Readings: Of Guns and Children

People walk past a memorial site following Jessica Rekos' funeral Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 18. Photo: CNS.


If good can come out of evil, then it has done so with the transformation of President Barack Obama from the sealed-lips on gun control to the saddened eulogist at Sunday’s memorial service in Newtown, Conn., for the 27 victims, mostly grade-school children slaughtered by a gun-wielding 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who had also just killed his own mother.


“We can’t accept events like this as routine,” Obama said, although he and most Americans have been accepting them as routine for years. While we have consoled the survivors and offered our prayers, as a people we have accepted the killings, in the sense that we have not risen up and demanded that they stop. Rather, the nation seems to have lived with recent massacres—in far-away locales like Virginia Tech, Columbine High school, and Aurora, Colorado — the way we live with tornadoes, shipwrecks and the bombing of cities in Gaza as sad bulletins on the evening TV news, not as something we are obliged to do something about.

Nevertheless, since Friday’s story first broke, multiple voices, now including Obama’s, have cried out “Enough!” “Are we really prepared to say we are powerless in the face of such carnage?” Obama asked on Sunday. “That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” Yet, that is exactly what we have been saying.

Yes, there are studies that indicate that the public, including many gun owners, has been open to a variety of gun-control suggestions; but the National Rifle Association, with additional funding from the gun manufacturers, has taken an absolutist position, even leading to recent state laws allowing gun owners to tote their weapons virtually everywhere—church, shopping malls, theaters, parks—as if they were appendages of the human body. Now that it is even suggested that the school teachers should have been armed, the next logical step is to arm the students so they can protect themselves.  Newtown is peppered with numerous unlicensed private firing ranges which make the neighborhoods sound like machine-gun battles; a recent fad is to load targets with an explosive called Tannerite, which detonates when hit, a big BANG sending shockwaves through the area. Indeed Adam Lanza’s mother was an enthusiastic gun collector, until he aimed one of them at her head. Will the slaughter of the town’s children make them reconsider their attachment?

Doug Kmiec, the Catholic law professor whom Obama made an ambassador, writes in the Huffington Post that he lost a family member 20 years ago by handgun violence in a Chicago book shop, and that no NRA bumper sticker stating that it is people who kill people satisfies his loss. We have become a nation of killers, he says, and have justified it with a false conception of freedom. Film, TV and video game violence, abortion and capital punishment have cheapened life. Add two long wars and the drone strategy that has killed innocent thousands.

Kmiec excoriates Justice Scalia’s opinion in Dictrict of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 as the basis of the “false freedom to justify the unjustifiable.” The reasons given for gun ownership in the Second Amendment are no longer relevant: militias no longer exist to fight off invading armies, suppress insurrections, become a large standing army or resist tyranny. Today’s gun in the house is often used to kill and family member, sexual rival or an intruder who could have been chased out or otherwise overpowered.

As a result of our loose gun policies, the rate of deaths from firearms in the United States is eight times higher than any developed country; the deaths of U.S. children under 15 is 12 times higher than in 25 other industrialized countries; more preschoolers are killed in any year than law enforcement officers in the line of duty; and the United States has the highest rate of youth suicides and homicides among the 25 wealthiest countries. The lesson is clear: more guns equals more murders.

Clearly the emotional reaction to the Newtown murders is broader and deeper than other tragedies because the victims are little children and their teachers. It is more natural to feel the horror of the event. But now we come to the second idea of Obama’s key sentence: Are we willing to accept the deaths of our children to satisfy the wide desire to own guns? If Obama uses all his God-given gifts to reasonably disarm America, he deserves the enthusiastic public support of every religious person, especially those in authority with access to the pulpit and the media, who consider themselves pro-life. The question is clear: What do Americans value more? Our guns or our children?

