Feeling All The Feelings: Responding to Newtown

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This time of year I’m holed up in a charming New England town in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont called Craftsbury Common. It’s a welcome change of scenery from Central PA in which to continue my work over the holidays – right now, studying in overdrive for my upcoming comprehensive exams. My cell phone doesn’t work here and internet is slow. The community is vibrant and in many ways, humming, but life is more streamlined for me here. I don’t go to an office every day. The dog, cats, and I go upstairs and sit at a small wooden desk to telecommute. This town is also a good place to process Feeling All the Feelings when terrible things happen in the world. As we have no television at our house most of the time, I’ve followed the Newtown, CT story on NPR, in the paper, and of course, on the internet. Last night Fair Play Boyfriend and I were watching the Patriots game online when NBC cut to the President’s address. I am proud he spoke to the issue of widespread gun violence boldly, and today, Fair Play will as well. Instead of talking about holiday gifts, I’m going to take you through the highlights of my own process of Feeling All the Feelings. Plenty of time to talk about Christmas later.

The first extremely obvious point to make about gender and violence is that violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men and boys, often against women and girls. Insofar as this relates to what we know so far about Newtown, Adam Lanza was, like every mass shooter in America save one since 1982, a male. Homicide generally is perpetrated 9 times more frequently by men than by women. I’m not going to speculate about Lanza’s motivations. Frankly there has been far too much speculating in the reporting about this event. The point worth making here about gender and violence is that there is a pattern we see. No, not all men perpetrate violence — indeed, most do not. The question we have to ask is why? Why do we see a gender pattern here?

The answer is twofold: difference of power, and access to lethal means. That first answer, about the difference in power between males and females, is in many ways a function of the traditional difference in male and female roles in society. It is the explanation for domestic violence and much sexual violence — including violence perpetrated against children, where an obvious difference in power exists. In these cases, the victims or survivors generally know their attackers because the violent act is personal in nature. Women and girls are approximately twice as likely to know their attackers than are men when they experience violent crime. Power-based personal violence is where my own community organizing and advocacy experience lies, and certainly belongs in a discussion about violence in America. But, today I want to focus on the other part of “why a gender pattern in violence?” — access to lethal means.

Let’s turn the question on its head by looking at something that happens more often with women and girls than with men and boys: depression. Women and girls are diagnosed with clinical depression approximately twice as often as are men and boys. It is estimated that more women and girls than men and boys attempt suicide, perhaps 3 to 1. Yet, men and boys complete suicide more than women and girls, 4 to 1. They are more likely to use a firearm, generally a successful lethal means, whereas women and girls are more likely to use poisons or medications, which may not be successful. This difference in approach results in a reversal of the gender difference. Among completed female suicides, firearms are also popular. Guns kill people.

Certainly, Lanza was not only committing suicide but rather, a mass atrocity. The mental health issue is one that has been raised in the previous few days and it is important to understand. Increasing access to mental health care and resources is critical. I would also like to dispel some misunderstanding about a quote that has been repeated all over the interwebs. A forensic psychiatrist, Adam Mullen, having investigated a number of male mass killers, is quoted as saying “Most perpetrators of autogenic massacres do not, however, appear to have active psychotic symptoms at the time and very few even have histories of prior contact with mental health services.” This has been bandied about to make the point that we don’t know about Lanza’s mental state (true, we don’t in any specific way). I would like to make the point that psychosis has a technical medical and psychological definition, the “loss of contact with reality” which often involves delusions about who one is or what is happening, and visual or auditory hallucinations. Being in a state of psychosis is one manner of experiencing mental illness. There are many others. To say mass killers are not experiencing psychosis at the time of their actions merely means they are not unaware of what they are doing — it does not mean they are not mentally ill.

Ok so we need more mental health resources. I don’t pretend that is any small thing, in fact I see it requiring an overhaul of both healthcare and the criminal justice system, not to mention the large role of the education system. But, I also think it’s a cop-out to say we need to focus on mental health like there isn’t a semi-automatic elephant in the room. America has avoided real decisions about gun control throughout history. As the President said last night, is periodic carnage the price of our freedom? And what freedom? We live in a society where we are required to abide by a certain social contract. Federal, state, and local laws enforce the boundaries of that social contract. Don’t kid yourself, you are absolutely not free to cavort in whatever way you please, unfettered by consequence. You choose to live in this country, you have the rights accorded forthwith, and in exchange you agree to live by a legally codified social order. If you do not, your lose your participatory rights. You do have the complete freedom to vote for your representation at every level of this legally codified social order. Those representatives work to uphold the order. Sometimes, as we grow and change as a country, the legal manifestation of the social code needs to change. Now is one of those times. To quote Rep. Joe Manchin (D-WV) this morning, “everything has to be on the table.”

