Rage, Depression, and Action: a Post-Newtown Discussion

Over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve scattered my thoughts across Facebook, Twitter, and e-mails. But for my own sake, as much as anyone else, I wanted to consolidate them here, and come up some cohesive thoughts on the topic so I can continue to function. I’m a writer. I think better with my fingers than with my brain.

My soul hurts today. It’s that deep, aching hurt that seems to penetrate every limb, that feels like an ulcer in your gut, that leaves your entire body tense and leaves your tear ducts permanently on the edge of pouring open. I haven’t felt this in pain from the news since 9/11.

But at least with 9/11 there was the cathartic knowledge (as raw and barbaric as it is) that we would have our revenge, that we would take our planes and aircraft carriers and cruise missiles and bomb the ever-living shit out of the folks who made it possible. It wouldn’t bring back our murdered friends and family. But it would be an act of revenge, a healing process for the nation.

I suppose that sounds pretty bad, that we went to war to find healing. And in the process we created a lot more hurt. Was it worth it? I don’t know. That’s a topic for another time.

See, in a mass shooting like we witnessed in Newtown yesterday, there is no revenge to be had. Even if the gunman had survived, there is no act we could inflict that would make us feel better, except maybe the sort of excruciating personal torture that always makes us feel a bit uncomfortable when it’s lived out in fantasy on a movie screen.

And even that wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t honor or respect the victims, and it wouldn’t provide the sort of needed change in the world to prevent such acts in the future.

There is only possible thing we can do in response to this– hug our families, tell our friends how much we love them, and then have a reasonable, adult discussion about how to prevent these sort of atrocities from occurring again. And in today’s political climate– amid polarization and pundits and a media that thrives on short-term conflict– that sort of thing is far harder to start than a war.

But the debate on gun control is already raging, and for once, I agree that it should be. Even after the shooting in Aurora, I was reluctant to “politicize tragedy.” But here’s the thing: politics are how we, as a society, set standards and rules for behavior (i.e. “laws”). It’s the forum in which we discuss, via our elected representatives, how to solve society-wide problems.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Our political system is pretty dysfunctional. But if discussing concrete actions on how to prevent mass shootings is “politicizing tragedy,” then so be it. Because simply grieving is no longer enough, just like it wasn’t enough after 9/11. Then, we went to war. Now? Now we have no choice but to turn to politics.

I think when having this debate, it’s important to realize one thing: we can’t truly prevent these tragedies, in the sense of guaranteeing that they will never happen again. Every policy is flawed. But if we can reduce the probability of one of these events, or reduce their potential severity, isn’t that worth pursuing? Just because we can’t do everything, doesn’t mean we should do nothing.

My intention in this post isn’t to have a comprehensive debate on gun control. That would take a whole other blog. But as an example, let’s consider tighter restrictions on semi-automatic handguns and assault weapons, which are responsible for the vast majority of shootings in America. Well, we could register and track every sale (more on this in a moment). On an easier note, I’d suggest requiring they be kept in a gun safe, or locked down in some manner when stored.

“But people won’t necessarily follow those rules!” I hear you say. Maybe not, but maybe they will. And maybe the next school shooter will live in a house where their law-abiding parent does follow the law, and lives will be saved. Reduce the chances. That’s all I’m asking. And as for emergency “under the pillow” sort of home defense, you could still use a revolver.

My intention here isn’t to resolve every argument. It’s more just to demonstrate the sort of discussion we need to have. Could someone still shoot up a school with a revolver? Yes, but if it happened, the death toll would probably be less. Reduce the probability. Reduce the catatostrophe. We can’t prevent. All we can do is reduce.

If we tracked the sale and ownership of semi-automatic weapons, we could potentially build a national database which could be used– much like counter-terrorism efforts already do– to correlate data and identify potential problems. Like, if a guidance counselor received reports of a deeply troubled kid, they could use a database to determine if that child’s parents had a 9 mm Browning at home. Please understand, I do not like making these arguments. It strikes hugely of a “Big Brother” sort of government playing an overly paternalistic role, and that drives me crazy.

