A way to think about responses to school shootings

by Curt Bentley

Another year has come, and another school shooting.

17 children and teachers gone, each one a precious son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother, friend or neighbor.  Every parent, upon hearing the news of another shooting, feels a pain in their heart for another’s loss of their child, while, at the same time, guilt over the relief they feel that it didn’t happen to his or her own son or daughter.

Unless it did.

Or, heaven forbid, until it does.  There but for the grace of God go I . . . and you.

I don’t have anything profound to say, and I certainly don’t pretend to have answers.

The standard “debate” is in full swing already, and, almost assuredly, just like in the aftermath of every other shooting, the potent mix of hot gospel and cold steel* will foment endless and hurtful conflict without resolution.

Until it doesn’t.

Because at some point, all this will change, and my assumptions will be wrong.

And that is why, even though I’m hesitant to write anything on this subject, I’ve decided to put up this post.

Even though I’m not sure that it will do anything at all except create a platform for argument, which is what passes for discussion these days (and, maybe, if I’m more honest, in all days).

And, I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to argue for a side unless it’s the side of change.  Because I think almost all of us can agree that something needs to change.  Until it does, these shootings will continue to happen.

As I try to work through my own opinions on this matter, I found it helpful to set up a framework of how to look at possible responses.  And I’m talking any response.  Mental health.  Media coverage.  Video games.  Gun control.  Maybe it will be helpful to others wondering how to begin assessing potential reactions and prompt some reflection.  I think that’s about the best we can hope for.

It starts with a clear understanding of the cost of choosing the status quo: Continued school shootings.  On this point, there should be no debate.  We now have 20 years of history since Columbine.

Next, ask yourself this question when considering any proposed response: “Is the continued death of children in school shootings a price I’m willing to pay for freedom from the restriction created by the proposed response?”

If the answer to that question is yes, then you’re done, and based on your own principles, you should oppose the response you’re considering.

But–and this is, I think, very important–I suspect there are very few of us who honestly feel that way.  Phrase this question another way: “Is the death of my child in a school shooting a price I’m willing to pay for freedom from the restriction created by the proposed response?”

Now, don’t stop reading here.  I’m not suggesting that if you don’t want your child to die you have to support every proposed response or be a hypocrite.

But what I AM suggesting is that, if your answer to this first question is no, then your support or opposition to the proposed response should not be rooted in ideology or dogma, but should be rooted in practical considerations about effectiveness and consequences.

I can’t stress this enough.  Because I feel like the “debate” over appropriate responses is so mired in ideology that it is hopelessly moribund, caught forever in swamps of fuzzy argument and reflexive opposition.

If you’re not a “these shootings are the price of freedom person,” then you’re a “practical considerations person” and you should consider asking yourself a few additional questions,** such as:

  • Do I think the proposed response is likely to be effective?
  • Do I think there are other alternatives, less restrictive of liberty, that could be as effective or more effective?
  • Do those other alternatives have a more or less reasonable chance of being enacted than the response I’m considering?
  • If there’s likely to be a delay in bringing about my preferred response, what’s the opportunity cost in lost lives?
  • What are likely to be the unforeseen consequences of the response?

Ask and answer those questions honestly.  Don’t be a slave to ideology — the ideology of either side — once you’ve already rejected it as your guiding principle.

I think this is the beginning of being able to move forward.

I am usually of the mind that it is quite dangerous to assume that something is so bad you can never make it worse.  It is something akin to an article of faith with me that you can always make things worse — and that the worst results are very often brought about by those who think, “It doesn’t matter what we do as long as we DO SOMETHING!”  American constitutional government was set up to be frustratingly and consistently center-right, to change at a snail’s pace, if at all, and it has generally served us well.

Nevertheless, sometimes, things must change.

I’m not advocating rushing out and mindlessly supporting the first solution proposed.  I’m not trying to convert you to a side.

I think most of us can agree that the status quo is unacceptable and that freedom doesn’t require that these school shootings continue like they have.  And that conscious realization frees us from the confines of our own ideological biases and allows for the possibility of finding common ground in solutions.

Those are nice words, but even that is not easy.  It may never happen.  I’m not blind to the realities.  But I do think it’s possible, so long as people believe it is possible.

I agree with former-President Obama when he says that we are not powerless.

If this is too lukewarm for you, I’m sorry.  Rest assured that I have my own strong feelings.  But it will do no good for me to slam your viewpoint or boost your ego.

My hope is that this will just prompt honest reflection, in myself, and in you.

The way you know that people are serious about solving a problem is they set aside their own preferred outcomes in the interest of moving things forward.  Until I see that happen, I’ll mourn with those that mourn and wait for the next time, hoping and praying that it doesn’t happen to me.

* Borrowed from Sir Winston Churchill, from The New World (The History of the English-speaking People (Vol. 2).

** Note that I’m putting aside constitutional questions here, assuming that a response can always include a constitutional amendment, and be evaluated under the framework set out.

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