but one state had passed child abuse reporting laws (all 50 states have such laws now). One concerned citizen, the church worker who cared about one child, started a process that helps protect all children.

What will it take to end the war and protect innocent children from becoming collateral damage? I’m not wise enough to solve the problem but I bet we could begin the process today if every parent cared as much as the church worker in 1874 who refused to stand by and do nothing. We can all start by writing to our president and legislators to stop the war and start the dialogue.