Making a Change in a Nation of Gavels and Guns

Thursday Thunk

Each Thursday, I post some thoughts or bits of books or poetry I am working on.

—I call them “thunks.”

Trigger warning: this column refers to violent events–both real and fiction.

My husband and I just finished watching Night Sky, a quirky series on Prime starring Sissy Spacek and J.K. Simmons. Spacek is one of my favorite actresses and she has been on a lot of television in the last several years: i.e., Bloodline, Castle Rock, and Homecoming. (She does have a distracting quirk—in many of these series, she is constantly throwing her long, thick braid over her left shoulder. How many characters can possibly have the same hairstyle?)

Seeing Spacek on the screen again reminded me of her first major film: Carrie (1976). I can’t recall if I saw it in the theater or on television (remember those Saturday night movies on network tv?)—but it was terrifying.

Based on the Stephen King novel, the plot centers on the much-abused and bullied Carrie, who has possessed telekinetic powers since she was born (only her mother knows this). Spoiler alert: towards the end of the story, Carrie attends prom, experiences yet another humiliation from classmates, and goes berserk with her powers, trapping everyone in the fiery gym.

But the most disturbing part to me is not so much the prom scene, as horrendous as that is: it’s the relationship between Carrie and her mother (played by Piper Laurie)—her mother is cruel and abusive, often locking Carrie away for hours or days in a scary closet, and twisting Bible verses to manipulate and malign her daughter. Those scenes are eerie and awful. Carrie has no escape from abuse—her classmates humiliate, bully, or ignore her. She has one friend.

It struck me this week that Carrie’s murderous rage at Bates High (which King so named to honor Norman Bates, the character from Psycho) displays King’s genius at understanding and revealing human nature.

The novel is nearly fifty years old, and yet Carrie in several ways fits the profile of the modern-day mass shooter (disclaimer: only Carrie has telekinetic powers).

In the book, The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic, Jillian Peterson and James Densley (both are university professors), reveal an important study they did after creating a database of every mass shooter since 1966 who shot and killed four or more people in a public place. They compiled life histories of 180 shooters, and interviewed five of the very few living mass shooters.

Their findings revealed that these perpetrators fit a profile—i.e., early childhood trauma, isolation, self-hate, and suicidal ideation. They often indicate in advance a plan to harm others. An important finding is that these mass shootings are most often a suicide plan—these individuals don’t plan on surviving. I recommend the Politico article on the book (which I plan on reading) and its interview with Peterson and Densley.

Obviously, Carrie’s situation differs from the profile: she had no plan at the outset to murder anyone, and she was not suicidal. But it is evident that the most important adults in her life failed her, and that abuse at home and school was usually ignored or overlooked. Like the brilliant storyteller he is, King builds suspense and foreboding—the reader senses that eventually Carrie will break, and her community will pay for it.

I bring this up because of what has happened over the last few weeks.

The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which took 21 lives at the scene, including 19 children, shook me to my core. The May 24 attack occurred just ten days after Buffalo and nine days after Laguna Hills—three mass shootings within just ten days (there have been 25 in the last decade).

I felt a connection to all three places: I am from Connecticut and have friends who’ve lived near Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown; I now live less than two hours from Buffalo, and many of us Upstate New Yorkers have shopped at a Tops Friendly Market; and I am Presbyterian—our former church housed a diverse array of congregations much like the church in Laguna Hills where the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church held services.

Yet that week in late May, I could not bring myself to read or watch much news about Uvalde. I felt guilty about that. But as I listened to some podcasts I subscribe to, I realized I am not alone. Several people I respect who are pastors, writers, pundits, and moms said they had to turn the channel, silence phones, ignore news feeds. They didn’t want to take in the faces of beautiful children now dead or the tear-stained faces of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. Not another one. Not one more school with little bodies riddled with bullets.

Another reason I ignored the news was to silence the same old mantras one hears after a mass shooting: It’s about gun control. It’s not about gun control. It’s a mental health crisis. It’s a gun crisis.

Pick your poster’s slogan—everyone has one and they’ll wave it in your face until you realize “X” is true. Forget having an actual conversation. Forget doing something constructive to protect children and shoppers and churchgoers. For some reason, even after several terrible events at public schools, we quickly forget that they are still vulnerable to the violent.

On December 14, 2022, a decade will have passed since the terrible, awful day at Sandy Hook. How much has really improved in that time to keep our children—and schoolteachers, and shoppers, and churchgoers—safe? The parents and spouses and families of those murdered at Sandy Hook alone have had to endure more trauma in the past decade than most of us will ever know or experience. (Just google Alex Jones and you will unfortunately be exposed to some of the vilest behavior that no parent should have experienced following the loss of their little ones.)

