Talking about the real problem
I read a headline shortly after the Sandy Hook school murders: ďCan we now talk about guns?Ē It was a response to the caution, often offered by opponents of gun control legislation, that the grief-stricken, furious aftermath of horrific tragedy isnít the best time to craft prudent, constructive firearms regulations.
There is some common sense in that caution. We do need to recognize when powerful emotions are at work in us so we donít in our grief and fury act rashly and unwisely. However, no one recommended we postpone dealing with Japan for a few months because we were grieving and angry after Pearl Harbor. Those who want to talk now about guns arenít out of order. But I donít want to talk about guns.
Iím not against firearms regulations. Thereís plenty of room in the neglected first half of the Second Amendment, the part about a ďwell-regulatedĒ militia, for rules and regulations governing guns. At the same time, itís impossible to argue that the second numbered protection in the Bill of Rights was included to benefit hunters and gun collectors. It was intended to enable American citizens to protect themselves and their republic against enemies, foreign and domestic. For some it may have meant Indians on the frontier, or homegrown criminals, or a British assault launched from Canada or against our Eastern coast, or even the overreach of the new federal government itself. Squirrel guns and retired long rifles over the mantelpiece certainly werenít the point.
Anyone eager to discount or disregard the Second Amendment needs to weigh the wisdom of the Founders who enacted it ó men like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison ó against the worth and moral stature of our current crop of leaders ó men like Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Boehner.
I know whose judgment I trust more.
But as much as Iím not opposed to reconsidering and strengthening gun legislation, I donít want to talk about guns. Thatís because guns arenít our fundamental problem, and we modern Americans have a hard time concentrating for long on one problem, let alone more than one.
Sometime soon, following a long and loud exchange of partisan posturings, our Congress will enact and our president will sign what will be hailed as landmark legislation limiting gun clips to 10 shells, meaning school shooters armed with two weapons will be limited to 20 shots before they need to reload. There will doubtless be congratulations all around.
Tell me. Would we be any less appalled and grieving if the Sandy Hook murderer had armed himself with two old-fashioned revolvers and killed only 12 children?
There are others who echo that guns arenít our primary problem. They instead advocate enhancing our mental health care system, arguing that we need to better and earlier identify those who are dangers to others and themselves before we and they come to grief. Here, too, Iím not opposed to diagnosing and treating the mentally ill, provided we acknowledge that psychological diagnoses too often serve as an excuse for bad behavior, an occasion for self-indulgence, and a bar against corrective, protective action that safeguards the rest of society.
The problem is itís next to impossible to distinguish those of us with quirks and idiosyncrasies, those who are alienated or troubled, or who dress in black or listen to anarchic music, from those among us who will wake up one day determined to perpetrate mayhem and slaughter. This doesnít mean we shouldnít be on our guard to protect ourselves and our children. But before we put our efforts into watching for the obscure and guarding against what we commonly can neither anticipate nor prevent, there is evil and harm right before our eyes that we presently ignore and before which we appear impotent.
I doubt anyone reading this hasnít also read the accounts of drivers with suspended licenses, arrested yet again for another DUI offense, and punished by having their licenses suspended yet again. I doubt there is anyone living in a neighborhood or small town who doesnít know who the unconvicted felons are, the ones who disturb the peace, harass innocent people, and burglarize their homes. Iím sure thereís an ample supply of drug dealers our police forces can point out but are unable to combat. Iím sure weíre all familiar with the follies of a legal system that monetarily rewards people for being too stupid to realize they shouldnít drive with hot coffee between their thighs.
About all this we do nothing.
Ask any student, any teacher, any principal, and theyíll be able to tell you who the school felons are, the students who threaten and disrupt, the ones whose outbursts and antics steal the education of others and make school life intolerable. Ask about the irrational parents who shout obscenities in the corridors. If Iíd behaved toward anyone the way Iíve seen parents abuse and threaten teachers and principals, I would have been rightly escorted to the door in handcuffs without my job and teacherís license.
About all this we do nothing.
There is presently before Congress a bill, sponsored by Iowaís Sen. Harkin, entitled the Keeping All Students Safe Act. The ďall studentsĒ itís talking about are the students who are so disruptive and dangerous that they need to be removed from class or restrained. Mr. Harkin is concerned about their rights.
Someone needs to speak for the rights of all the other students. Someone needs to explain what it looks like when one student routinely rampages uncontrolled through a classroom, ramming desks into other children, smashing computers, and frightening 6-year-olds while no one is allowed to stop or touch him. Someone needs to explain what itís like when you canít seclude such a child away from the other children so that all the other children are the ones forced to leave their classroom to get away from him.
This happens. And about this we do nothing.
Mr. Harkinís bill, like many similar state laws already enacted, prohibits schools from isolating a dangerous student in a room if he doesnít want to be there. It prohibits teachers from restraining a student unless there is imminent risk that heíll inflict ďserious bodily injury.Ē Under the law, cutting, burning, breaking someoneís nose, and causing a temporary disfigurement or pain less than eight on a scale of one to 10 donít count. In short, if I saw a student moving to punch your child in the nose and I grabbed his arm to stop him, Iíd be the one in trouble.
And about this we do nothing.
We can make grand proposals for guarding children against dangers we canít foresee. But all our talk and plans are worthless and shameful when we already donít keep them safe from the harm we can see that they suffer every day.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.