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Get It Done

by Miriam Axel-Lute on December 20, 2012


The deadliest school violence in this country happened in 1927, when a school board official in Michigan blew up a school building, and his car, killing 38 children and 6 adults.

Leonore Skenazy of the Free Range Kids blog brought this up in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., last Friday in order to point out the difference in our reactions—the rest of the nation didn’t suddenly feel threatened and traumatized and decide schools or the world at large weren’t safe places and their children needed to stay on lockdown.

This was partly due to the slowness of news, she notes, and of travel. One small news story in a newspaper a few days later carries much less emotional weight than a constant stream of real-time TV coverage and reactions on the Internet. And maybe, she argues, that was a good thing.

I usually agree with Skenazy. She spends a lot of time pointing out that crime in general has gone down and the rate of child abductions by strangers both hasn’t changed at all and is vanishingly low, while the costs of our paranoid overprotective reactions to them—obese, dependent children who are scared of strangers—are far too high in proportion to the risk.

She was making the same kinds of points this time, trying to keep us from making that same illogical leap of focusing our fear on dramatic but very rare things because the news cycle makes it feel like they happened to us. She’s kind of right. Your children are still at far more at risk when you put them into a car for a drive to Grandma’s over the holiday than they are in even a completely unguarded school building. We have a terribly skewed sense of risk.

But I part ways with Skenazy when she implies that “nothing”—what changed after the 1927 massacre—might be the better approach here too.

Increased security is not actually the main response being called for to this, and I think that’s an important distinction. I think we may have finally realized that that doesn’t work.

The two calls to action I hear being discussed the most are common sense gun control measures (assault weapons bans, better screening, etc.), and increased access to mental health care. These are the opposite of trying to keep our children in bubbles—they are addressing bigger problems that in fact are not rare at all, and therefore have the potential to have much wider positive ripple effects than reducing the chance of another massacre.

School shootings may be rare, but deaths from guns in this country are not. According to David Hemenway, a Harvard professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, children ages 5 to 14 in the United States are 13 times as likely to be killed with guns as children in other industrialized countries (The New York Times). There were 8,583 murders committed with guns in 2011 (The Guardian). There have been 62 mass shootings in the past 30 years, according to Mother Jones, and vast majority of the killers got their weapons legally.

This can be fixed. Gun control works. Counter to what gun advocates might tell you, fewer guns mean less murder and U.S. states with various stronger gun control measures in effect tend to have fewer deaths from guns than those without. It’s past time for action.

Meanwhile access to mental health care (which must include a much greater understanding of and commitment to addressing trauma and its aftershocks) should be a basic human right, not something we have to justify by its potential to reduce the likelihood of a mass shooting—though it seems likely that it would do that. The vast majority of people in need of mental health care is not and would not be violent. But some would. And even when they are not, people in need of such help who don’t get it suffer mightily—along with those who love them and try to care for them—in myriad ways.

I’m by no means the first to say this, but it is barbaric that we care more about someone’s right to buy semi-automatic weapons than about their right to health care.

If the small-world news saturation of this horrible event makes us paranoid about letting our children leave our sides, that would be another tragedy. But if instead it moves us to act to move our country toward achieving some things we have left undone for too long, maybe that will be better than what happened in 1927.