In the United States, more people die annually by gun homicides than in any other developed country. Firearms are the weapons of choice in homicide, perhaps not surprisingly. Guns kill people. Mostly, we’re talking about handguns, although the New York Times points out that the semi-automatic rifle used in the Aurora and Newtown massacres, the AR-15, is the most popular rifle sold in the United States, often to hunting enthusiasts. Generally rifles make up a small percentage of the firearms used in homicides and are sometimes overlooked in legislation around permitting and background checks. But, the AR-15 is the civilian counterpart to the military M-16. It is an assault rifle. It can be loaded with high capacity magazines and used as such. In terms of potential damage to inflict in a crowd situation, weapons like the AR-15, and the magazines that can be used with them, are critical to consider in any gun control conversation. Even former congressman Joe Scarborough, an NRA advocate, has come around to the idea that we need tighter gun control, perhaps in particular of high capacity magazines.

Now, I am obviously not the only liberal blogger calling for increased gun control. Frankly I think an assault weapons ban is a no-brainer, as is closing gun show loopholes. Magazine limits make perfect sense, and probably can be regulated outside of the second amendment which speaks to the firearm itself and not its contents. The issue isn’t guns being obtained illegally, as generally speaking the guns used in mass killings in recent history were obtained legally, but in restricting access to guns by tightening the law. What is the fear in requiring training and safety checks before and during gun ownership, much like owning and driving a car? Guns kill people. So do cars, but as we’ve tightened regulations around driving and cars, cars have become much safer.

But, as I said in the opening to this post, I am in rural Vermont. I believe there are currently three shotguns in the house right now. Up until a few days ago, there were three shotguns and a rifle, on loan. There is a shelf in the mudroom with boxes of shells as well as a basket full of assorted shells and shot which no longer live in a box. Hunting is part of the culture here, as it is in many rural areas. This is something staunchly defended by hunting enthusiasts (many Republican), and dismissed out of hand by urbanites (many Democrat). I was extremely skeptical of it myself when I started dating Fair Play Boyfriend and he suggested we might spend an afternoon partridge hunting. I’ve come to learn there is a kind of hunting culture that is not about killing, but about enjoying and celebrating the natural environment (although of course, killing happens, just not very often when Fair Play Boyfriend is hunting). Although I still do not enjoy hunting myself, I regularly venture out with Fair Play Boyfriend because we enjoy the outdoors together — in the woods, or sometimes on the river in the kayak, mostly watching the wildlife and yes, occasionally firing a gun. I’ve learned hunting is much more difficult than I knew, and frankly more sporting. So to my urban readers and friends — don’t dismiss out of hand the role of hunting in rural culture. We can regulate guns without Banning All The Guns. Everyone has a place at the table in the conversation we need to have now, and misunderstanding or belittling the role of guns in rural life will not get us there.

We can come to a place where gun and gun ownership are more strictly controlled. This could reduce access to guns by mentally unfit people, as well as limit the damage a single person could do with a single weapon. I’m only in small part sympathetic to the argument that we cannot control the prevalence of guns which are already out there — other countries have had great success with buyback programs, for example. No more excuses. Did you hear about the attack on 22 kindergarteners in China on Friday? No one died, because the attacker did not have access to a firearm, did not use a firearm, and was not able to inflict lethal injury. Guns kill people.

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I could tell you how to talk to your kids about this. I could tell you how not to. For the record, I think at least you should be sure your child (and their school) understands emergency preparedness for these situations. This can be part of a conversation about emergency preparedness for all sorts of situations. Stop, Drop, and Roll is in fact quite fun to practice. Sesame Street has a snippet explaining death and loss — a concept that can be pretty tricky for young children.

What I hope you do take away from this post is that gun control is a conversation we can no longer avoid. Everything needs to be on the table, and carnage is not remotely a fair price for “freedom.” Guns kill people.

3 thoughts on “Feeling All The Feelings: Responding to Newtown

  1. Insightful post, as always. Just want to add a thought on why males are so much more prone to violence. It’s a matter of chemistry–male hormones (testosterone) have been linked with aggressiveness, making the connection between violence and gender.

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