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POV: After Sandy Hook’s Wake-Up Call, Did We Hit the Snooze Button?

On the school slaughter anniversary, lots of talk but little action

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The first anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tomorrow is a good time to reassess what steps we have taken both to prevent a repeat and to help the community and the country heal. We should use this time to conduct a frank appraisal of what we have done—and what we commit to doing.

As a member of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, which recommended school safety and children’s mental health improvements to Connecticut’s leaders, I participated in an ongoing discussion that already has resulted in some significant legislative changes in that state. But elsewhere in the country, there’s been a striking absence of positive action.

When I responded to the shooting in Newtown, Conn., that first weekend, everyone I spoke to seemed to tell me that this was like no other crisis event. When I asked them why, I was told that this was the first time a shooting involved such young children and occurred in a community largely untouched by violence. Yet this tragedy actually wasn’t the first shooting affecting young children.

In 2006, 10 girls, ranging in age from 6 to 13, were shot execution-style by a gunman who entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. Two of the older girls requested to be shot first so that the other children might be spared, and they were shot first—but the other children were not spared. Half of the children died as a result of their injuries; 3 of them were 7 or 8 years old. There isn’t a place in our country that would be less characterized by gun violence than an Amish schoolhouse. I would never compare one senseless slaughter with another; just because it happened before doesn’t minimize the tragedy when it happens again. But it seemed that many Americans somehow had forgotten about what happened in Nickel Mines. We now know that at least one person had remembered: the shooter at Sandy Hook, who had apparently read about, and identified with, the Nickel Mines killer.

I heard many people refer to Newtown as a wake-up call. But that was what I had heard after the shooting in Nickel Mines, and after countless other acts of school and community violence. I travel a lot for work and have noticed that over the past several years, when I call the hotel operator to ask for a wake-up call, I’m asked if I would like a second call. At first, I would ask why and was routinely told, “Just in case you sleep through the first call.” When did we come to expect to sleep through a wake-up call? When did failing to take even simple, basic action become the expectation?

There is a risk that when unthinkable tragedies occur repeatedly, we stop thinking about them. Ironically, we turn the unthinkable into something that we can think about, but simply choose not to. I remember speaking at one school in a violence-wracked community and having someone in the audience comment that it was normal for children to engage in gun violence—it was normal for children to be in gangs—and normal in this community for children to murder other children. I replied that it is never normal for children to murder other children—only tragically common in this community, perhaps. Once we accept it as normal, then we permit ourselves to stop doing everything in our power to change the status quo. We give ourselves permission to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.

I direct the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, and people often ask how I can work with schools and communities hit by disaster. They wonder how I can sleep at night. Bearing witness to the distress of others can be distressing. But helping them deal with that distress can be gratifying. I sleep better at night because I have at least tried to do something meaningful for those most in need.

There are no simple answers to complex problems. Any action, be it related to gun safety, mental health services, or other contributors to tragedies such as Sandy Hook, isn’t going to prevent other tragedies from ever happening. The reality is that there are many solutions. Rather than attack potential solutions as being simplistic, we should couple such critical thinking with thoughtful, decisive action.

It’s time for each of us to ask if we have personally done everything in our power to make sure something like Newtown doesn’t happen again and/or to take a conscious step to help victims, wherever they live, to deal with adversity and loss. If we can honestly answer yes or commit to acting in the future, we have truly resisted the temptation to hit the snooze button and fall back to sleep. If the answer is no, then I would simply ask, how can you sleep at night?

David J. Schonfeld is pediatrician-in-chief at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia and chair of pediatrics at Drexel University College of Medicine. He also directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. Dr. Schonfeld can be reached at David.Schonfeld@drexelmed.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

9 Comments

9 Comments on POV: After Sandy Hook’s Wake-Up Call, Did We Hit the Snooze Button?

  • Never let a good crisis go to waste on 12.13.2013 at 6:12 am

    No one is choosing not to think about Sandy Hook. The left chose to use it as an excuse to attack the second amendment which in turn alienated the right. The bipartisan solution which is the real common sense solution is obvious but we need to accept the fact that any talk about restricting the second amendment rights of people who love life and desire to protect themselves from lunatics is not an option that can even be on the table. The solution begins with a serious look at the mental health problem. Many people who have used a gun for the wrong reason have also had mental health issues that were not being adequately treated. Throwing drugs (that when improperly used or prescribed can actually increase suicidal ideations) at people and turning them loose on the street is obviously not working. Second, as the gun free zone has proven to be a deranged person’s venue of choice it needs to be abolished (sorry anti gun people but the statistics prove this is a failed policy). Third, we need ensure more people can shoot back when an armed assailant comes calling which means making sure more not less people are properly trained to use a firearm. Very few gun owners object to taking course that improve their skills. Taxes that pay for free clinics to train gun in owners and a nonconfrontational ad campaign promoting gun safety is a fine place to start; talk about laws forcing people to lock up guns just serve to alienate gun owners. If any one of the teachers Lanza had confronted that day had been able to shoot back the carnage could have been averted.

