Monday, December 17, 2012

Gunning for a Change

“It's very dramatic when two people come together to work something out. It's easy to take a gun and annihilate your opposition, but what is really exciting to me is to see people with differing views come together and finally respect each other.”

― Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

Who knew Mr. Rogers would have such words of wisdom to help us deal with this week's tragedy?

In light of the Sandy Hook massacre, the airwaves have exploded with people for and against gun control. This is not a surprise. Even President Obama toed the line during his recent, emotional media address when he said, " And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."

The senseless shooting of 20 children and six adults at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., was bound to reignite the debate about guns in America. On both sides, people are screaming. Get rid of all of the guns! Protect the Second Ammendment! Guns are ruining America! Guns are the only thing keeping America safe! And on and on it goes.

But as the president said, we need to put politics aside and figure out a way to keep shootings like this from becoming a regular occurance. Even Mr. Rogers agrees that we need to put away the weapons—metaphorically—and figure out how to remedy what's wrong in society.

I do not like guns. I do not own one nor do I want one. I will not let my children own toy guns or play video games that involve shooting people, characters or animals. I do not believe in hunting. We have been so desensitized to violence and weaponry that we no longer respect their power or their consequences. Children do not understand the ramifications of violence, and our society does not reinforce them, either. We are raising our children in a world that looks civil from the outside, but reeks of barbarity deep down. 

Petula Dvorak, my former editor at my college paper, wrote an excellent column at the Washington Post detailing how it's impossible to protect our children in a gun-loving and gun-accepting culture.

"We worry about the hormones in their milk, the violence in 'Spongebob Squarepants,' and yet this country tolerates the existence of a military-style assault weapon built for no purpose other than killing lots of people on a battlefield — fast."

Guns will never be abolished. Even if the government tried to take away all of the weapons and made owning guns illegal, there would still be guns. Prohibition didn't work, and there are still plenty of drugs around. So I'm not suggesting we toss out the Second Amendment, but redefine it in light of the modern world. In 1791 when it was passed along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, the world was a very different place. Advanced weaponry was a musket and gunpowder. Access to guns was limited. Militias were necessary. Times have changed.

I am fed up with gun advocates screaming about how their Constitutional rights will be violated if we add some definitions to gun ownership. Look at it this way…Someone vandalizes a church, and so now it stays locked when not used for services. Does that not infringe upon the Constitution and violate my First Amendment rights to practice freedom of religion? Does it not "prohibit the free exercise thereof?" Of course not. Nor does placing limitations on the Second Amendment. It's time to address the problem.

Usually, when a threat is identified, we react. Sept. 11 changed the way we travel by airplanes forever. And we welcomed the changes because it was done for our safety. But things didn't stop there. Someone tried to use his shoes to explode an airplane, and now we must take off our footwear as we pass through airport security. Same holds true for bringing liquid on an airplane. Can't do that anymore, thanks to the action of one person. Since 1996, there have been 52 school shootings in America, resulting in more than 320 deaths.

But what has been done? What changes or modifications have been made? None. It's time to change that.

Let the Supreme Court define "arms." Our Founding Fathers could not fathom such weapons of destruction as the semi-automatic Bushmaster Patrolman's Carbine M4A3 Rifle, available at your local Walmart. I admit there may be a need by some to own guns. But semi-automatic assault weapons? No one other than law enforcement and the military needs anything of the sort. And most certainly not for "personal protection." The general public owning these types of weapons is problematic. And who needs 19 guns at home for protection? No one.

The creation of required safety and skill classes taken by everyone applying for a license or purchasing a gun should be mandatory. As should the regular renewal of said license only with the completion of refresher courses. Getting guns through private sales or through gun shows without proper screening protocol needs to be illegal.

Yet even if we remove the more violent weapons, institute stricter ownership rules and mandate educational stipulations, we are still left with a burning question: WHO gets the guns. Background checks, you say. Sure, that will work if you are convicted of a crime. But what about those who have yet to get in the system? Or the ones playing on a different field mentally?

