After prayers, let’s talk about change

Feb 20, 2018 by

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Waking up Feb. 15 to news of yet another school shooting — 17 dead, with more than 50 injured — I could only groan. After all, massacres have become so commonplace in the United States (it’s the eighth school shooting this year, and we’re not even through the first quarter) that they could hardly be called shocking any more.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t find the news jarring and deeply disturbing. I do. But what makes me really boil are the by now well-rehearsed and predictable reactions to each new bloodbath: public expressions of faith in God, followed by heated arguments over gun control, followed by massive spikes in gun sales across the country, followed by a winding-down of the news cycle until — would you believe it? — there’s been another school shooting.

Did you know that according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, there are now more registered firearms in the USA than there are people? True, it’s “only” an estimate, based on manufacturers’ sales, since in many states, privacy laws prohibit the release of ownership data. So knock it down if you like. But please keep reading.

Totals aside, it’s incontrovertible that after mass shootings, gun sales spike. They did after Sandy Hook (the elementary school) and Fort Lauderdale (the night club) and Las Vegas (the open-air concert). And they will this time, too. In fact, they are growing all the time, with NPR recently reporting that twice as many guns were produced in the USA in 2013 (11 million) as were in 2010. In other words, it’s a safe bet that more than a few of the politicians offering up thoughts and prayers after each new shooting are also profiting handsomely from them — if not directly, from a booming firearms industry, then at least indirectly, via the lobbyists representing it.

I’m not against thoughts and prayers. Having raised children in a New York City neighborhood where gunshots were a daily occurrence, and gangs abounded, I know what it means to pray that your child will make it safely home from school — or from the basketball courts, or the subway. And having reported on the Columbine shooting in 1999, I still pray for the still-traumatized families of victims that I got to know at that time.

Despite these personal connections, I find it hard to really imagine the agony of the dying, to fully comprehend the grief of their loved ones, the flashbacks awaiting the first responders, and the nightmares that will haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives. If there was ever a time to come together and pray, it’s now. But prayer alone does not suffice.

In fact, as the New Testament suggests, prayer without works is hypocrisy. Jesus implied the same when he warned his followers against saying, “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace; or “Lord, Lord,” without lifting a finger to alleviate the need around them. So when we’ve said our prayers, let’s start talking about how to change this craziness, and let’s stop being afraid to ask questions. I’ve got a few.

At a time when everyone is (rightly) talking about the opioid crisis that’s sending Americans to emergency rooms and graves by the tens of thousands, what’s so hard about admitting that we’re also hooked on guns?

Why are people so eager to engage in arcane discussions about the ramifications of the Second Amendment, but so unready to acknowledge the rights of those snatched by the cold hand of death in an unexpected hailstorm of bullets?

And why is it that when you ask such questions after a shooting, people will accuse you of “politicizing the issue” or advise you that it’s not the right time to talk about gun control? When is the right time? No one was accused of “politicizing the issue” after terrorists began sneaking onto airplanes a few years back, and the rest of us had to start going through scanners every time we entered an airport.

Clearly, there are other factors involved beside guns. There’s the breakdown of the family; there’s loneliness, isolation, anger, and a dozen other social ills. Some people claim, after each new shooting, that the “real issue” is mental illness. In the case of the lonely, motherless 19-year-old behind this latest massacre, that may have played a role. (Having posted Facebook pictures of animals he killed, and having boasted about becoming a “professional school shooter,” he was widely known to be disturbed. And after selling knives out of his lunchbox and bringing bullets to class, he was barred from carrying his backpack at school and eventually expelled.) But lonely, angry people can’t kill other people with guns unless they have guns. Why did no one take away this young man’s assault rifle?

In some Christian circles, “secular liberalism” — that tired old scapegoat that has supposedly produced all that is wrong in the world — is held up as the chief cause of this. People claim that if America weren’t so “politically correct,” there wouldn’t be school shootings, and that the “only answer” is to “bring God back” into schools. But Columbine High was full of young believers, and several of its victims were active members of the neighborhood’s most vibrant church, West Bowles Community Church. In the case of last week’s shooting, Broward County Schools Supervisor Robert Runcie has stated that he prays every morning that something like this won’t ever happen. He’s surely not alone. Europe is decidedly more secular than the United States (there’s nothing about trusting in God on their coins and bills), and yet it doesn’t see a fraction of the shootings that plague the USA. Why? It’s got nothing to do with God. Very simply, it’s infinitely more difficult to gain access to a gun there.

Why, after a massacre like the one that happened last week, do people claim, with perfectly straight faces, that it’s “not about guns?” If a drunk driver crashes a car, do we say, “It’s not about the alcohol?” Or to return to that other looming social crisis — America’s opioid epidemic — how many people can you find out there arguing that it’s “not about opioids?” Does no one else find this absurd?

Society is so polarized these days that no matter what your stance — whether on guns or marriage or abortion or the death penalty or anything else — it may be dismissed as “political.” But if it’s “political” to proclaim that part of the gospel that calls for turning swords into plowshares and warns those who wield the sword that they will die by it, then count me in. I’m with those politics.

More than a hundred years ago, Mother Jones, a tireless activist who rallied Colorado’s miners to stand up against ruthless coal barons and strike breakers, urged them to “pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.” It’s sound advice for this struggle. By all means, let’s keep praying for an end to the madness. But let’s not settle for condolences or allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep with platitudes about standing together in unity, or stories about heroism and compassion in the aftermath of the bloodshed. America’s corpses are piling up. Seventeen new bodies, most in their prime, demand a more decisive response.

Christopher Zimmerman studied at Goshen College and lives near Berlin, Germany.

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