Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #128. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Mar. 3, 2018; in print Mar. 4

Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks proposed that we need conversations to dismantle stereotypes before we can move ahead on issues that were posed so starkly by the recent massacre at the high school in Parkland, Florida.

The ecumenical movement, to which much of my professional life has been dedicated, has proved the power of such encounters in undoing centuries of rancor between churches.

But there are limits.

When I watched President Trump’s Feb. 21 listening session with survivors of Parkland, Newtown and Columbine, I was struck by two things.

First, the raw anguish of parents, students, and the mayor of Parkland. As many of them said, no one should have to experience what they’re going through. A father said he now has to go to the cemetery to have conversations with his daughter.

Second, the president’s seemingly mindless latching on to various suggestions as core solutions, from arming teachers to constructing hospitals to house the mentally ill — with hardly any mention of gun control.

My conclusion? The time for “conversations to dismantle stereotypes” is long past. Events in Parkland, Newtown, Columbine, and, yes, Rocori 15 years ago, tell us that we must act now.

We do have common sense, evidence based strategies that suggest at least pieces of a solution. Instead of endless conversations that often end in retreat to extreme positions, we must use that evidence to begin constructing those solutions.

For example, is it possible that in the real world this is both a gun control problem and a mental health problem?

There is a relationship between mental illness and mass public shootings. Almost 60 percent of the public mass shootings in the US since 1900 were carried out by people who had either been diagnosed with a mental disorder or demonstrated signs of serious mental illness prior to the attack. Only one-third of those people who carried out those shootings had sought or received mental health care prior to their attacks.

We also know that the US has higher rates of untreated serious mental illness than most other Western countries. The gap is even larger for males, who have committed 99 percent of the country’s mass public shootings.

While the vast majority of people with mental disorders are not violent, the attention to increasing access to mental health care in this country (not building more hospitals) is a reasoned approach.

However, this does not suggest that mass public shootings are strictly or even primarily a mental health problem.

We also know that in the decade of the federal ban on assault weapons, 1994 to 2004, the number of gun massacre events was reduced by 37 percent and gun deaths in such events by 43 percent, from the previous 10 years. In the 10-year period after the end of the ban, there was an increase of 183 percent of incidents and 239 percent in mass deaths.

Recall that it was a legally purchased assault-style weapon used to kill 17 people in Parkland, 58 (and more than 500 injured) at a Las Vegas concert, 49 (and 53 injured) in an Orlando nightclub, and 26 worshipers at a church in Texas. And this, of course, isn’t all.

Might reinstating a ban on assault-style weapons be a common sense, evidenced based strategy for reducing gun violence? As recently as Feb. 20, 67 percent of Americans say yes.

“Evidence based” has been a theme of this column. One place we should be able to look for evidence is blank. Since 1996 Congress has barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from any research on injury prevention that might lead it to “advocate or promote gun control.” This sounds like our elected officials saying “Don’t bother us with the facts.”

Like everybody, in these days since Parkland I’ve been jostled between reason and emotion. What impresses me most about the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is the way their emotion has fueled their reason.

They ask, and I ask with them: What conceivable case can be made for weapons designed for military use — that is, for killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible — to be available to civilians? It’s unconscionable that 18-year-olds can buy them. I can’t imagine why anybody, at any age, should have access.

And arming teachers? Gun manufacturers must be salivating at the thought of hundreds of thousands of sales to an entirely new clientele. It’s the business model that Big Pharma has used to get insanely rich on the sale of opioids.

We need to stop the extremist debates not founded on facts, but the facts need the energy that students across the country, including here in Central Minnesota, are injecting into the conversation.

Policymakers: Focus on strategies rooted in reality—and start now, before “It can’t happen here” happens again.