Sandy Hook, guns, the mentally ill and control

December 15, 2012

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I heard and saw the word helpless more times than I can count yesterday. As the number of slain children increased and the information on exactly what happened in Newtown, Connecticut continued to change, we sat helpless. Losing all confidence in the goodness of humanity is terribly uncomfortable, but it’s the way this feels, at least while it is unfolding before our eyes–on TV and Twitter and through Facebook links to the latest news.

Oh. So it was Adam, not Ryan. Oh, his mother was a teacher there? Oh. He shot her there? WHY? Oh. No. He shot her at home…then WHY go to the school?

All of this uncertainty forces so much insecurity. And while we’re feeling distraught and helpless, we try to think out loud with one another, to gain some semblance of control.

Gun control. Control over the mentally ill. Control over violence in our media and entertainment. Control.

So we argue on sides of these things because we have no control and if we can be right than at least we can feel some false sense of it. The reality is that we have no control no matter how many controls we put on guns or the mentally ill or violence in media and entertainment.

But I still want these things regulated as much as possible and I’m not apologizing for that.

We won’t ever fully understand what Adam was thinking, not about this or any other thing in all his short twenty years. He was a broken person and we won’t even get to know why he was so broken. Sometimes there is no answer. Sometimes it just is. I worked with people struggling with mental illness for eight years pre-motherhood. I was a case manager and sometimes I would try really hard, after meeting a genuinely loving mother and father, to think my way through how their child had become someone labeled with anti-social personality disorder or some other psychosis that leads to violent behavior. Who created this monster? (The monster is the illness, never the person. The person is stolen by the beast of mental illness.)

We blame. We look for control, when we are shocked into being reminded of our desperate need for change.

My last day in social work was about eight years ago. Even back then, the system was crumbling to such an extent that there was a feeling of impending doom over the community of social workers who were living every day, sometimes 10-12 hours a day, striving to tame the beast. To love and care for the unlovable. To prevent tragedy. To reduce the number of expensive tax-payer paid hospital stays. To keep the truly dangerous off the streets. To provide education to families. To manage medications. To help us all. The money was being pulled from the programs and we watched in horror because we knew best how much those programs were needed.

Not every family that needs help with a mentally ill member seeks that help, but if the right community programs are in place, there is a better chance that they will.

Not every gun in the hands of a human being is going to be used to kill people, I realize, but can we consider the possibility that if it had been even slightly more difficult for Adam Lanza (or his mother) to get semi-automatic weapons, the situation may have been different? Even slightly for the better, at this point, is worth it.


I picked Miles up from school yesterday and did just as so many of you did. I hugged him like he’d been on a stranded anchor-less boat on the Pacific for a year. He had to push me away when it got awkward. Then I took him to the frozen yogurt bar and let him pile all kinds of rot-your-teeth candy on his cake flavored yogurt. I asked him if he heard anything unusual at school and he said no, but that he had told two of his friends about hearing once that a boy accidentally shot a friend in the head with an arrow. Yeah. People need to be really really careful with any kind of weapons, huh buddy? Yup, he said, while taking a big bit of yogurt covered in sour patch kids. (True story.)

In line behind us and then at the next table, was a mother with her two kids, around the ages of 7 and 9. She was perfectly coifed, at least in comparison to my no-make-up-jeans-and-hat look. She was never off her cell phone, the entire time they were there. Her kids sat quietly eating their treats, staring at her and listening to her loud public side of the conversation. She seemed to not realize they were there. She seemed to not realize she wasn’t in the privacy of her home or vehicle. She complained and gossiped endlessly about having to do a lot of work for her kid’s school. She was talking about a Christmas program and how she’s the only one doing a thing and so and so is not this and so and so is distracted by (fill in dramatic story that is no one’s business). She announced loudly that (actual name of school) needed to hire people to do this grunt work, if only they were a “real school.” She was referring to a local private Christian school. Then suddenly, she barked at her kids, “let’s go!” and I watched them walk out to their expensive SUV, little quiet ducks following their complaining mother, still on her phone.

I tell you this because thank GOD, friends. Thank God we are hurting with the families in Connecticut. Thank God that we’re discussing things like gun control and mental illness. Thank God we’re holding our children tightly and staring at them while they sleep. Thank God we can see beyond ourselves. Because I am choosing to believe that most of us are.

