Life changes in an instant. One moment can be totally disrupted by the next moment, shatter lives forever. We have lived the unthinkable, unfortunately not the unimaginable, here in our community of Parkland. We have suffered a great and deep wound that will take a long time to heal and leave an ugly scar forever. Children and their teachers were ripped away from our lives and we are left as a community to grieve.
My wife and I own a Mom & Pop store. It used to be that these were common in our communities, but modern life has made changes in the way people and commerce interact. We struggle and survive, facing all the buffeting winds of modern retail; but it is a store dedicated to an activity that many girls and boys do, dance. We thus are close to the young ones in our community and are personally devastated that four of the children that have been coming to our place since they were toddlers are among the fatal victims in the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. We are horrified by the stories of our survivors, and of their parents, that tell us about the moments of terror they lived through; by their forcibly rooted shock and trauma. We are part of the grieving community, but the unconceivable pain all the parents of the most affected victims must be going through now is heart breaking. We know and are close to many of these people and are suffering for them and the others which we did not know personally. We can only offer support and hope.
I have been there before, in the aftermath of gun violence, and left wondering why. Why do these things happen, how could such a thing happen? I have come to an answer that helps somewhat: irrational acts cannot be explained rationally. My experience tells me that the pain does not go away, it just remains dormant, a bit dulled, a bit numb, so I cannot tell these friends and neighbors that their pain will pass. I can only comfort them by reminding them that these beautiful children had great lives, that they were loved, and that they gave love back to their families and friends. That they had moments of happiness, that they shared that happiness and that they gave happiness back. That is what must be remembered. That is the best hope for comfort. That is what has comforted me over the years.
Just because the specific act itself is irrational, however, it does not mean that we are powerless. The excuse of mental illness behind such violence upon others probably dates to the disturbed man, whose name I will not mention, that stalked Jodi Foster and shot Ronald Reagan. This pretense of blaming mental illness on gun violence is convenient for the gun industry, as it leaves them blameless. Jim Brady, wounded during the attack on Reagan and now dead because of it, knew better and one of the first anti-gun violence organizations bears his name, not just honoring him but because he and his wife founded it. Action, action is needed.
There are millions of mentally disturbed people living in our country right now. To blame their disability for the act of one deranged person is to slander all these fellow Americans living under a poorly defined and understood spectrum of diseases. To have politicians excuse the violent acts of a few people affecting the lives of so many on mental illness and at the same time limit access to health care and throw the insurance industry into disarray is the epitome of hypocrisy. To have so many Americans unable to work thrown off Medicaid and thus denied treatment for their disability is shameless. The problem is not these few “sick” individuals as the hypocritical political hacks call them. The problem is the guns. The other favorite excuse of these politicians is terrorism. If that were the case, would it not be a good idea to ban sales of weapons of mass murder to terrorists? To limit access to these weapons of potential mass murder? They cannot even agree to do that. There is an answer to this why question, and it has nothing to do with irrationality. It has to do with profits.
There are many people who actually believe that the National Rifle Association is an organization of people trying to protect constitutional rights. The NRA labels itself “the oldest civil rights organization in America.” The NRA leadership has led people to believe that they are something akin to a citizen activist group, simply made up by people that have a fixation on the Second amendment of the constitution. Like the ACLU, for example, has a fixation on the First and Fourteenth amendment. This is not the case.
At some time in the past the NRA was a sporting association dedicated to teaching gun safety and marksmanship. Now it is a representative, a marketing arm, for the manufacturers of guns, bullets and accessories. It is natural for manufacturers to want to sell more of their products, to expand their markets and that is the purpose of the NRA nowadays, not the protection of civil liberties. Their purpose is to create expanded markets for more of their products.
The original purpose of the NRA, teaching gun safety and marksmanship, is understandable and commendable in a society in which gun ownership legally exists. The use of this purpose for pushing product is a distortion. The NRA, for example funded the rifle team at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, where the shooter trained while a student at the school, and of which he proudly wore the shirt during his rampage. Something is wrong here.