All too often, shooters in mass killings such as the Sandy Hook slaughter are mentally unstable. Who knows why these people (usually young, white males) decide to murder innocent people as an "answer" to their own tragic issues. Many times, we will never know. Keeping guns out of their hands is key. But as we saw with Sandy Hook, the alleged shooter, Adam Lanza, used his mother's legally purchased guns to kill children. How can we stop that?

By making some of these weapons impossible to own, by anyone.

Let's not forget, there's something else we can do. We can start at the source. Our country has demonized mental illness as shameful, something to be ignored, ostracized or hidden. Help offered can be unaffordable, unfathonable or unavailable. Why not start reforming the way we identify, treat and support those suffering from mental illness so we can prevent the escalation of problems that all too often result in what we witnessed Friday in Connecticut? Liza Long wrote an excellent blog about her struggles with her teenage son's mental illness. Getting these  people the help they need at a young age is crucial.  


There are no easy answers to this complex problem.  I pray those in power will put aside the lobbyists and the money and the extremes and look at the facts. I  hope that they dig down to the source of this infection and figure out a way to at least start the healing so more school shootings do not occur.

Throughout the long days since Sandy Hook Elementary School made headlines, I have been swallowed up with shattering images, horrific news, heartbreaking stories. As has America as a whole. When we see the evil that destroyed a western Connecticut town and so many other areas before, we have to wonder what our world is becoming. It's beyond depressing.

And then, the wisdom of Mr. Rogers found me once more, and I felt comforted, even a bit hopeful.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

So that's what we can all do now in this dark hour. We can seek good.

I choose to look for the helpers. I will focus on the heroics of the Sandy Hook teachers, the community that is rallying around its wounded, the compassion of parents nationwide and the countless others who say prayers of peace for all those affected. And I will focus on the helpers in government, like our president, who will hopefully be the ones who will find solutions to these tragedies so that someday, the term "school shooting" is extinct.

Long live the logic of Mr. Rogers. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Car Wrecks and School Shootings

Written Dec. 15, 2012

Almost one year ago to the day, I totaled my car as I drove my children home from an appointment. Traveling on a rainy freeway, I hydroplaned, spun out and crashed into the center divider. In the moment, the shock and disbelief of it all kept the incident from being too frightening. Until I heard my kids shrieking in pure panic. I turned and saw my daughter, her eyes huge with terror, screaming. Then the fear slapped me. My children are in danger, I thought. My children are not safe. They could have been killed. Gone. In the blink of an eye. One minute we were talking about ice cream, the next, slamming into concrete. It all nearly changed that quickly.

Paramedics arrived, and a trip to the hospital followed. After a long, long day of tests and observation, we were all allowed to walk out of the hospital with very minor injuries. It was nothing shy of a miracle. The head of trauma surgery at the hospital reiterated how lucky we were. Amen to that.

The next morning, sore and bruised, I awoke to the sounds of my children laughing and playing in the family room with their dad. For a split second, I knew I was still dreaming. I knew I had lost my children in the accident the day before. I knew this was the first day of hell, the first day without my heart and soul.

But then I fully woke up, and realized my reality was not that hell, but the opposite. Pure paradise. My children were safe, healthy, alive. And in the next room. I cried tears of relief and sheer gratitude.


All day yesterday, I remembered that moment of utter joy when I realized my nightmare was not my truth. And I physically ached for those parents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., who were violently thrown into their own nightmares after a 20-year-old shooter terrorized the school and violently killed 20 children and six adults. Twenty children. All of them ages 6 and 7. My daughter's age. Kids just like my daughter. Just like her school friends. Kids who ate cereal for breakfast and looked forward to making gingerbread houses, who sported bows in their hair and shoes littered with scuff marks from hours of playground antics. Kids who wanted Legos from Santa and a dollar from the Tooth Fairy. Kids who bore the stamp of innocence and joy. Kids who would not be going home that afternoon, or ever again.