Seeing beyond ourselves and our views and our experiences is a start. It is where hope lives.

It would be easy to say that this isn’t about guns, that nothing can stop a madman. It would be easy to say that no amount of services and education on mental illness could have stopped this particular un-caged beast. It is easier to stand stubborn in our convictions on the sides of these issues. The reality is that most of us haven’t truly done all the digging we can into the research, the reality, the facts. Yet both sides of all issues feel strongly in their feet staying fully planted on their side.

There is always a middle place. Stepping toward it means laying down some pride and maybe even some money, to allow tax increases, to therefore increase the opportunity for education and services. And maybe it means jumping through even more hoops for your guns, because whether or not you think it’s already a difficult process, in countries where the regulations are stricter, there are fewer gun-related murders. And even if you think it’s difficult enough and you don’t want to see any changes, Adam Lanza used semi-automatic weapons–rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-rapid fire. His mother had  purchased guns capable of firing off rounds so fast, no one had a chance. He had two of them and one more in the car. Please consider that if the regulations for what type of guns can be purchased could change, rapid-fire weapons would not be found to purchase aside from the black market. And even if there was a black market explosion, at the very least, that means it wouldn’t be so easy. So legal.

People like Adam Lanza, because of their illness, don’t feel for others, obviously. Something is missing  in them, the source of empathy and sympathy. Neighbors and acquaintances have reported Adam was isolative and strange, an awkward loner who rarely came out of the house. Most likely, his eccentricities were also very obvious to those closest to him. But in our fear we refrain from assuming the worst, no matter how heavy the messages we are receiving. And when the stigma on mental illness and the lack of understanding still exists, we are truly as helpless as we feel. So now we say, “if only”. If only Adam’s parents had known more about what was happening and why and if only they had known where to go for help. If only Adam wasn’t able to so easily get his hands on these powerful weapons.

Having a rifle for hunting or a pistol for self protection from a stalker or the abusive boyfriend, I get. But I don’t understand the need for guns that shoot off rounds of bullets fast enough to take out numerous six year olds along with others all at once, in seconds.

If you cannot meet me in the middle, that’s fine. I hope enough people can try. That we can have productive conversations about change because there have been more massive murders in the last seven years than ever before in our country. Maybe the media sensationalizes gun violence, but maybe we need to consider that before the media interviews small traumatized children (which I cannot stand) or chases the mother or father in grief down the street (which I hate), something happened that brought them there. Not just something, but something absolutely horrifying.

If you don’t agree, can we agree on this? Can we set aside fear and listen to that inner voice that is there for a reason? Can we pay attention to the possibility that even our own children may need help with their mental health, and that’s okay. It is so much better than this, as uncomfortable as it may be.

Can we put down our phones in lines and at tables with our children? Can we allow them to witness our love for them by looking them in the eye and listening about their day. Can we watch our entitled selfish behavior and words in front of them? Can we show them how to put others first? Can we live a life of service that they one day begin to emulate? Can we help them to become helpers?

If we refuse to do nothing else but to fight for some illusion of control by stubbornly demanding our side be heard, we are allowing the irrevocably broken-minded Adam Lanzas of the world to have the power they so desire, and everyone loses.  I doubt that’s what the families of these children and slain adults want us doing with our time–just fighting. On Facebook. To be right.

Hope begins with serving them. We have little control, but we can start by serving them with rational and productive grown-up conversation about change. We can start by joining together exactly one week from this incident, this coming Friday, to pray/send loving thoughts. We will come together from everywhere, for five minutes of heart and soul expression sent with love to the victims who remain. Please “like” Virtual Prayer Vigil on Facebook for updates and reminders. 



Some resources for truly understanding the issues around this tragedy:

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
Gun Control statistics
 Mass shootings in America
A mathematical argument for gun control
Argument against gun control

(these are resources for consideration. I am not standing behind any certain link. I sincerely hope that I am the middle, the only place we come together for change.)

(this post was slightly edited from its original version as the story’s facts changed.)



