Sandy Hook, guns, the mentally ill and control

December 15, 2012

{photo credit}

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.)


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