Guns: The Illusion of Control
The Control Myth
As heinous as the events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School were a few weeks ago, the "national conversation" that was sparked again concerning gun control has a fatal flaw. I am in favor of stricter gun controls, despite being from a family of gun owners and hunters, but I do not believe they will achieve what we want them to. In the wake of the killing of twenty young children, it is entirely understandable that we would want to do everything we can to make sure it never happens again. The problem is it won't work.
I'm not even going to address the popular arguments about killers finding a way to get guns regardless of the law, or black market availability, or innocent people finding it more difficult to defend themselves. I am for new gun control initiatives. But I think we go forward believing that, if we enact and enforce the right laws, we can eliminate the risk of anything like the slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut from ever happening again. We can't eliminate the risk, though. We may be able to reduce it, but, ultimately, we do not have control. We will be here again, grieving another tragedy, scrambling to do something to make us feel like we do have control, but It will be an illusion, just as it is now..
Random Acts of Violence
The killers responsible for many of the recent tragedies in our country were people who lived just beneath the radar until they acted in violence. They may have been considered to be different, even branded as outcasts. They may have been in trouble at school or work, but there was nothing that would have led anyone to believe that they were capable of such violence. There was nothing that could be identified that would have made it possible to stop them before they killed. Nothing. In recent years there have been around a dozen mass murders, each perpetrated by a lone gunman or maybe two. Maybe a couple dozen individuals in total out of a population of over 300,000,000 people. Is it reasonable for us to think that we could prevent these events, considering their relative rarity? Probably not. We cannot eliminate the risk when the events are so random. Of course, if we can save the life of even one person, whatever we do is worth it, isn't it?
Helpless and Afraid
As a mother, I am well acquainted with the illusion that I can eliminate any risk to my children. If I had my way, and could prevent my boys from doing anything or being anywhere that involved risk of any kind, they would just sit and read all day, every day. That way, I could be in control and they would be safe. Anyone who has been a parent long enough, though, learns that control, when it comes to our children, is a fantasy. Some of us hang on to the delusion longer than we should and most of us replace it with a consistent level of fear. It can become debilitating if we let it. So the task, then, becomes not risk control, but rather fear management.
Our country as a whole is experiencing this fear. If a gunman can enter a school building and kill a classroom full of students, then none of us are safe. Some say we should all be armed, that it would cut down on violence and make us feel safer, reducing our fear. There are obvious problems with that solution, just as there are with a plan to make all guns illegal.
So how do we manage the fear that comes from feeling helpless in the face of random violence? Do we pass initiative after initiative to reduce all of those things that involve risk, like I wanted to do as a mother? Do we take action in this way every time a new risk becomes known? How would this effect our lives, our freedom, our communities? And, if we have seen through the illusion anyway, does this really even help reduce our fear?
Managing Our Fear
We could do as the insurance companies do and create complicated systems of risk management that balance risk with reward, but what is an acceptable level of risk when the lives of our loved ones are at stake? We want it to be at zero, and even the insurance companies know this isn't possible. We can do some things to manage and reduce risk and we should. But our real challenge will be learning how to live in a world where random acts of violence are a fact of life, without becoming debilitated. We may not have much control over risk, but we can take steps to manage our fear.
First, we must acknowledge that we do not have control over the world around us and that we can't avoid or prevent all dangers and threats. Realize that acknowledging this will result in feelings of helplessness and fear. This is critical for us as individuals, communities, and a nation, and our leaders should model this and guide us.
Second, we must learn about the real threats around us and separate them from partial truths taken to ridiculous conclusions. See the chart below for the most recent statistics showing the lifetime probability of dying from various causes. Keep in mind that the stated chance of death from assault by firearm includes suicides and urban gang homicides. The real probability of being killed in a mass shooting is almost too low to calculate. If possible we should try to avoid media messages of extreme fear rhetoric and fear-mongering. If we can understand the real threats to our health and lives, we can make decisions about ways to control them. Some of the most likely causes of death are controllable and our time is better spent on these rather than on random events we cannot control.
Third, we must familiarize ourselves with the resources available to us designed to insure our safety and hold those in charge of them accountable. From school boards and local law enforcement to state and national leaders, we need to let them know our expectations concerning the protection of our families and communities from random violence. We should also expect them to speak to the public truthfully about real threats and ways to counter them, without hyperbolizing or using fear as a political tool.
Fourth, we must learn techniques to let go of our fears over things we cannot control. These include private practices such as relaxation, meditation, and prayer as well as community activities such as volunteering, charity, worship, and dialogue.
We cannot totally eliminate fear from our lives, but we can reduce it significantly. The more we can identify real threats and adopt specific ways to cope with them, the less negatively our fears will effect our lives, both as individuals and as a nation.
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as (you) did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that (you) will make all things right
If I surrender to (your) will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with (you)
Forever and ever in the next.
Wisdom To Know the Difference
Perhaps the Serenity Prayer, above, written by Reinhold Neibuhr who penned it sometime between the first World War and the second, is relevant to us still. Even for those who do not believe in God, the message of acting when it will make a positive difference and acceptance when it won't still has resonance for us.
Here is one action we can take that really will make a difference, that will help our children be safer and ease our minds. Have your children and grandchildren watch this video and pass it along to any other families you know. The repeated refrain, "STOP! DON'T TOUCH! LEAVE THE AREA! TELL AN ADULT!" is one kids remember.