The year 2016, while the killer was at MSD, the NRA donated over $10,000 to the team. In Broward County, FL, where MSD is located, three other similar teams received donations. Let us do some preliminary math. There are 3,142 counties or county equivalents in the US. Let us suppose the NRA’s analysts believe that 20% of those are “good markets”, around 625. Let us suppose an average of 1.5 high school or similar teams dedicated to shooting, hunting and marksmanship in these counties; that brings up the total to about 938 teams. At, say, $8,000 a pop, that is $7,500,000. Considering that the annual dues for a regular membership in the NRA is $35 a year and the organization’s claim to have about 5 million members, that’s about $1.50 per member. The numbers used to arrive at this figure are conservative, but let us imagine it is $10 million spent, out of a fee base (if all pay their dues) of $175 million.
There are two way to look at this, neither of which is favorable: 1) The NRA is not spending enough on its basic mission to teach gun safety and marksmanship. 2) If the numbers are lowballed, the NRA is ineffective in its basic mission of teaching gun safety and marksmanship.
The NRA has disclosed their numbers, of course. Upon review, it looks more like the second interpretation would be correct. In 2016, in Florida alone it gave “foundations grants” to the tune of a little more than half a million dollars to a variety of organizations and associations, including governmental as well as schools and universities. The total national spending disclosed for “program services” was $288 million. The total spent in political activities and contributions was close to $61 million (including $30MM to the Trump campaign). The revenue from dues ($164 MM), program fees ($70 MM) and investments ($30 MM) was $264 MM. Where does the rest of the money come from? The answer is contributions. Individual and corporate contributions topped $171 MM, more than the revenues from membership fees. That is the (figurative) smoking gun.
A low number of high amount donors has a greater power over the organization than the large number of low fee paying members. And these high amount donors are closely associated to—if not outright—gun, ammunition and accessory manufacturers. This is what has distorted the original mission of the NRA. Now it is an association more akin to an automobile manufacturers association that to any civil rights organization, but brazenly peddling its product in the guise of defending the constitution. The speech, actions and behaviors of the NRA are misleading, and it has to be called for what it is, so that its members are not exploited as a simple marketing data base.
The NRA is a manufacturers’ association. As such its purpose is to increase the sales and profits of its associated members. Its executive VP earned $5,051,249 in 2015 as his rewards for successfully steering it in the direction of its donors’ interest. The NRA has to desist calling itself a civil rights organization, or be forced to do so by legal means. It is as if the American Petroleum Institute marketed itself as an environmental organization. There is no shame in trying to advance the benefit of members of a manufacturing organization. The counter balance to these efforts is government and civil society. This balancing act is part and parcel of democracy, but the actors are accountable for their representations or misrepresentations.
The purpose of the NRA is to sell more of its donors’ hardware. It has failed in one of its charter purposes and mission: gun safety. It has liability for the deaths in Parkland and should be held accountable. Its contribution to the rifle club to support the use and spread of firearms, instead of to identify and weed out potentially unfit gun owners makes it liable. Many kids in the school were not surprised when the identity of the shooter was revealed. That means that members of the rifle team could have alerted the major organization that represents gun sellers (and a sponsor of the team) to make sure this potential killer had no access to guns, much less assault weapons; that would be the case if the purpose of the NRA were gun safety.
The NRA, despite its charter mission of gun safety and education, has no obvious and clear mechanism to do this. It is more interested in selling bullets and the tools to use these with devastating impact. It is more interested in promoting gun use than in limiting their access only to responsible citizens; regardless of the intended use for that gun. The NRA’s answer to these tragedies is to brashly peddle more guns, the “good guy with a gun” narrative. At MSD there were two patrol cars with officers at the time of the shooting. The unfolding of tragedy has its own uncontrollable dynamics and adding gasoline to a fire will surely not quell it. To push for more guns in the hands of teachers or more armed guards in our schools (“call in the veterans!”) when the teachers have to buy classroom supplies out of their own pockets from their own low pay, when schools are generally underfunded… to ask that the scant school funds be used to increase the profits of gun manufacturers can only be characterized with one word: disgusting.
