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Guest column: Time to change the reality on mass shootings

Guest column: Time to change the reality on mass shootings

Join us in seeking reasonable gun regulations
Guest column: Time to change the reality on mass shootings
Students leave after classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 28, 2018.
Photographer: Saul Martinez/The New York Times

Around this time of year, churches drape black cloth symbolically over crosses, serving as a reminder of the death of Jesus.

The black cloth is later removed, sometimes replaced with white, to remember the resurrection on Easter morning.

This year, at our church, we hung 17 black ribbons on a tree in the front of our property.

They won't be coming down at Easter, and they won't be replaced with white ribbons later.

These 17 ribbons are acknowledgements of the 17 lives lost in the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.  They help us remember 3 teachers and 14 school children who should be alive today. They keep us from forgetting or becoming complacent.

Mass shootings are such a regular part of life in the United States that it is tempting to think of them as “normal,” but they are not normal.

Mass murder is not normal, and it cannot be allowed to become normalized.  We can't as a society prevent the mass murder of our school children unless we are willing to tackle the problem of mass shootings in our society.

We hear a lot of arguments about how to best change our society so that this doesn't happen anymore.  In fact, social media seems to be filled with such arguments, and they seem to strike deep at some core identity issues among us.

For instance, some think that the problem is guns while others think it is mental illness; some are concerned about toxic masculinity and others about lack of security measures at schools.  Other countries are using troll accounts to try to deepen the divide in our nation, at exactly the time our nation needs to be coming together to create change, not passing the blame.

Other countries don't have mass shootings at the same rates we do.

Such shootings are far more common in our society, both proportionally and in total. Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American, according to a 2015 study by Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama. That means that this problem is solvable.

The fact that other countries have fewer mass shootings means that our mass shooting problem is not primarily due to people struggling with mental health. According to a 2015 analysis of 235 mass killings by Dr. Michael H. Stone, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, 22 percent of the perpetrators could be considered mentally ill; 78 percent were not.

Criminalizing persons who struggle with mental health will not prevent mass shootings.

It does further harm to those who suffer with mental illness though, and we need to stop putting blame where it does not belong.

Mass shootings are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men and boys. Overwhelmingly. As Michael Ian Black recently wrote in the New York Times, the outdated model of defining masculinity by strength, aggression, competitiveness, and by having power over others has failed us.

While women have undergone a 50-year odyssey of redefining feminism and what it means to be a woman in today’s world, we have not done a similar redefinition of masculinity and how to be a man in today’s world.

We don’t teach boys and men to experience the full range of human emotion, and we don’t prepare them for a world where we increasingly recognize that defining masculinity by aggression and power over others, especially women, often leads to causing harm to others.

We too often don’t teach boys and men how to navigate this world; instead, we just thrust them out into it, and while a majority are able to figure it out along the way, others are left with feelings of withdrawal and rage, and a minority of those will turn to violent expressions of those feelings. We have to do better, and we have to be willing to talk about it with each other.

The various states in our country have different gun laws, and those laws allow us to see the impact in society of regulations.  What they show us is that gun regulations can be very effective.  We're also able to see by peer reviewed scientific measure that more guns do not make people safer.  Reasonable gun regulations do.  Furthermore, Americans know this.  As a whole, we strongly support basic gun regulations.

A February 20th, 2018, Quinnipiac University poll showed that 67 percent of Americans support a ban on assault weapons, 97 percent support universal background checks, and 83 percent support mandatory waiting periods.

The most common argument we hear against reasonable gun regulations comes back to the Second Amendment, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

The primary purposes for the Second Amendment when it was ratified in 1791 are commonly thought to include the organization of a militia, participating in law enforcement, deterring tyrannical government, repelling invasion, suppressing insurrection including slave revolts, and facilitating a natural right to self-defense.

Today, the U.S. military performs the functions of militias and repelling invasions.  Law enforcement officers are provided with service weapons.

The abhorrent institution of slavery is no longer legalized.

Furthermore, in a world in which no other military force on earth, much less any personal arms arsenals, can stand directly against the force of the U.S. military, the best way we have to keep our government from turning our military against us is through the strength of our democratic institutions, including exercising our right to vote.

Only the natural right to self-defense remains relevant in today’s world, and the Supreme Court has established that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is not unlimited, and it does not prohibit all regulations of firearms.

More importantly, as a society we are ready to stop people from accessing guns designed solely for mass murder.  An assault rifle is not a hunting rifle used in deer hunting, nor is it a pistol used in personal protection. Guns designed to shoot large amounts of ammunition quickly from a significant range exist to kill people, and to do so efficiently on a mass scale.

And they do.

And many, many of our citizens are dead.  This time, once again, there are schoolchildren and their teachers among the dead.

We have black ribbons tied to trees to help us remember.  We have black ribbons tied to trees so that we remember to be part of changing our society from what it is to what it should be.  

The young survivors in Parkland, Fla., have invited us to “March for Our Lives” on March 24.

There are marches in Washington, D.C., New York City and Albany, to name a few.

We'll be marching, we hope to see you there. (MarchForOurLives.com or #marchforourlives)  March for Our Lives is a student-led movement, and we will support their work and their requests.  They're unwilling to let things remain as they are, and we're grateful for their leadership.

In the meantime, we hope you will join us in requesting from our federal government reasonable gun regulations:

  • Require and enforce universal background checks and mandatory waiting periods on all gun sales.
  • Institute a clear ban on all future sales, transfer, importation and manufacture of military-style semi-automatic weapons, high-capacity ammunition magazines and high-impact ammunition, except for the use of military and law enforcement agencies.
  • Ban the importation and manufacture of full-auto conversion kits, such as bump stocks, that convert semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic weapons. 
  • Make gun trafficking a Federal crime, increase penalties for those who engage in "straw purchases" of firearms for ineligible persons, make serial numbers harder to remove, and adopt microstamping of cartridges so that they can be traced to the gun that fired them, which is useful for solving crimes.
  • Prohibit persons from purchasing guns without evidence of gun safety training and require safe storage of guns in order to reduce theft, suicide, and accidents by children.
  • Prohibit the purchase or possession of guns by those with a domestic violence protection order or a history of domestic violence.
  • Impose an age limit of 21 on gun purchases. This is already the law for handgun purchases in many states and it mirrors the law on buying alcohol.
  • Invest in research to see what interventions will be more effective in reducing gun deaths, so we can base our policies on robust evidence.

Those 17 lives represented by the black ribbons haunt us.  Even more so, we are haunted by the knowledge that before they are removed, more will need to be added.

We invite you to join us in changing this reality.  

Rev. Sara E. Baron is pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Schenectady and Kevin M. Nelson is home missioner and chair of the Intersectional Justice Committee at First United Methodist Church of Schenectady.

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