Erin December 15, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I guess I just think . . . whatever your stance on gun control . . . posting it all over facebook when the story is still breaking on the news and there are mothers just learning that their precious child is just gone . . . that’s wrong. And I’m not criticizing you, Heather, at all, because for one thing you didn’t post this yesterday, and for another thing, you never make me feel judged even when we disagree. But so many of my friends on FB have turned this whole thing into a debate on gun control and a couple of them have even posted about abortion and honestly it makes me SICK that we swoop in on someone’s tragedy and turn it into an opportunity to spout off our own political venom.

I just see God’s call to us to be the body of Christ– His broken hands, His feet, His very voice– and I see us using our hands and voices to get all political instead of to reach out and help, and it makes me sick. Seriously.

And I don’t even know where I’m going with this, because I’m not sure it has anything at all to do with what you posted here, but it’s in my heart and my gut and how can we wonder why people just hear us say “waa waa waa” like the teacher on Charlie Brown when every time we have an opportunity to show love we instead jump onto our little soapbox and preach?

We live in a world that is sick with our own sin, and we can point fingers at gun control activists and gun rights activists and abortionists and judges who remove the ten commandments from schools and the President and parents and teachers and the senate and whoever the heck we want, but the truth is that deep in our hearts lies this scourge of sin and the only thing that can fix it is Jesus. That’s it. Just Him.

OK. Talk about a soapbox. My heart hurts so much today.
Erin recently posted..Hands

Heather December 15, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I so understand the need to just think out loud. I think that’s what people are doing, even if it’s not helpful right now. I too think that battling it out on topics in a non-productive way is disrespectful to these families. But it’s probably just plain inevitable and maybe slightly necessary because before we know it, people won’t even be talking about this–back to the daily grind and forgetting. Sad, but just human nature.

I keep trying to think of something productive to do for these families. I don’t want to spout my opinions and do nothing. I really don’t. I don’t want to forget either.


Kristen Howerton December 15, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Your words are so measured and compassionate and reasonable and, in my opinion, impossible to refute. Thank you.

Teresa C December 15, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I agree with you and I can’t say it as well as you did, so I’ll just say thank you.

Shannon December 15, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Well said, Heather.
I am feeling so much today. I have so many thoughts. I’m trying to channel it all into love for the people of Newtown. I hope they can all feel the love today, coming from us all.
Shannon recently posted..My love flies east today.

Sarah December 16, 2012 at 12:26 am

This was so well said, however, as a child of a man who had mental illnesses I take heed at naming this Adam cruel words. Is it his fault that he was born with this severe illness? It is terrible, all of it, it is terrible for Adam, his family, the shooting victims family, the whole thing is beyond words terrible. I just know, as a child of a man who killed himself (no others thank God) that mental illness is real, it is uncontrollable for many and beyond our society fixing it we need to also understand that there is no blanket statement of understanding. I am sure that Adam himself never understood, I know after years of reading journals and asking extended family that my father never understood. I of course do not know Adam, what I do know is that we take this act and try to figure out how to make it so that it wont’ happen to us…that is impossible, there were no perfect clues, there was no way to make sure everybody was perfectly safe. The violent horrific act is terrible. From here I have no answers, but I know nothing ever comes of blind anger or pointing fingers, but maybe just maybe things can change. An increase in mental illness funding, help in finding better ways to manage gun restrictions, something – right?! Again I have no answers, my heart just breaks for all the people that are affected by this. All.

Heather December 16, 2012 at 8:49 am

Sarah, I’m so sorry you’ve endured what you have. It wasn’t at all my intention to call Adam names. What I was trying to say is that the mental illness is the monster. The beast. The evil that takes over a person’s mind despite their loving family, etc. it cannot be fully understood or stopped. That’s why I said we really don’t have a way to control this “beast”. The beast that caused Adam to do something like this. Mental illness steals and destroys. I am not referring to all the clients I worked with as beasts, but I’m recognizing that there can certainly be monsters within us that we can’t explain and the results can be devastating. This was then a plea for people to be as educated as possible. For funding to increase so we can have at least a better chance of treating mental illness. I’m sorry if this came across in a way that hurt you. I’m describing this with strong language just as I do with addiction. It takes over a person and hurts them and others through them. So I call it what is. I hope that makes sense.


