Again and again and again!
On July 28, 2019 Santino William Legan opened fire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival killing four (including himself) and injuring a dozen. Six days later 21 year old Patrick Crusius turned his rifle on the crowd at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Twenty died and twenty-six or more were injured before the suspect was taken into custody. A little more than twelve hours after the El Paso shootings, Connor Betts, 24, began pulling the trigger on his assault rifle in a popular nightlife district in Dayton, Ohio. In the short minute before police killed Betts nine died, including the gunman’s sister, and at least 27 were injured.
Seven days; thirty-four dead, sixty-five injured and a nation once more traumatized.
Gratitude, Frustration and Anger
I share the gratitude so many have expressed for first responders, medical personnel, chaplains and by-passers who heroically give assistance in the face of horrible risk and tragedy. I am thankful for friends, families, pastors and counselors who offer support as victims and their families wrestle with broken hearts and lives turned upside down. I grieve for parents who must bury children and children parents; for husbands who have lost wives and wives husbands; for friends who must say good-bye to friends.
Yet, I am frustrated, even disgusted. As a nation we have seemingly been unable to agree upon a concrete strategy to stem the tide of violence. So the shootings continue. Leaders give thanks and praise for the courage of those who respond and help. Victims are buried. Mourners grieve their loved ones. The nation agonizes. Analyses and recriminations abound. Over time the nation returns to the new normal and awaits in anxiety for the next mass shooting. Again and again and again! No wonder a crowd of mourners in Dayton’s Oregon district drowned out Governor Mike Dewine’s attempt to speak. The simple chant rang out spontaneously after one person began, “Do something!”[i]
I confess I find many responses from persons and groups on both the left and right unhelpful, in fact, discouraging. Too often the responses seem politically motivated and so predictable as to be called Pavlovian. Progressive politicians and organizations immediately renew calls for gun control. Conservative leaders and organizations (e.g. the NRA) wave the second amendment and vehemently protest that “guns don’t kill, people do.” To hear the sound-bites one would think that new gun restrictions will by themselves solve the problem, or that any gun restriction or regulation represents a banana peel on the slippery slope to losing the right to bear arms. Both are shortsighted and non-productive in the current debate.
Can we break out of this repetitious cycle of mass shooting? Of course, it is not possible to protect ourselves against every person determined to do evil. No one solution will overcome the complex set of factors and dynamics which act together to produce the current onslaught of mass killings. Yet, does it not make sense to do what we can?
A Spiritual Response
We face a crisis with profoundly spiritual roots and consequences. Grave spiritual needs drive perpetrators who act out of anger, fear and hatred which grows with insufficient spiritual or moral grounding to correct or resolve those emotions and attitudes — or even hold them in check. Spiritual and emotional consequences reverberate in the lives of victims as each labors through the many layers of traumatic stress and grief. Sufficient spiritual and moral moorings are missing in the lives of perpetrators. Spiritual moorings are never more needed than when victims must find healing and peace and we all must learn to live with courage and hope in the face of an illusive and random danger.
The spiritual and moral foundations we need have been weakening over recent generations. Historically, the church and the participation of large portions of our communities in religious communities have played an enormous role in defining moral and ethical values, as well as offering guidance and help to people in crisis or who become victims. Even many who choose not to participate in a spiritual community seemed to understand that the values espoused through Christian faith provided a leavening effect in society.
The pattern of declining in participation in the church and spiritual communities is clear. The Silent Generation was more deeply engaged than the Baby Boomers; the Baby Boomers more than the Generation X. The Millennials have less involvement than Gen X and Generation Z even less. The spiritual foundations and moral values engendered by engagement in the church and in a relationship with Christ give eternal perspective to life’s challenges and produce stability, hope, self-esteem and an orientation toward putting others ahead of oneself.
When a shooting occurs, the first needs are for resource and help for those immediately impacted by the acts of mass shooters. Where does one find comfort, peace and begin healing when life has been shattered and filled with anxiety, fear and anger. Most often consolation and help will not be found in external circumstances. Peace, comfort and hope are conditions of the heart and are discovered when our lives are built on something or someone that transcends circumstance of joy or sorrow.