If further proof were needed that the NRA is a manufacturers’ association, we only need to see the way the rank and file, dues paying member generally feels about gun control. Consistently, basic measures such as background checks for private and gun show sales, or preventing the mentally ill from buying guns are supported by a majority of the association’s members, even its most “conservative.” Consistently the leadership of the NRA has opposed these limitations to gun sales. The leadership, thus, is not looking out for its due paying members concerns, but for its major donors’ interest. This is no longer a sports enthusiast’s association. This is an association whose main interest is to protect and expand the market of its manufacturing financial supporters by any means, including the deceptive practice of calling itself a civil rights organization.
Laws. There is no question absolutely that laws and regulations make a difference. Will they stop all of these tragedies? Of course not. But look at all countries where use and possession is better regulated than in this country. Look at Connecticut, where after Sandy Hook a thorough examination of laws, regulations and practices was put in place and gun deaths decreased. Common sense on this issue is that better control will lead to fewer tragedies or diminish the impact of them. Common sense also tells us that a balanced regulatory framework will not stop all instances. That does not mean that we should give up and let mayhem run rampant. An occasional incident in a place such as Japan or Australia does not change the narrative that better laws protect more people. In the US incidents with guns occur in schools on an average of one every 10 days.
Norway was shocked on July 22, 2011, when a self-proclaimed protector of western values bombed, shot and killed in a rampage that eventually left 77 people dead. In an essay in the New Yorker in 2015 by Karl Ove Knausgaard on this awful event, there is a phrase that has stuck with me: “…the two entities, the unimaginable crime and the man who committed it, (are) irreconcilable.” This is an insight that lawmakers seem to lack. It defines the tragic event as an intersection of a deranged individual and the means to commit a deranged act. Thus, to have effective action an effective two pronged approach comes down to regulating who can get weapons, and how to limit the capacity of anyone to commit the unimaginable crime.
It is undeniable that a mentally unstable person or psychopathic social misfit should not have access to unlimited firepower; or any firepower, for that matter. Better cross record keeping of potential terrorists, blanketing even people with similar names in “no fly lists,” originated in the US after 9/11. A “better safe than sorry” mentality prevailed (and prevails) in the war on terrorism. How come this type of mentality does not seem to be considered as part of a solution to the war against our innocents? There are civil liberties, privacy and protections to consider, of course, but that is what lawyers are there for, why they make the big bucks. Many people stopped at the boarding gate only find out they are on a no fly list at that moment, it is not a publicly available document. There were failures of cross communication in the case of the Parkland shooter that led to his ability to purchase legally seven guns and countless bullets. This is a relatively easy fix, but a fix that needs a willingness from many (including the NRA) to occur.
Out of the studies on the effectiveness of better gun laws a salient point stands out: “clustering” matters. States with stricter gun laws next to each other, such as in the Northeast, have a lower rate of gun deaths. Chicago, next to lax regulation states has a gun death problem. Every time there are big gun shows in neighboring Nevada or Arizona, the gun death rate in California, which normally is low, spikes. This means that a comprehensive national approach is required if effectiveness of the regulations is to be maximized. This means that to effectively limit gun tragedies, a comprehensive federal solution is required, and perhaps some rethinking of the way laws in this field work.
Florida statutes include the “Carlucci Act” since 1987. The intent of the act is that all gun laws be uniform throughout the state and regulated at state level. The so called defenders of the second amendment have used this act to dilute restrictions statewide to peddle more of their wares. Local communities have no control on this very local issue. The act has been used to weaken regulations, instead of strengthening them. In a more responsive representation of the citizens’ will, such an act should not be used against communities and officials trying to protect their neighbors (destitution, a $5,000 fine plus court costs), even taking into account the clustering effect mentioned above. If a community wants to restrict gun ownership, it should be allowed to do so. The Carlucci Act should set the lowest common denominator of restriction, not the upper limit. It is the Governor who interprets the implementation of this act and has said he would use it to avoid increased restrictions. Similar legislation may exist in other states which empowers the manufacturing association, as then it only has to center its marketing efforts in a small number of individuals, the state legislators, whom it will gladly assist in drafting laws and regulations.
