At an early stage of my career as a clinical therapist, I spent two years working with some of the country’s most violent children. These were children ages 10 through 14 who had been sent to a residential program because they could not be managed at home. One of the physically smallest boys in the program was one of the most dangerous. Most of the time he used his feet, teeth, and fists as weapons, but would use anything he could get his hands on to express his rage. His internal pain and confusion seemed to fuel a strength and intensity that I still remember vividly, decades later.
The children in this program did not choose to be so disturbed. And though they each had a diagnosis and we could often “explain” the wounds and causes of their psychological afflictions, why was an illusive question. Why this child in the family and not that one? Why this behavioral manifestation and not another? The program engaged in research to help illuminate why.
Of course, protecting the children from themselves and others was our first duty. Keeping scissors, sharp objects, and other potential weapons away from them was part of the treatment plan. Vigilance and protection was the staff’s responsibility. Trying to answer why these kids did what they did could not distract us from being attentive to their safety and ours.
I am reminded of this as commentators, legislators, and friends all ask why Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and eight adults in Sandy Hook. For me “why he did it” is a secondary question—one we may or may not answer over time. The urgent question is why are we not keeping weapons fit for war and law enforcement out of the hands of children who have not been identified as dangerous. (Though chronologically 20, Lanza’s actions were developmentally closer to the childish impulses of a 12 year old.)
I was lucky—the kids I worked with were plain to see and had been placed in treatment. But most bullies are undiagnosed; children who are depressed and angry may be viewed as “different” but are invisible until they demand our attention in the most terrifying ways. We have made access to dangerous weapons so easy that we practically invite them to play out their horrifying fantasies and their most dangerous impulses in the public arena. We fail children by not protecting them from themselves.
I am not an anti-gun fanatic. I grew up in a family of hunters. But my father didn’t bag a buck with an assault rifle. None of the hunters in the family felt a yen for an automatic. And the guns that were in the house were not accesible to my brothers and me. I do not think the solution to mass murder lies just in regulation of guns and ammunitions. But it’s at least part of the solution to a complex problem.
As one member of my staff (also a dad) observed, “You don’t hear a lot of reports about kids lobbing grenades into schools.” Grenades are harder (though not impossible) to get your hands on. “Why,” he wanted to know, “is it so easy to get access to endless rounds of ammunition and guns that were built for war?”
Regulating ammunition and passing laws against the proliferation of assault weapons is the equivalent of keeping knives and scissors from dangerous kids in treatment centers. As caring adults who profess concern for the well being of the next generation, our obligation is to limit access to weapons. I don’t need a gun to protect myself nearly as much as I need ways to protect children. I hope this is a moment when we will transcend the disease of polarization plaguing the country to come together and make some common-sense changes to our gun culture. (For clear thinking on the connection between freedom, gun control and culture, I recommend Firmin Debrabander’s piece in the NYT, “The Freedom of an Armed Society“).
And while we’re putting weapons out of the reach of children, we need to make access to help easier for troubled children. We’ve cut art programs and guidance counselor positions. Testing trumps the teaching of emotional intelligence. And as we reduce after-school programs and resources for kids, drops-out and social bullies channel their energy and their visions in all manner of socially destructive ways. By not investing in the most important asset this country has, our next generation, we put ourselves, our kids, and our future at risk.
There are a number of pending bills that could help us protect kids from themselves and from harming others. If you want to make a difference in the face of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, check out the two below. There are many more. Search the internet for “firearms legislation” to see if there is something you can get behind. Check to see what your legislators are supporting. And while you’re at it, think about what you can do—with your time, talent, and your philanthropic dollars to identify and serve the Adam Lanzas who live in every community. It’s a start.
The Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act: Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy has introduced legislation that (1) reinstates the law as it existed prior to September 2004 and (2) would make the assault weapon and high-capacity magazine ban permanent, and also significantly strengthens current law. Her bill would expand the definition of “assault weapon” to include post-ban “copy cat” weapons, which closes a loophole allowing kits to be sold to modify legal weapons into assault weapons, and enhances the tracing of assault weapons, among other things.
Legislation permitting access to certain information in the Firearms Trace System database. This legislation would repeal the “Tiahrt amendment” that has restricted the ability of local governments to learn the source of firearms that have been used in their communities.