The Gun Control Debate is Missing the Point

The tragedy in Newtown is a little over three months old, and talk in the wake of that tragedy has largely devolved into the need for more or less guns. The need for better mental health services got some good lip service, but most of the “solutions” I’ve seen passed and proposed offer little more than the duty to warn laws already on the books in most states. Blaming the media and video games got some traction, but that talk seems to have died down as well. This leaves us to grapple with the highly political gun control debate, and turns the loss of those precious lives into another mostly useless red vs. blue debate.

As frustrating as that is, to me it is not the sad part.

To me, the real tragedy surrounding the Newtown killings is that it took a suburban, middle class shooting to wake our country up to the problem we have with violent crime. Everyday young people in our cities and in lower class neighborhoods live with the reality of violent crime, and they are overlooked. Real help for them, and all potential victims, is already being swept under the rug because it’s not as flashy and doesn’t bring in the ratings or the popularity in the polls like the gun control debate.

When I was in grad school, and for about a year after I graduated, I had the privileged of working with youth at a substance abuse clinic just outside of Baltimore City. Think about that for a second, young men form an urban setting in substance abuse treatment.  These are the guys that the news and TV tells us are the bad guys, the perpetrators.  One evening I was in a group session with around a dozen of these young men, when one of them mentioned that a family member had been shot that week. We talked for a while about the incident, and then I asked the question, “How many of you know people who have been a victim of this type of violent crime?” The answer shocked me: All of them. Every one in the room had a close friend or family member who was a victim of violent crime. Many of them had not survived. A few of the guys in the room had even been shot or stabbed themselves, and had the scars to prove it. The shocking part to me was, it was not shocking to them, it was normal.  Loss of life, and fear of death were an every day reality to them in their communities.  This one simple session changed my outlook on those guys and all the future ones who entered my group, they were no longer the perpetrators anymore, they were the victims.

I’ve asked myself a lot over the past few months how we as a society and how I can best prevent violent crime wherever it might be, suburban or urban.  The best answer I can find comes from one of the guys in that group.  After going through the program he was out for a few months, before coming back with another substance abuse charge.  The receptionist asked him if he would mind coming back to my group, and he said he would prefer it, because I “was an adult who cared”.  That has always stuck with me.  Not because I want to stroke my own ego, but because I never felt like I did that much for him.  In fact, before hearing that a large part of me was beating myself up because he was back in treatment, and so clearly I hadn’t done my “job” well.  He, and the rest of the guys in my group didn’t want or need another adult interested in doing their job, they needed an adult who cared.

The perpetrators of these crimes are not the faceless monsters we make them out to be.  They are hurting individuals, most of whom have been the victims themselves long before they become the perpetrators.  They need care, just like the rest of us.  If we want to really stop the violent crimes going on in our country in Newtown or downtown we need to find new ways to care for these guys.  Yes, we need to find ways to make mental health affordable, but for so many of them it is simply having an adult who cares.  We need more big brother and sister programs.  We need more mentorship programs.  We need more adults who are willing to take hurting youth and young adults under their wings and listen and guide them.  We need to stop putting our time, effort and money into debating what to do about guns, and instead put our resources into making sure our churches, our schools, our community groups and ourselves are taking care of those in need.

Just my $.02