Jesus told his followers shortly before his own death on the cross, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Paul the apostle writes of “the peace of God which passes understanding,” which will “guard your hearts and minds.” (Philippians 4:7) As Christians, our witness is that peace with God, with ourselves and with others comes from a vital relationship with Christ. Consequently, one of the greatest gifts we can share is the reason for our own hope (I Peter 3:15). We can listen with empathy and compassion to those who are grieving, broken, injured or afraid. We can walk with those who are suffering as we believe the living Lord Jesus walks with us. We can live our lives with courage rather than withdrawal. Offering this hope and peace in Christ is the work of everyday believers as well as pastors and chaplains.
Prayer for spiritual depth for ourselves and others, deep discipleship, and effective evangelism are more needed than ever to offer Jesus Christ and Kingdom values to our society. Jesus offers hope and healing for broken, stressed, self-centered lives. Jesus calms our fears and offers strength in the face of life’s real trials and disappointments.
Responding in the Social and Political Realms
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement in England of the 18th century, told his preachers that they had one thing to do, save souls. At the same time by his actions and words Wesley inspired Methodists to robust efforts to address patterns of sin and evil which become embedded in the structures of society and culture. Wesley actively opposed slavery and the child labor practices that enabled business to prosper on the backs of children. In the face of a repeating cycle of senseless killings Christians today should also be bold in calling those in societal and political leadership to set aside merely partisan approaches and take proactive, decisive and comprehensive action to address the complex dynamics of violence.
What might be done?
- The President or Congress could appoint a “blue ribbon” commission, peopled with a politically balanced cadre of persons with expertise in relevant fields who are charged with producing data-driven analysis and a multi-pronged strategy for addressing the challenges of mass shootings. Such a commission should be charged and funded to present its findings and spark conversation not only to the President and Congress, but to a broad spectrum of Americans.
- Engage in a vigorous public awareness campaign to education about the dangers of white nationalism. Numerous law enforcement agencies have reported that, although white nationalists who advocate violence are a tiny minority, the threat they pose to public safety is rising.[ii]
- Enhance reporting for persons at risk of committing violent acts and develop intervention programs. Require higher levels of scrutiny for persons identified as at risk for committing violence before they can legally purchase weapons. The majority of mass shooters share four commonalities: they experienced early childhood trauma and violence; they reached an identifiable crisis point a short time before the shooting; they sought validation of their motives, many through radical online sites; and they had the means to carry out their plans.[iii]
- Pass balanced legislation which: a) protects second amendment rights for those who use guns responsibly; b) restricts guns usage or requires higher levels of scrutiny for those who are most likely to mis-use weapons; and c) enhances restrictions on ownership and use of “military type” or high capacity weapons. When the second amendment was passed the most lethal weapon available to the average citizen was a single shot, mussel-loaded rifle.
I understand that each of these suggestions carry with them both complexity and controversy. The defining, tracking and assistance of higher risk persons, will be difficult and complex to design. The mere idea of gun regulation is controversial and will inevitably be opposed by some. The alternative is to continue in the current stalemate and wait for the next mass shooting — again and again and again.
Early in the 1900’s the Iowa Health Bulletin published a poem by Joseph Malin entitled, “The Fence or the Ambulance.”[iv] The poem told of a dangerous cliff. Many had fallen over it to their injury or death. A great debate ensued — to buy an ambulance or build a fence. The ambulance won, but an old sage offered wisdom for the day. While much too long to print here, the moral of the poem is relevant for us: “If the cliff we will fence we might almost dispense With the ambulance down in the valley.”
[i] A few days later Governor Dewine introduced his own seventeen point plan of action.
[iii] Jillian Peterson (Hamline University and James Densley (Metropolitan State University), “Op-Ed: We have studied every mass shooting since 1996. Here’s what we’ve learned about the shooters,” at https://latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-08-04/el-paso-dayton-gilroy-mass-shooter-data.