Jenny December 16, 2012 at 6:28 pm

I hope that we can meet in the middle and start meaningful discussion. I struggle with anxiety, and I struggled with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety. What we need as a society is connection to our children, to ourselves and to our neighbors. If we truly see everyone as our neighbor, then we can meet in the middle.
Jenny recently posted..Faith through the eyes of a child

HopefulLeigh December 16, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Thank you for this, Heather. I didn’t realize we had social work in common. I worked in residential care, hospice, and pediatric oncology/hematology and came across my fair share of mentally ill individuals. The lack of resources available is sobering and I know it’s only gotten worse in recent years. With every cut, I shake my head and wonder how long before we’ll feel the effects in ways the lawmakers seem unable to see. There are no easy answers but I want us to find them because I don’t want these situations to become common.
HopefulLeigh recently posted..Fundamorphosis reflection and review

Katherine Willis Pershey December 16, 2012 at 10:14 pm

Thank you.

I confess that I have narrowly focused on the gun control issue. I know it is so complicated. The mental health piece is huge, and just the violent, nihilistic culture as a whole. But I just keep thinking, take the guns out of the equation and we would be so much better off.

You held all these things in tension, where they belong.

Oh, how it stings.
Katherine Willis Pershey recently posted..Something to Ponder

Jamie December 17, 2012 at 10:02 am

Thank you.

Fortunately, none of my five children suffer with mental illness. However, I was diagnosed with Postpartum Depression in 2010. I have experienced things I didnt think were possible. Things I had no control over. Words I had no control over. Feelings I had no control over.

Yes, this was a terrible tragedy. However, who are we to be angry with Adam? He had no control. Helpless. All we can do is pray for all families involved. (Adam’s included.)

Thank you for your words.

Jen December 17, 2012 at 11:26 am

I have no solutions. I have grief and God. I have no answers, but I know that my love, and my thoughtful listening is what I can do. Thank you, Heather.
Jen recently posted..The Touch

Gianna December 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm

What makes me upset is that people are hurting. We all are hurting.
And instead of hurting for them.
The fight is taken up about guns. yet. again.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have this discussion. What I’m saying is that when someone’s child is shot and alot of someones’ children, maybe the first thing you say shouldn’t be, “NOW can we talk about gun control?”
Heather, you have a huge point and I’m thinking that I don’t know enough about our gun laws to be a voice about this. To argue or to agree.
Gianna recently posted..Sandy Hook’s Sadness

Katherine Stone (@postpartumprog) December 17, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Thank you for this Heather. It always disappoints me, and even hurts me, when something like this happens and people want to talk about guns but not the potential underlying cause that could lead someone to use a gun in this way.

On the issue of guns, I do believe people have the right to own guns. I don’t think, however, anyone needs a semi-automatic for personal/home defense or hunting.

On the issue of mental health, I’m so glad you’re writing about this. We don’t know exactly what Adam was struggling with, but the reports that he was self-harming and reclusive are certainly an indication that something was very wrong. Knowing how few services there are in this country, I worry that his mother tried to find him the right help but may not have been able to get it.

Anyway, thank you for writing about this whole thing in the way that you did.
Katherine Stone (@postpartumprog) recently posted..When Postpartum Depression Leads To Divorce

Jennifer December 17, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Thank you, Heather for sharing your feelings. I agree with you on some points, especially the ones about how we should be saying Thank God we are hurting from this, we are talking about gun control and we are opening up about mental illness. It truly is the start of change. I am very hopeful that we’re going to see change soon, and I’m going to stand up and do my part to help. Because like my priest said yesterday, together we can force change. I am continuously praying for the precious lives taken too soon, for their families and the first responders. I cannot imagine what they are going through. I pray that in time they will find peace. God Bless Newtown.
Jennifer recently posted..My reflections on the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary

Lisa May 17, 2013 at 11:36 am

Already in agreement about gun control, I appreciate the social worker perspective. Mostly I wanted to let you know I appreciate you writing this post, and I have not forgotten this tragedy at all. Far from it. I currently have tears in my eyes just from reading this article and I feel it is imperative the discussion does not end until our country does something to prevent this tragedy from happening again.

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