I couldn't get their images out of my head. Tiny little kids with the world ahead of them. Kids who were just like my daughter.

As a journalist, I was unable to turn away from the news coverage. I digested every update, each revelation in this constantly changing and confusing story. But as a parent, I yearned to stick my fingers in my ears, close my eyes and pretend none of this ever happened. The shooting of innocent children can't even be classified as a tragedy. It's an abomination, an act of evil so pure it's demonic. The journalist in me cried out for answers as to why the shooter did this, but the mother in me didn't want to know why. There is no answer that will suffice, no answer that will ever explain it all. And I don't want to live in a world where something this sinister can be easily explained.

I cried with President Obama—usually the "consoler in chief" in times of national tragedy— as he addressed the media. Never before have I seen a president display such emotion, and never have I seen this president give up his trademark silver-lining speech in light of mass tragedies; instead he adopted a weary, shocked and grief-laden tone, which made things even more grim. He said that these children "had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own." And now, that's all gone. All of it. That gunman took it all away. Not just from those 20 children, but from their families and the entire community as well. One half-hour on a Friday morning in December ruined countless lives and changed a nation.

I counted the minutes until I could pick my daughter up from kindergarten. Getting to her fast enough was my main concern. Never have my arms physically ached to hold her as they did yesterday. When I arrived at her classroom, I felt more excitement than I did picking her up after her first day of kindergarten. I grabbed her tight, holding my son in one arm and my daughter in the other. I breathed in the scent of her hair, felt her smooth cheek against my palm, laughed as she ran off to chase her friend. Today would not be a day for scolding or cranky answers. Today was a day for cuddling on the couch and ice cream, for staying up late and eating French toast for dinner. For thanking God over and over for these little ordinary treasures like silly "poop" jokes and sounds of "Mommy, I love you."

I imagined over and over again what those parents felt as they received calls from the school, rushed to the chaotic scene, waited in agony to receive news about their children. And then receiving the worst news of their lives. The day those children were born, no one could have ever imagined their lives only had a six- or seven-year window. No parent, gazing into her newborn's squished and rosy face, would ever think a madman could snuff out the brilliant life just now beginning its journey. And at the second safest place they know: school.

And yet, that's exactly what happened. My mind bucks at this reality, refusing to accept it.

Parents across the nation felt unbelievably shaken and eroded as news of the Sandy Hill shooting permeated the media. As the president said, he absorbed the events not as the commander in chief, but as a parent. I did not view the scene with a journalist's trained eye, but with a mother's heart. I thanked God four dozen times in an hour for letting my girl enjoy an average, safe school day. I felt icy fingers of fear poke my gut as I considered how easy it would be for a travesty like the Sandy Hill shooting to happen in our own backyard. I prayed for those parents.  I questioned how in the world this could have happened in the first place. It hit the trifecta of terror: random shooting, elementary school children and 11 days before Christmas. The pain is an abyss felt by parents nation-wide, but especially and unthinkably by the parents of the slain 20.

As the news continues to unfold and the victims' names are released, we learn more about the children who were killed…and the teachers who did their best to protect them. Ever since I walked my daughter to preschool on that first day, I knew I was entrusting that teacher with the most precious creature in the universe. I am sure all good teachers feel this burden and are empowered by it. It seems many of the Sandy Hook instructors were, as they died protecting their students or risked their own lives to do so.

This morning, I woke up and enjoyed a peaceful half-minute before I remembered what happened. Yet on the heels of that crushing realization came bliss. Bliss that my children were in the family room, laughing and playing with their father. That nightmare was not my reality. There is evil in this world, there is injustice and there is darkness. But for today, I grabbed hold to the ray of light found in my children's laughter. That gave me hope and strength to send off as a prayer to those parents in Newtown, who will forever be changed, and who will forever be in our hearts.