It is evident that mental health is a key issue in mass shootings. Red flag laws (also referred to as risk-based gun removal laws) can help protect communities and compromised individuals by removing guns from the home and preventing gun purchases (but for these laws to be effective, they must be used and enforced; sadly, that was not the case in Buffalo).

The kinds of public and online threats mass shooters often make (as discovered in Peterson’s and Densley”s work) could immediately trigger a red flag—not just to prevent gun ownership, but to create steps to get that person help. Even more importantly, school staff, mental health professionals, and parents could be trained to notice and help these kids long before they become killers. But all of this takes effort and dollars and political will.

David French, conservative columnist and podcast co-host of The Dispatch, Advisory Opinions, and Good Faith (I highly recommend Good Faith), is a gun owner and former attorney who served in Iraq. He is a strong defender of the Second Amendment. I disagree with his stance on some aspects of gun control. I see no need for households to have an automatic weapon, for instance. French, as someone whose family has received death threats over the past seven years (and had angry individuals show up at his home), firmly believes we should defend our households with the same kind of weapon that may be used against us, which he says includes automatic weapons.

Yet, though he lands hard on the right to bear arms (responsibly), French has been banging the drum for red flag laws for years. He believes every state should pass such a law—only nineteen have them, including New York.

A week after Uvalde, I finally had the nerve to scroll through stories of the kids and the teachers who died, and I prayed for the families. I thought about the seeming futility of my “thoughts and prayers.” I was stunned that those who once pledged to protect and serve waited 90 minutes before “storming” a classroom of injured and dying students and teachers.

When I woke up last Tuesday morning, the phrase “we storm the building” echoed in my head.

I began writing at 7:30 am what I thought would be a few verses and revised a much longer poem throughout the day. It was a heart-wrenching exercise and a bit unnerving to contemplate publishing it. I hesitated before sharing it with a couple of people for feedback.

American grownups are unable to talk about guns and mental health in productive ways. The political tenor right now in my clinical opinion is “bananas.” The intimidating wall along the Southern border (which I saw for myself in El Paso last May) is nothing compared to the barrier erected between republicans and democrats, conservatives and liberals, and everyone in between. If you try to breach that wall, you will likely take some fire—you are guaranteed a few stones at least.

We are a nation of tens of thousands of gavels and nearly 400 million guns—symbols of justice and power that are often used in unjust, terrible ways, many times against the most vulnerable.

The Speaker of the House, the judge down the street, the Supreme Court, the village mayor: they all use gavels— they call a courtroom or meeting to order, dismiss a case, or pronounce a sentence. There are thousands of gavels pounding podiums and benches in the U.S. every day. In New York State there are 516 judges in state and county courts. This number does not count federal judges (a few dozen, many of whom have five-to-14-year terms).

The U.S. House of Representatives has 435 members who serve two-year terms with no term limits; the Senate, 100 members, serving six-year terms with no term limits. These are the grownups in the room who squabble, haggle, proclaim, promise, and pledge. But what are they doing to change things for the better when it comes to sensible laws that can protect students, teachers, shoppers, and churchgoers—communities?

I may be ruffling feathers with this post. That’s okay—ever heard of the wings of justice? It’s a kung fu technique avian warriors used in Kung Fu Panda 2 (a very different movie from Carrie) to create a powerful gust of wind. Imagine what could happen if enough of us ruffle the feathers of those in power—holding them accountable, applying the pressure of a hurricane force of voices demanding change for the good of the most vulnerable? I pray for that—I do—for all our sakes.

You can read my poem, “We Storm the Building,” here.  

All images are from Click image for source.

One thought on “Making a Change in a Nation of Gavels and Guns

  1. This is very powerful, and I agree that even the discussions around these problems have their own traps. I feel very strongly that the root cause is society’s tolerance or embrace of violence and masculine identity. Reflecting on contemporary American history (militarism and male exceptionalism) reveals a climate of fear and anxiety, where violence and immolation seems the only answer (or the only escape).
    I think the movie Carrie is a very interesting connection. One very firm idea here is the degree of isolation that young people feel from society at large. Our modernity results in a destructive individualism, where all people are atomized. In this context, the only success comes through self-affirmation, which in the world of Carrie meant destroying her oppressors. I think the only meaningful solution must involve a new social ‘glue’ whereby the connection between people is restored.

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