Op-ed column: A Wild West mentality

In Schenectady, there is a problem: Too many people are shooting at each other.
Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette
Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette

In Schenectady, there is a problem: Too many people are shooting at each other.

Mayor Brian Stratton and Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett have responded sensibly, increasing city police patrols and getting help from the state police.

They’ve done right; this decreases opportunities for people to shoot at each other. However, let me suggest that this is a “top-down,” temporary solution to chronic underlying problems.

Perhaps once the immediate crisis ends, people should look for causes of the problem and seek a “bottom-up” solution to provide a lasting difference. To do this, we must consider root causes as to why so many citizens, particularly young citizens, are shooting at each other.

Appropriate act?

Perhaps these young men are shooting at each other because they wish to. They feel it is an appropriate way for a young man to act in some situations.

Another view

For another view on this topic, read K.C. Halloran’s opinion here.

There is nothing new about this in American society.

Recently I read a wonderful book by Michael Wallis, titled “Billy the Kid, the Endless Ride.” A biography, I not only learned that “Billy the Kid” (aka William Antrim, aka Billy Bonney) the famed, historical “Wild West” gunfighter, had killed many people before he himself got shot at age 21, but that his age was not uncommon for those involved in Western shootouts. Although uncommon in the movies, teenagers with guns were a big problem during the 19th century westward expansion.

Like “Billy the Kid,” a young man whose mother died at 16 and whose stepfather had not only abandoned the family, but disowned his stepson after Billy started stealing horses, rootless young men with dysfunctional families often got into trouble in those days — just like today.

Back then, drunken, bored teenagers with guns seeking reputations as dangerous tough guys were ticking time bombs waiting to explode — just like today.

History can provide other examples, in countless times and places. So, what can we learn from this?

Shooting happens

Young men with guns shooting at each other is something that happens sometimes. It is not, historically speaking, an unprecedented anomaly. Under certain situations these things naturally happen. Poverty, masculinity, youth and violence are often interlinked. And if we, as a society, wish to prevent youth violence we need to think through the problems and their causes.

Some thoughts:

The threat of punishment does not deter people who do not believe they have a future. Give people hope, give them a chance at a better future and they will be less likely to shoot each other or be self destructive.

The threat of violence does not deter people who wish a reputation as a tough guy or a killer and who wish to be known as comfortable with violence. (A not uncommon aspiration for a teenage male, by the way.) Often, the threat of loss of face — embarrassment — is a bigger deterrent. (How to use this fact? First, jails should be entirely safe. There should be nothing about the incarceration experience that a prisoner can use to impress his friends with later. Make them read poetry, I say! Make them wear pink frilly lace, sing campfire songs and then put them on TV.)

Self esteem

Consider alternative, lawful ways to affirm teenage males’ often insecure sense of masculinity. Midnight basketball leagues, martial arts schools, organized boxing clubs, volunteer fire departments — it’s counterintuitive, but I think it’d help.

Threats of punishment do not deter people who lack decision-making skills. There are in America, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods, a surprising number of young people who not only lack decision-making skills but also consider reputation (“respect” “disrespect” or “face,” as they say in Asia) extremely important. Combined with the poor-decision making skills, this means many of our young citizens not only consider it appropriate to assault or kill over an insult, but consider it “unavoidable bad luck” when they get punished afterwards.

Teach decision-making. Teach it in schools. Teach it in jails. Teach it in churches. Incorporate it into sports coaching.

Some have expressed concern that teenage boys carry weapons. My feeling is teenage boys have always carried weapons. That’s why New York banned switchblades in 1954.

Boys like weapons, and the fancier the weapon the better. (Need evidence? Ask the Albany police why their officers bought machine guns for home use.) Besides, if one feels unsafe, it’s nice to have a weapon. I’ve not only owned weapons for self defense, as an adult, I’ve brandished them in tense situations more than once and been glad I did.

Which does not mean teenagers carrying guns should be tolerated. It just means it’s natural that a teenage boy in an unsafe neighborhood would want to. It would be stranger if they didn’t want to.

To provide long-term solutions to this situation, we cannot simply dismiss youth violence as “unnatural.” We need to understand instead.

Peter Huston lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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