After each tragedy, the macabre game that federal politicians play, one side sending thoughts and prayers and the other one rending their robes in the temple calling for more laws they know will never pass is exasperating. Guns are powerful, the working end of a barrel intimidating. That is why against this terrifying power, our communities and citizens ask for help from the power of the government; but government has failed us. Against the power of guns, the power of government, as directed by our current state and federal representatives, has failed. We will have to use the power of democracy against the power of guns. As someone once said “don’t boo, vote!”
And we have to use the power of community.
At the most local level we have the power to make a difference. Many people knew the Parkland shooter, and knew he was troubled. Being a troubled youth does not a killer make, but signals build up and intervention can be a deterrent. I am sure that it has in the past, in countless incidents that have not occurred, that have not been covered because they never happened; a friend, a teacher, a social worker was there when it was needed. We have to be there more when it is needed. We are the closest ones to the stranger among us harboring the potential for inflicting mass tragedy.
This stranger among us in Parkland lived in our community and interacted with us. He called a person I know when his mother died. He was taken in by a family willing to care for him at that time. He was a member of the ROTC and the rifle club at MSD—and perhaps targeted them in his rampage. He worked at a local store two miles from the school and frequented by many, including the victims and their families. He hit on local girls. He was also the one that classmates would joke as the one most likely to shoot up the school. Many have told me they feel guilty they did not do anything, did not see the signals. But what if they had? What could be done without making us the monster, without breaking what America is all about, freedom? This is not an easy question to answer, and social workers and psychiatrists grapple with it and sometimes pass the buck with a sense of shame and a fear of the future. One thing I do know: we are the victims, not the guilty.
The sacred nature we hold for life and of its potential, drives the sociopathic reasoning of these troubled minds. They know how much we care about our fellow human beings and that acting out the way they do they will gain what they believe to be recognition—and a sense of payback for the grievances they hold against their community, be it school, family, workplace or society at large, hurting us where it hurts so much. They act in the belief that they will no longer be ignored. If that is the case, we should find ways not to ignore them in the first place, not to let them slip through the cracks of invisibility and alienation. These are people that live among us. In schools this may lead to social strategies to identify the bullied and isolated ones, to better networking with social services, not automatic age cutoffs or bureaucratic buck passing; to an equivalent of “community policing” in the building hallways. All complicated and perhaps expensive things to do. More complicated and expensive than a funeral.
We have to recognize that the best of strategies, the best of networking, and the best of educating will not be a 100% solution. There is the possibility that the unthinkable will attempt its worst again. This requires planning to improve and harden our school buildings. A cinderblock wall dividing hallways from classrooms could decrease the lethal power of bullets. An automatic lock controlled from the teacher’s desk could avoid having to approach the door; a better reinforced door could be a good idea too. A door window (bullet proof?) that could mirror itself when the door was under code red lock allowing people inside to look out but not people outside to look in is technologically feasible, and better than having a kid volunteer to put up a piece of dark cardboard. Smart video monitoring could allow responders to understand better the situation inside. All this would be a better infrastructure investment to protect American children than building a symbolic wall on the Mexico border.
There is some community self-awareness to build, some measures to take, away from the alienating smart phones and sectarian divisiveness sowed so skillfully by many media and social media pundits and, as it turns out, enemies of America and what this country represents. That does not mean that the victim, our community, should be blamed for the criminal’s action. Some measures can be taken at the grass roots, but the lack of leadership on this is issue is galling.
Guns are not going to go away, and neither are cars. Cars are regulated, policed and controlled, even when the constitution establishes we are free to move around the country. There are age and use restrictions, examinations, state registrations, federal standards, and a police force specialized to enforce all laws related to automobiles, automobile usage and persons authorized how and when to drive. Even so, motor vehicles can be used as weapons of terror, just not often. The standard for regulating guns should not be only “don’t point at me with it.”
We call upon our leaders, political, social and media, to come forward with true, sincere plans and solutions or to simply join in what common sense and American values dictate. We ask you to use your power against the power of the loaded gun. There is a gun problem in America unlike any in the rest of the developed world. What are you going to do about it? Will you support common sense or add fuel to the fire? Will you be blind to the facts, engage in marketing obfuscation? Mass murderers have unwitting accomplices. Do not become one.
|Photo by Jose Moreno on Unsplash|
And here is my take on the Second Amendment: Access and Control.