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Mary Louise Hartman
6 years 3 months ago
Yes, yes, where are those in Catholic authority publicly speaking out about our culture of gun based violence? Today's NY Times reports a coalition of religious leaders in Washington meeting to discuss this. No Catholic presence was noted. This is a prolife issue and yet they remain silent. Where is Timothy Dolan, Francis George and my own bishop on this horrendous situation? 24 people have been killed in the capital city of my state, Trenton New Jersey in the past 12 months. This is intolerable.
Jim McCrea
6 years 3 months ago
Unless the subject matter is the Unholy Trinity of abortion, contraception or same-sex marriage, these "Princes of the Church," ... you know, the successors of the apostles ... won't work up a sweat. How very prudential of them.
Christopher Staeheli
6 years 3 months ago
Another Troubled Mind (My Own): A Dominican Nun and Jesuit Educated Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Shares His Struggles with Guns, Mental Illness, Politicians, and Bishops It appears we have our answer on addressing assault weapon access in any meaningful way: there will be none. The Democrats are completely scattered with 5 different US Senators with 5 different bills to be introduced in the 113th Congress next year. All of the Republic leaders have developed sudden selective mutism. There is no comment from John Boehner, Speaker of the House and third in line to the Presidency. His 2nd in command, Eric Kantor, who loves the camera, also absent. Nothing from the Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Six weeks ago Romney could have been our President elect, no comment from him. Where are John McCain and Lindsey Graham who threw daily tantrums in front of the media over the 4 dead adults at Benghazi? They too are absent. The Republicans and the NRA have calculated the emotion following the Sandy Hook school shooting, and momentum for change too, will disappear in a few weeks. With no committed Republicans, especially in the Republican controlled House of Representatives, there will be no meaningful action. I am tired of the words "conversation" and "meaningful dialogue" that seem to be the popular lingo on this since last Friday’s shooting. "Restoring Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting: Tips for Parents and Professionals," this is the title of the pre-prepared handout I received by email when I arrived at work Monday morning. I must have missed this in Residency training and it was not on my Board exams. I wonder how I got by without it. How did my Mom raise 8 kids without guidance on how to talk to us about mass shootings? I guess I will now have to have this plasticized and place it with my CPR instructions and Earthquake Safety Response guides for quick access. Is this where we are, so ready to respond intellectually to mass shootings but so unwilling or unable to do anything to prevent them? Yesterday, I also received an email sent out to an email listserv of Psychiatrists, from a Psychiatrist, a father of 9 children, with numerous Internet links provided to mass killings from every country going back to the mid 1800's. His comment was: we need to keep a "historical perspective." I was a bit unclear on his point, so I asked him if his point is that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, or was it to create a sense of "learned helplessness?" He responded that it was the latter and that he feels we all need to have "realistic expectations" and accept that these mass killings have always, and will always, occur. He stated that in his work with soldiers he believes that creating in them realistic expectations reduces the psychological traumatic reaction to combat. Boy, is this sobering, parents should have “realistic expectations” that their 6 year old might be gunned down at school in a mass shooting, then their psychological traumatic reaction will be less severe. So in this Psychiatrist's (father of 9) opinion we should be in the tranquil state of "learned helplessness." As I understand it "Learned helplessness" comes from studies on rats placed on a float in a tub of water and they try to get out of the tub by swimming and they try and try but can't and eventually they will stop swimming and just stay on the float. Are we to accept that we are helpless about trying to prevent these mass shootings? Not long ago I sat across from a mother who has 23 guns in her home and I informed her that her 15 year old son (a bright, talented, athletic kid) planned to kill himself with one of the guns and he knew where the bullets and gun cabinet keys were kept and also how he could break into the cabinet. When I discussed a plan to prevent his access to the guns her response was "my guns are my friends and I am not removing my friends from my home." Yesterday, another mother of a young soldier expressed concern about his PTSD and anger issues and his drinking and his refusal to go to Mental Health. When I asked her if he had easy access to guns, her very first response was to bring up Friday's shooting and she used the words " I am very afraid that the antigun people will use this to take away our guns." She was not immediately "afraid" that her angry, troubled, excessively drinking, soldier son might use one of the many guns he had access to, to harm himself. Legislation will not alter these attitudes. Over the past 2 years every boy from age 8 to 17, except one, that I have needed to admit to a hospital, has been hospitalized over addiction to violent video games. They all were playing many hours everyday, failing in school, getting up in the middle of the night to play then threatening the parents, and having violent outbursts if the parents placed any limits on them. The anger in their eyes in my office as I discussed the need to eliminate the games was nothing short of frightening. Over the past several months I guess I have seen the natural progression of this video game addiction disease: from an 8 year old whose school counselor contacted me because he was fascinated with death and war and talked of killing people and was having angry rages in school; then there is the 11 year old repeatedly threatening suicide and attempting to jump out of a moving car, becoming suicidal at summer camp because they had no video games; more recently a 14 year old playing violent video games up to 5 hours daily on school days, more on weekends, texting suicidal threats because his parents limited his video games due to failing grades, currently refusing to go to school because of denied access to video games. This last boy had such dark circles under his eyes and such seething anger when I first met him that his affect is burned into my memory. I can say this, they all are doing dramatically better at this time, but I cannot predict the final outcome for them. I do not know whether depression lead to video game addiction or the reverse, but I suspect violent video game exposure for some does something to the Serotonin level in the brain leading to depression and obsessive behavior. I think we need to think about it this way, most people who get a flu virus will not die but if we have an epidemic of the flu virus some vulnerable individuals will. Violent video games in young boys are like a flu virus epidemic, some individuals are vulnerable to getting very mentally sick from them. Perhaps I am writing this because I am jaded. Over the past few weeks I have dealt with a very suicidal, nearly 17 year old, adolescent who refuses voluntary hospitalization. In my