Not a John Wayne movie

For the second time in recent history on this blog, I am going to weigh in on a hot button political issue. In fact, I’m weighing in on the same hot button issue. I will try not to make this a habit, for those of you who avoid politics like the plague or who disagree vehemently with me and find this spoils the rest of the content for you. I promise, a nice Christmas/New Year’s post is coming.

But for now, I find I have something to say that I’m not hearing in other places. As I discussed in my earlier post, public discourse on the issue of gun violence is at a place of complete inanity. Lobby interests and political agendas are so deeply imbedded that we as a nation appear unable to seek real solutions. It is discouraging beyond belief to the many of us caught in the middle, who simply don’t want to live with a pervasive fear that we or someone we love might die by gun violence in what should be a safe place.

In that context, I’m going to address the argument that seems most common among those who disagree with any attempt to regulate access to guns. I commented on this thought from a friend on Facebook today, and I want to say up front that I approach this subject with respect for those who hold this view. I want to engage in thoughtful conversation, not shouted arguments. We get more than enough of that elsewhere.

Here’s the thought I hear so commonly expressed: “Criminals don’t care what the law says about guns. They will get guns any way they can. Gun regulation only affects law-abiding citizens who are attempting to protect themselves and their families. We keep making more hoops for good people to jump through while criminals continue to arm themselves illegally. Then we ban weapons in public places, which means people who follow the rules are guaranteed to be unarmed when the criminals ignore the rules, as they always do.”

I get this. There is logic in the argument. But I think it’s based on a misunderstanding – or at least an oversimplification – of human nature. This line of thinking assumes one very problematic fact: That there is clear delineation between “good guys” and “bad guys,” and everyone is one or the other. Life simply doesn’t work that way.

Let me explain. Take, for example, the law passed in Tennessee a while back that allows patrons to carry firearms into bars. The result is that bar customers are now armed in an environment where they are guaranteed to have impaired judgement and lowered inhibitions. Why would we do this? Even the most law-abiding citizens can make terrible, life-ending mistakes.

What happens when a previously law-abiding employee at a local business faces a series of extremely stressful events and, in a moment of extreme distress, suffers a mental break while also having access to a deadly weapon? Here in Nashville a few years back, a video from a high school student made local news when a teacher had some kind of breakdown and started screaming and throwing things, including a desk.

My friends, this world is not populated by “good people” and “bad people.” It’s populated by a few really evil people, a lot more with a record of really bad decisions, and even more imperfect, everyday people who, given the right set of circumstances, can make really terrible mistakes. We know we want to try to keep guns out of the hands of the first two groups, but what about that third group, which almost certainly includes you and me?

Law-abiding citizens do have a right to defend themselves. But how do we also deal with the reality that so often, having deadly weapons on hand dramatically increases the likelihood that inevitable problem situations will turn deadly?

These issues are not simple. I don’t write all this to beat anyone over the head. Instead, I hope to provoke thought and start conversations that allow for nuance and complexity. Let’s stop demonizing and oversimplifying. We are not extras in a John Wayne movie. We are complicated people living in very messy times. Once we start dealing with that reality, we will already be much further down the road to a solution.

Let this be the final straw

Fellow Americans, we need to talk.

It’s happened again. Yesterday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California was the 352nd in the U.S. in 2015. There have been more mass shootings than there have been days so far this year. This time, a public health facility that serves people with intellectual disabilities was targeted, for reasons that will never make any sense.

But here’s the thing: We are all culpable. This keeps happening, and we keep having the same ridiculous, entrenched arguments that incapacitate our nation and leave the door wide open for more senseless violence.

The public conversation is the same every time: It’s a gun control problem. No, it’s a mental health care problem. Politicians and the media line up to take a position on one side or the other. Everyone has a favorite hobby horse and a favorite line of defense. We hash and re-hash the same, tired debate and wonder why this keeps happening.

We can blame the media. We can blame politicians. But ultimately, we are to blame. We the people allow this to happen. We align with a particular political agenda and fall in step behind the rhetoric. We allow complex issues to be oversimplified into easily-packaged 60-second segments. We quickly regurgitate lines and arguments that resonate.

I am a fairly informed and intelligent citizen, but I don’t understand why this keeps happening. My guess is you don’t, either. I don’t think any of us really have a handle on what this disease is that’s eating away at the soul of our culture, stealing the lives of far too many innocent people.

Let’s stop pretending we have the answers. Let’s stop jumping on political bandwagons, shouting the same old lines at each other. Let’s have a discussion that acknowledges the truth: This is a complex problem that’s pretty unlikely to have one simple solution. Yes, we clearly are facing a mental health crisis, with no apparent idea how to address it. Let’s also admit that extremely deadly weapons are regularly ending up in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, costing an unacceptable price in lives lost.

Let’s demand funding for research on gun violence so we have information instead of endless opinion. (See this article on why the CDC is not currently conducting that research.) Let’s fund serious mental health research and talk to serious people about practical solutions. Let’s acknowledge that solving this problem will likely cost money, and that we all have to have a part in that. (Emergency medical care and massive crisis response operations aren’t exactly free.)

I’m honestly not convinced we have the collective will to do this. Our nation is in a terrible place. We don’t seem able to work together to solve problems. We are very attached to our rhetoric and our hobby horses. Which is why I’m making this a very personal appeal: Put down that hobby horse. Step away from the rhetoric. Demand that your public representatives do the same. Let San Bernardino be the final straw. Let this be the event that galvanizes a nation to work together to find real answers.