If anything good can be salvaged from the Dec. 14 carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it would be the acts of courage and self-sacrifice shown by the principal, teachers and staff who moved instinctively to place themselves between the gunman’s bullets and “their” children.
This heroism is not unique to Newtown or any place else for that matter. I have no doubt that teachers here, from Schenectady to East Greenbush and from Saratoga to Ichabod Crane, would have done the same, in an instant. This is what teachers do. So the next time you feel the need to rant about overpaid and underworked school teachers, remember Dec. 14, 2012, when you saw ordinary women asked to do the extraordinary, sacrificing their own lives for the sake of the band of 6- and 7-year-olds they came to love. They didn’t flinch; answering the call without a moment’s hesitation.
My wife taught elementary school for more than 30 years and continues to serve now as a substitute teacher. I am certain that had a similar incident occurred in her school, on her watch, today we would either be admiring her bravery, mourning her passing or both.
But, even with incredible acts of true valor from teachers, students and first responders, 26 innocent lives were still lost. Why? What could have been done differently? And, most important, what can we do now to make sure that it never happens again?
Debating what to do
For more than a week now, we have seen journalists, psychologists, school safety gurus and a gaggle of other talking heads ramble, scold and pontificate about the failings of our mental health care system, the inadequacy of school safety measures, and the need to ban every firearm in America that isn’t owned by a law enforcement agency or the military.
Yet, from all accounts, the enhanced school safety measures and gun laws worked exactly as they were intended to. Adam Lanza’s application for a handgun was turned down earlier that week, and the school refused him entry on that fateful day. Still, 11 days before Christmas — 28 were dead (including the shooter and his mother), two wounded, and scores more inescapably and forever scarred.
Adam Lanza was shadowed from elementary school through his senior year in high school by counseling professionals, who understood that he was a ticking time bomb, shepherding him through the system virtually unscathed but also unhealed.
We have an overburdened and imperfect mental health-care system. School-age children are evaluated, assessed, counseled and watched for any sign of emotional distress or mental illness throughout their first 13 years of education. Then at the magic age of 18 comes a high-school diploma in one hand and a pink slip from the mental health-care system in the other. With no mandatory counseling sessions, no safety net, and no one to monitor his behavior, in the eyes of the “system,” Lanza simply ceased to exist.
With no requirement or inclination to participate in any (drug or counseling) therapy after high school, he inevitably disappeared from radar screens and fell through the cracks, tumbling ever downward until he landed at Sandy Hook.
We have moved from nearly unfettered access to our schools to buzzers, video monitoring, lockdowns and lockouts. Schools have changed with the times, and safety provisions have grown exponentially. But, turning our schools into armed fortresses, with bulletproof windows and doors, and police toting semiautomatic weapons on each campus would inevitably create distrustful, ever weary, and demoralized students.
As human beings, and especially as civilized people living in a free society, we desperately need to find quick fixes. We need to identify the root of the evil at hand, address it, implement a solution and then move on, secure in the knowledge that our job is done, and in this case, that our kids are now safe and life can return to normal.
And so, we find the lowest-hanging fruit (gun control), we pluck it from its cozy nest, and then hold it up as the great elixir that will cure the madness. We suffer from a uniquely American malady — that every problem is easily solvable if we just throw enough resources or enough money or create enough laws to regulate it or eliminate it. If only it were that simple.
I am not an NRA apologist. I have never owned any type of firearm and probably never would.
From an ownership perspective, I have no agenda and no stake in the outcome of the great debate that has raged for decades and now is about to fire up both sides anew, filling conservative and liberal alike with fresh vitriol. And so I say, ban the guns tomorrow.
Take all the firearms you can find and all the ammunition you can confiscate out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, gang members, criminals, wife beaters and madmen. Be done with it. To be sure, lives would be saved and crimes of passion and opportunity might drop significantly.
Illusion of safety
But, please, please, don’t imagine that you can now sleep soundly tonight secure in the knowledge that there will be no more Columbines, Virginia Techs or Sandy Hooks.
The deadliest mass murder in a U.S. school occurred not in 1997 or 2007, but more than 85 years ago in Bath, Mich. And, the only gunshot came after 38 kids, ages 7-11, and two teachers were already dead.
This small but growing subset of psychotics, that now adds the name Lanza to that of Harris, Klebold and Cho to its infamous list, won’t be stopped simply because you take away their obvious weapon of choice.
How can we as rational people seriously believe that a deranged lunatic so unhinged that he is unable to feel pain, obsessed with destruction, willing to give up his own life without a moment’s hesitation in an effort to destroy as many innocents as possible, will suddenly self-heal his fractured mind and stand down simply because the means he first chose to accomplish his twisted goal is no longer legally available to him?
Driving the manufacturing and sale of munitions deep underground will create a thriving multimillion-dollar black market where the same kinds of people who cook meth in a clandestine lab will produce firepower of all kinds imaginable to be sold at a hefty price to anyone with enough money to close the deal.
I am equally certain that profiteers in every rogue country looking to make a quick buck will begin smuggling in as many guns and AK-47s as needed to satisfy the appetites of every gang member, militia man, paramilitary quack, doomsday prepper, and every Adam Lanza out there. And be assured that there will be no background checks, no paperwork, and no signatures required.
Perhaps the solution is to look deep into our national psyche, deep into our national soul, and deep into ourselves to determine what has happened in the waning days of the 20th century and now into the 21st that has allowed an ever-growing impersonal and isolated society to spawn such pure and virtually unstoppable evil.
Frank J. Ciervo lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.