17 December 2012

Thoughts on Connecticut

Like so many people, I was horror-struck upon learning of the massacre that took place in a Connecticut elementary school this past Friday.  Any sadness I've experienced and tears I've shed obviously pale in comparison to what those involved have experienced and shed.  As the parent of a third grader and a first grader, I see the names and faces of the slain children and try as hard as I can to not see my own children's faces on such a terrible list.  I could never empathize with those who had lost children before having children of my own.  Not until I could see my own heart and life's focus walking around in my daughters could I even glimpse what those in Connecticut must be going through.

A very busy semester came to a close last Friday and I was planning to write a blog post today dealing with some topic in sports science.  What happened in Connecticut is too fresh in my mind to want to write about anything else.  Strangely enough I had a small sports thought not long after learning of the recent tragedy.  I remembered reading last summer that a special dispensation had to be bestowed for those participating in gun events at the London Summer Olympics.  I then recalled the 1996 Dunblane massacre that moved the UK to enact its firearms act in 1997 (amendment #2).  Living in the UK for nearly a year gave me a different feeling from living in the US.  When my family visited new towns and cities, we never felt that worried about walking around in the evening because we knew people didn't have guns.  Sure, there was a rare article now and then about someone killing a person with a gun.  Sure, there were issues with youths and knives.  But it just felt different knowing that guns weren't everywhere.  I had the same feeling when my wife and I spent a fortnight in Japan.

I mention environments in countries outside my own because on the very same day I learned of the massacre in Connecticut, I read a story (click here) about multiple stabbings in a Chinese primary school.  In that awful event, a man stabbed 22 children, which struck me as so eerily similar to the fact that the number of children killed in Connecticut was 20.  The difference, of course, is that all 22 children stabbed in China are still alive.  They will surely have physical and emotional scars that will haunt them their entire lives.  They were surely traumatized beyond imagination.  But, they are all still alive.

As a scientist, I'm certainly not going to pretend that two isolated events, data points, if you will, suggest sweeping generalizations about different cultures, different laws, different individuals who commit crimes, and so forth.  But, think for a moment about how the ease of access to weaponry that can take a couple dozen lives in a few minutes compares to living in a place where deranged individuals do not have easy access to semi-automatic weaponry.

My views on gun control changed about a decade ago, and probably became crystallized in mind after my first daughter took her first breath.  My wife and I lost our first daughter's twin sister not long before the birth, so I already had a taste of losing what a parent can't fathom losing.  A free society like we enjoy in the US has its share of trade offs, which might be described in terms of risk and reward.  We could end the yearly tens of thousands of auto-related deaths by reducing the speed limit to, say, 20 mph (realistically, cars would have to be machine-limited to 20 mph).  But, our economy would grind to a halt.  Food and medicine would not be transported quickly enough; people's livelihoods and quality of living would suffer.  We accept higher-risk roads for the rapidity of transport and high quality of living.

What is the trade off for having as many guns as citizens?  I love to hunt, and I enjoy firing my hunting rifle at targets.  At one point early in my life, I was a hypocrite who ate meat but scolded hunters.  The enjoyment I get from hunting and firing a rifle is simply that, enjoyment.  What about those who collect firearms?  Is the benefit more than simply enjoyment?  Some people want protection from their guns, but from whom do they imagine their guns protecting them?  Perhaps a single woman afraid of large male attackers is one option, but I suspect most fear other people with guns.  If there were no guns in the US, what would we lose?  Collecting enjoyment?  The fun at a shooting range?  Hunting fun?  Our economy wouldn't grind to a halt if guns disappeared.  We would trade the emotion of enjoyment for the addition of human beings that would have been slain by guns.  Does risk/reward analysis ever allow the former to outweigh the latter?

I am not naive enough to think that a gun-obsessed country like the US could ever get rid of guns.  But, I'll support any effort to scale back what is legal.  It staggers my mind to think of the types of weapons I could possess.  There are those who like bumper-sticker politics and tropes like "Guns don't kill people, people kill people!"  Play that to its most idiotic extreme.  Suppose that everyone had a button on his or her kitchen counter that could launch a missile.  Would we see bumper stickers with "Missiles don't kill people, people kill people!"?  Silly extrapolation, right?  Is it not just a matter of degree?  We don't let people walk around with M60 machine guns because of the enormous number of lives that could be taken by a lunatic.  We don't let people have access to missiles because the number of possible dead would be unthinkable.  But, we let people have access to semi-automatic weapons.  Why?

Some say that talking about gun control on the heels of an awful tragedy is to try for political gain.  I ask, when is it a better time to talk about gun control than after 26 people are shot dead in an elementary school with semi-automatic weapons?  Find me a day on the calendar when a person is not shot dead in the US.  It wasn't Valentine's Day in 2003 when a friend of mine from graduate school was shot dead for having the temerity to talk to the wife of a disturbed person.  Anybody reading this could come up with a day when someone they knew or a friend of a friend was affected by gun violence.  The thought that won't leave my mind right now is wondering what would have happened if the lunatic in Connecticut only had access to a knife.  Reality can never be played out in a parallel universe with a tweak of the parameters, so we'll never know.

I open my book with Roy Campanella's famous quote, "You got to be a man to play baseball for a living, but you got to have a lot of little boy in you, too."  I know from experience how wonderful it is to take childhood joy into my adult career.  To the 20 in Connecticut who were denied that chance, and to the six who devoted their lives to bring out the joy of learning, I hope your deaths will help change the world.

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