    There was a time in this country when firearms could be bought by anyone (even through the US mail) without a background check. In those days people with mental health issues where locked up rather than running loose on the street. Today we threaten to lock up people for failing to renew a gun license (a victimless crime according to the MA SJC) and turn mental patients loose on the streets. Sadly in our efforts to protect the rights of people with mental health issues we have created a situation that requires laws infringing on the rights of the rest of us. The system was turned upside down by those with good intentions but this has clearly not worked. Time to end the failed feel good policies and restore order to the system.

    • beloved justice on 12.13.2013 at 8:11 am

      While I generally agree that most of the stricter gun laws proposed by the left go far over the line when it comes to infringing upon the second amendment, I do believe in tougher background checks, and your comment just made the case for it. Guns should not be purchased through the mail without a background check, and not every person with a mental health issue should or can be locked up.

      • Never let a good crisis go to waste on 12.13.2013 at 10:07 am

        There is no historical data to support the basis for your argument. The FBI statistics suggest that background checks have done nothing to reduce violent crime. In fact, on the contrary crime when up after 1968 when people stopped being able to purchase guns through the mail. Vermont which allows concealed carry without a permit has the second lowest crime rate in the nation lending further support to this argument. None of the people who committed the three most obscene mass murders were prevented from buying guns due to background checks.

        Finally we are talking about a fundamental right here as ruled by the SCOTUS. Name one other right that requires a background check before it can be exercised? Read Clarence Thomas dissenting argument in the McDonald decision wherein he cites all the references to racism that gave rise to the current background check system and why the second amendment like all other fundamental rights should be protected by the privileges and immunities clause of the fourteenth amendment. If the founders had intended the second amendment to subjected to due process they would have said so.

        There is no case law indicting that states do not have the authority to regulate concealed carry or where a firearm can be legally discharged. No law on the books to date has done anything to stop a criminal from committing a crime. Background checks and gun laws have served only to vilify gun ownership and subject law abiding citizens to violations of their privacy without warrant based on the fundamentally flawed argument that the desire to own a gun is sufficient to make you a suspect and therefore subject to an investigation of your character. Due process is to be reserved for cases wherein there is reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed it cannot logically be applied before the fact to a fundamental right or that right fails to exist.

    • feurykelly on 12.13.2013 at 10:51 am

      Gun control is a complicated issue. The grief and loss of those in Newton CT is not. In memory of the victims and their families – here is our small contribution to the discussion. http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/NPphyykmgHw/
      (sorry about the ads – YouTube is blocked in China)

  • Anne DiNoto on 12.13.2013 at 10:48 am

    Thank you for this POV-and thank you for bearing witness-here’s someone who is doing everything in her power to bring awareness to this issue:
    http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/12/health/mentally-ill-son/

  • kitty on 12.13.2013 at 11:02 am

    Thank you, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” for so succinctly articulating the deep complexities inherent in effectively stemming violence — gun-based or otherwise — in our communities. After years of implementing anti-gun legislation, much of which has now so thoroughly proven to be ineffective or, in the case of gun-free zones, actually increases the likelihood of attacks and victim counts, it is time to look at the problem as one we have exacerbated with well-meaning but wholly misdirected laws.

    We learned that during the Second World War, neither the German Axis nor Japan ever seriously considered an invasion of the United States. Why? Because the freedom of United States citizens to own and carry firearms, coupled with Americans’ high regard for their property rights and determination to protect their way of life, was so well-known and feared that any attempt at on-the-ground invasion was regarded as suicidal.

    We live in times that are characterized by a pervasive culture of violence. We can blame Hollywood, the makers of video games, the media, the alienation of some of the mentally ill who will seek to be recognized by acts of violence, or our human propensity to forget numbing tragedy with the passage of time. Guns are an easy target, because they are inanimate and it’s easier than committing to elect leaders who will find real solutions to the pervasive adoration and glorification of violence that has been allowed to root itself so deeply in our society.

    Dr. Schonfield has made an important contribution to the discussion of what we still need to learn from and do after Sandy Hook.

    • Hmm on 12.13.2013 at 11:47 pm

      “After years of implementing anti-gun legislation, much of which has now so thoroughly proven to be ineffective or, in the case of gun-free zones, actually increases the likelihood of attacks and victim counts, it is time to look at the problem as one we have exacerbated with well-meaning but wholly misdirected laws.”

      Citation needed please.

  • Never let a good crisis go to waste on 12.13.2013 at 8:09 pm

    Another shooting in a gun free zone today in Colorado of all places where they just passed numerous new gun control laws in response to Sandy Hock. The governor must be so proud of the effectiveness of these new laws.

    • Hmm on 12.16.2013 at 4:09 pm

      He was able to buy a shotgun… surely you aren’t blaming this on the lack of availability of guns when the problem was the availability of guns? Oh wait you are, continue living in your own little world.

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