To the grieving families of Aurora, Colorado:
What happened in that movie theater a week ago, the anguish of losing loved ones in such a swift and horrible way, watching the injured suffer and survivors grieve, is wrenching. Like so many across the nation, I am grieving with you. I cannot imagine your anguish right now. And surely your anger too.
I lost my father to a gunshot eighteen years ago. One never forgets those immediate feelings of stunned grief. The world has been turned on its head; its axis irrevocably bent. Anger rushes our bodies with adrenaline, then mutes and dies away. You are grieving now. Grief is largely private. It will not end next week, next month, not even next year or a decade from now. But it will soften, and it will change. Your daily lives will return to something like normal. You will be sad again, you will be angry again. What can you do with that anger?
Sales of guns in Colorado went up after last Friday’s tragedy in Aurora. This is one approach to anger, even more so to fear. A gun feels powerful. It is powerful. Look what the accused, James Eagan Holmes, accomplished with a gun in a darkened theater, its inhabitants relaxed and at leisure. A gun changed that, and much more, in an instant.
The gun had help: a man. Without the gun, without the man, this particular tragedy would not have occurred.
What next? Let me explain, by telling a short story of violence and depression.
I live in New York City, where guns are no friend. I have lived in Britain where many police officers, let alone citizens, do not carry guns. And, as I mentioned, my father suffered from a fatal shot, to his head. That was in Indiana, with a gun purchased in Indiana or Texas, both states with lax requirements. I support more advanced gun regulation. But stricter screening and registration would not likely have saved my father’s life. The shooter had no prior record and was an upstanding citizen. The shooter was my father. Guns are an ally of suicide and of homicide. How rapidly life is snuffed. The aftermath for survivors is gruesome. You know.
My father suffered from major depression, perhaps bi-polar disorder, probably for his entire adult life. This went unacknowledged, largely unnamed. Little public dialogue then existed. He died in 1994, before the incredible expansion of information and its access, via the internet. He was afraid to seek help, thinking it would change or weaken him. No help arrived unasked. His doctor abetted him in thinking things would improve. I would not describe my father as a violent man. He was an intellectual. He was a professor. But I know of two instances in which he pointed a gun at an intimate. I have written this elsewhere, and yet this remains extraordinarily difficult to say. It seems unreal. And indeed it exists, like his suicide, outside of daily lived reality. As does last Friday’s shooting, incredibly real though it is.
You may think I have digressed too much. I have gotten away from my point. You are grieving. You deserve our sympathy, our prayers. You are angry too, or soon will be. What of that anger? Should you go buy a gun? Should you seek the death penalty for the shooter? You might feel better. I don’t know. But I think you will not, and you will have done nothing to prevent future tragedies, just as in the aftermath of Virginia Tech and Columbine and Tucson. You will have retreated from the problem that injured and killed innocent children and women and men on July 20th. This would be understandable, the attempt to retreat from pain. But what could you—not alone; you and so many others—do instead? Two things with meaning.
One, advocate for improved mental health supports in this country, better awareness on the part of individual citizens and better structures to support early diagnosis and assistance of minds in trouble. While yet knowing little about James Holmes, I fully believe that a combination of psychological and pharmacological help in earlier months, even weeks or days, could have changed last Friday’s outcome. He was troubled, the details still scant; and he wanted to be known. In caring about the senseless violence inflicted on Aurora’s victims, we have to care about James Holmes. Who was there to see James Holmes withdraw, not only from school, but from the conventions of normal life? Who watched and might have cared? At minimum, there are professors and university administrators, students and employees, who could have participated in intervening. I am not blaming them, now, in full hindsight. But the reason to look back now, on what did not happen and what did not work, is in order to look forward. We need greater public awareness—not blame and censure, but knowledge—and fuller support for psychological assistance. Schools and universities are one place to start. Individuals as well as institutions share a responsibility. Not through guilt, but through compassion.
Two, we need stricter regulation of guns. This is the second most powerful thing we can learn from James Holmes. Who needs to purchase four guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition within a four-month period? This is not Syria. We are not a nation teetering on the brink of government over-throw; nor should we think of ourselves as such. There is no legitimate reason for most citizens to own a firearm. (Here one could make an exception for hunting and farm life, fine.) Guns kill family members more often than they serve as meaningful defense. Guns are powerful. We feel more powerful having one. Look at the decimation a gun’s bullet wreaks on the human skull, and think about whether this is a power we need to support. Registration should be stricter. In addition, a central database could focus on tracking the frequency of gun purchases, and, just as significantly, quantity of ammunition, and issue an automatic alert if purchases were considered high. This need not infringe on, nor drastically curtail, the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. James Eagan Holmes’ purchases, and the tightness of their time-frame, should have set off alarms. Somebody should have been paying attention.
Ask yourself why neither presidential candidate will take on this issue, giving us platitudes instead. Yes, we can learn from grief. We can increase our capacity for empathy; we can learn of inner strength. At the same time, we can commence a meaningful national dialogue on gun ownership and on mental illness.
I can point to two emerging leaders on these issues, each from different vantage points: one, a New York City mayor and financier, the other, an investigative reporter and writer. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Dave Cullen (author of Columbine) have both spoken out in thoughtful, meaning-filled ways. I wish their voices would be heard and that others would join them.
I wish your voices, those of you who will forever remember the anguish of those gunshots, the carnage and loss after, I wish your voices would rise and proclaim how we might learn from loss. I think of you, your pain; I think of that gunman and what could possibly send him, a promising student, down this path; and I remember my father. I think of how we do not know the depths of the inner lives of those around us; the pain. I cannot say: That man could have been my father. I can say: My father was the victim of depression and a gun. How suddenly life changes, for those gone and for those who remain to mourn and remember. What can be done in their name? Not vengeance; not the urge to violence stemming from fear. Introspection, assistance, attention—before disaster and before loss. Look back, not in order to stagnate, but in order to remember. In order to make sense from the senseless, in order to look forward.
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Interesting references and information…
- Dave Cullen, NYT Opinion, “Don’t Jump to Conclusions About the Killer,” 7/22/12: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/22/opinion/sunday/the-unknown-why-in-the-aurora-killings.html
- NPR Interview, “What Makes a Shooter Snap?”: Dr. Carl Bell & Dave Cullen w/ Michel Martin on “Tell Me More,” 7/23/12: http://www.npr.org/2012/07/23/157232725/what-makes-a-shooter-snap
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (call center): http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
- Nicholas Kristof, “Safe From Fire, but Not Guns,” NYT, 7/25/12: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/26/opinion/kristof-safe-from-fire-but-not-gone.html?_r=1&hp
- Jack Healy, “Suspect Bought Large Stockpile of Rounds Online,” NYT, 7/22/12: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/us/online-ammunition-sales-highlighted-by-aurora-shootings.html?pagewanted=all
- Scott Anderson, “Greg Ousley Is Sorry for Killing His Parents. Is That Enough?” NYT Magazine, 7/22/12: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/22/magazine/greg-ousley-is-sorry-for-killing-his-parents-is-that-enough.html?ref=magazine
- Michael Bloomberg, “After Aurora and daily violence on city streets, gun control cannot wait,” Op-Ed, NY Daily Mail, 7/25/12: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/aurora-daily-violence-city-streets-gun-control-wait-article-1.1121153