But here’s the thing: in the Declaration of Independence– the very founding document of our country, arguably more so than the Constitution– there is the following text:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Yesterday in Newtown, 27 elementary school children were deprived of their right to be alive. On Tuesday, it was two people in a mall in Oregon. This summer, it was twelve people in a theater in Colorado. In May, it was five people in a coffee shop in my own city, Seattle. In fact, fuck it, here’s a list. How many of those do you actually remember? And that’s just from this year! And that’s just mass shootings. It doesn’t even consider individual crimes and gang-related violence.

So as much as I don’t want to talk about restricting freedom– as much as I don’t want to see government take on more of a Big Brother role– everything needs to be on the table now. If we need to apply counterterrorism-type efforts to domestic weapons, then maybe we should, because as much as it sucks to restrict freedom, the alternative is more and more deaths from gun violence.

Here’s an example from my personal life. I could own a gun– in fact, I’d kind of like to. There’s a raw, emotional appeal to them, and in their mechanisms and variety, guns are an interesting topic. It’d be fun to take up shooting as a hobby.

But over the past few years, I’ve battled with depression: heavy, clinical depression. It’s only recently that I’ve even realized it, or at least come to accept it. I’m getting treatment– taking Sertraline, if you must know– and it’s helping quite a lot.

If I had owned a gun, in the time since I was eighteen, I am pretty sure– and this utterly terrifies me to admit– that there would probably have been at least once where I would have turned it on myself. Even now, I would be too frightened to have a gun in my house, because I simply don’t trust myself with one. I have made the personal decision that I should not own a firearm.

That is my personal choice. It’s not one forced on me by anybody else; it’s a realistic acknowledgement of my own restrictions. It’s a decision to limit my freedom for the sake of my life and my safety. Now, it’s time for us to have that same discussion, but on a society-wide level. We– as a country– have proven, consistently, that we cannot be trusted with firearms laws as they stand.

I am very, very angry; I feel like my temper is a molecule-thin string. I read Mike Huckabee’s thoughts on the massacre, and got so mad I wanted to burst. (For the record, if your God is dependent on government sponsorship to enter schools, you need to get a new God.)

But I’m holding onto that anger, because the alternative is depression. Anger can be channeled into positive and productive motivation; depression, clinical depression, cannot.

I think my project over Christmas is going to be to write a letter I can send by postal mail to Barack Obama, and to every incoming Senator and Congressman– yes, every single one— asking them to take part in this discussion, motivated not by lobbyists or political agendas but by moral imperative. We need to do something. And for the record, it’s not just gun control that we need to discuss. It’s the rebuilding of our broken and shattered mental health care system; it’s adequate funding for our schools. It’s investing and encouraging technological solutions, like the development of better nonlethal defensive weapons, or biometric IDs for firearms.

I kind of feel like if we can’t have this discussion, if we can’t take some sort of concrete action on this, then America is fundamentally broken. I’m just one person, and I know it probably won’t do shit, but writing letters still strikes me as something concrete that I can do– I’m a writer, after all. If you’re in the Seattle area, and you want to join me for a letter-folding and envelope-sealing party, let me know. I’d welcome donations to pay for postage, but I am willing to pay for 536 stamps myself if I have to. So that’s my plan. I hope our country can come up with one.

For now, I’ll hold onto my anger because as long as I do, I can still be optimistic, about my country, and about humanity. As long as I’m angry, I still have hope. Depression is the lack of hope. And I can’t do that anymore.

3 thoughts on “Rage, Depression, and Action: a Post-Newtown Discussion

  1. After a lengthy debate with some NRA types today, I’ve come to a conclusion. The more these acts occur, the more likely their guns will be taken away. If they want to keep them, then they need to support legislation that helps prevent these crimes. What I’m saying is that I think you need to reach out to that side and show them that their inaction will eventually lead to the thing they fear the most, the loss of their gun-toting freedom. So it’s in their best interest to be part of the solution.

    • Agreed. In the letters I send to Republican Congressmen, I plan to address exactly that (among other things). I also hope we can broaden the discussion beyond gun control, especially with regard to mental health care.

  2. Pingback: Newtown Reflections, II: An American God « Off the Written Path

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