State, since he is over age 12 (at age 13 here they have total control to refuse mental health treatment), under our law here, a Psychiatrist cannot involuntarily commit him to a hospital. So I see him but I must call the "County Designated Mental Health Professional" (CDMHP) to evaluate him for "imminent risk" to harm himself or others or "gravely disability" from his mental illness, then there is the final step of determining if "the least restrictive alternative" has been tried. Night after night the CDMHP determines that he is actively suicidal but not "imminent" and determines he is "gravely disabled" but determines the "least restrictive" alternative is that he see me or his Psychologist every day. I have no openings, I am not a hospital and not an Emergency room, so I add him in at the end of every workday. Every day he is still suicidal and has some plan he will not disclose and his agreement with the CDMHP is only for 1 day. Each day I have to go through the same routine. I do wish that talking to me was always an immediate cure, but it is not. I do wish medication I might prescribe always worked or always worked immediately, but it does not. Thankfully the parents have the ability, and eventually make the decision, to travel across a border to another State with more rational understanding of an adolescent's ability to decide things for themselves and, again thankfully, their insurance covers. Perhaps I am writing this because last Thursday, the day before this mass shooting of first graders, teachers, a Psychologist, and a principal, I attended an elementary school meeting (something I rarely have time to do) at a school that was a twin, in my mind, to Sandy HooK Elementary School. I walked through the double set of doors (no buzzer) dressed in a black coat. I found the meeting room down on the right and I sat with the Principal, the classroom teacher, the school counselor, the mother and grandmother around a small table. I was there to discuss an 8-year-old boy with an obsession with violence and very negative talk about himself, struggling in school and with violent rages having to be frequently removed from the classroom. I had been in frequent communication with the school because the situation was so challenging for them and because follow through by mother and grandmother with appointments with me and counseling was not happening. A miracle had happened, sometime in the previous 3 weeks, there had been an amazing turnaround. He was happy and had not had any rages in 3 weeks and was getting all of his schoolwork done and was happy about his work and even did a great class presentation. I will apologize to the media here, yes I put him on medication for both depression and AD/HD and he finally had been getting it consistently for about 4 weeks. It turned out the mother and grandmother had not been giving the medication because of what they read in the media about these medications, but they were not admitting this to the school or to me. The admission came when I called the grandmother 4 weeks before, after a frustrated conference call to me from the school counselor and principal telling me he was still having rages every day. I expressed my concern to the grandmother about not showing up for appointments and not seeing his non-school counselor and my concerns that perhaps the medication was making him worse. After that call and fully discussing what she read about antidepressants and AD/HD medications, she agreed to consistently give them. At the meeting I learned he was doing extremely well. The schoolteacher was nothing short of exuberant about him. The Grandmother grabbed my hands and thanked me and apologized for not giving the medications sooner. As the Principal aptly said, "it takes a village." Without the dedicated involvement of the principal and the teacher and school counselor this change in course for this boy would not have occurred. I need this “village” and so do we. Of course I cannot predict the long-term outcome for him but for the moment I am relieved. So I left that school meeting without a feeling of "learned helplessness." I left upbeat after a challenging few weeks. The next few days I watched the news with an eerie feeling knowing I had been in a similar setting the day before the shooting. I saw the diagrams of the school meeting at Sandy Hook, the meeting interrupted by the shooter with the principal and school Psychologist rushing from that meeting to confront the shooter. The Sandy Hook principal and psychologist are "the village." They would not accept "learned helplessness." They would not stop swimming, and neither should we! Six weeks ago many Catholics heard letters from Bishops required to be read from our pulpits before the election. These Bishop letters implied that certain issues could not be compromised on and that if we voted a certain way it was a sin. The Sunday following the election many Catholics were told from the pulpit that if they had voted for any democrat they were not to receive Communion without going to Confession first. This Sunday there was no letter read from my Bishop from the pulpit on so many guns being in our homes. The sermon Sunday advised us to trust that God will console us but I heard nothing about trusting that God will protect us. There was no guidance from my Bishop that we should place God in our homes to protect us and trust in God to provide protection and not place guns in our homes and not place trust in guns to protect us. 20 first graders lives were snuffed out and the Catholic Church needs to lead on protecting these lives as well. I heard this morning on the show "Morning Joe" from Joe Scarborough that he called all of the top Republican leaders to discuss meaningful legislation on reducing access to assault weapons and he said he heard over and over the word "ambivalent" from them. The Republican leaders remain "ambivalent." The rats were never “ambivalent” from the get go! At least the rats tried to swim before they gave up. These rats cannot even decide to jump into the water and try. So lots here. We are not helpless. Parents can really think about the risk of violent video games and the long hours boys are spending on them. Mental health hospitalization can be more about establishing effective treatment instead of just about safety from “imminent risk.” The attitude about guns being more important friends than our neighbors and children can change. We, the people can step up with "high expectations" that something can be done and leave the “realistic expectations” for those rats that give up swimming and stay on the float. Our Churches can realize that Christ was not a one issue foot soldier and our Political leaders and Church leaders can stop fearing the NRA. We can and must require more than "ambivalence" from the Republican leadership. We can help the rats get out of the water but they do have to swim to the edge of the tub. Nancy Pelosi did say she has effective legislation on Assault Weapons ready to go that could be voted on now by the 112th Congress. It will take a village to get change. Hopefully some of you can be part of that village. Chris Staeheli
ed gleason
6 years 3 months ago
Cris Staeheli.. has many many good points. My wish is that some skilled lawyer sue the millionaire Lannzas' father and Mother's estate for 30 million dollars for allowing such guns in a home with a disturbed son. Convince 9 out of 12 jurors.. That would be. enough to put him in a rundown SRO in the Bronx.. That will send the national message we need. ..


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