Sandy Hook Mother, and BU Alum: Guns Are Not the Root Cause of Mass Shootings
Scarlett Lewis (COM’90) says social and emotional education, less computer time, better parental modeling are what kids need
There are very few people in this country, or world, who know intimately the heartache that the families in Uvalde, Tex., are experiencing right now.
Scarlett Lewis is one of them.
Almost 10 years ago, Lewis (COM’90) lost her first grader, Jesse, when he, along with 19 other students and 6 educators, were murdered in 2012 by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
So not only does Lewis know firsthand their pain, she knows what will come next. Stiffening gun safety laws, while important, skirts the education and role-modeling for children that are the only cure for gun violence, Lewis tells BU Today.
The unhealable hole in her heart made her an unstoppable evangelist for social and emotional learning (SEL), which, she’s convinced, would have prevented Sandy Hook, Uvalde, and other massacres. (Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza was a recluse with a sensory disorder and a mother, whom he also killed that day, who exposed him to guns. He commited suicide as first responders closed in.) Lewis started a foundation, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, that offers a free SEL curriculum to schools nationally and globally.
In Uvalde, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos is believed to have been killed by law enforcement officers after shooting dead 19 children and 2 adults at Robb Elementary School May 24. Lewis discussed the Texas shooting on her drive back from a talk to high schoolers in New Hampshire, her tone sounding exasperated with people and leaders who, she says, won’t avert tragedies with long-proven strategies.
With Scarlett Lewis
BU Today: There was talk after Sandy Hook that our culture would change and address gun safety. That didn’t happen. Do you have any hope that the Texas tragedy will change things, or are you despairing, like many of us?
Scarlett Lewis: I will tell you this: nothing will change until each one of us takes personal responsibility for what’s going on. No longer is the time where you can read a headline and say, that’s never going to happen to me. Everyone has in the back of their mind that they might not be safe. Everyone either knows someone who’s had their life taken, has a substance abuse problem, has a mental illness. Stop thinking that someone else is going to come in and fix things for us.
The president doesn’t have a plan. Tired old rhetoric that talked about Sandy Hook. It. Doesn’t. Work. If I have to say that, it’s pretty obvious. And I’ve got to tell you, it feels really good when you stop railing against our government and start taking responsibility, knowing that you’re the solution, that there’s something that you can do. Positive action is the opposite of anxiety and fear. Start getting out there and connecting and helping other people. We all know somebody that’s lonely—check in on them. That is the solution. I’m sorry it’s not an easy one. It’s not a pill you can take. Somebody else isn’t coming in to fix it.
BU Today: If we all have to take responsibility, what are the hopes, given that one of Texas’ senators, Republican Ted Cruz, reacted to the killings by saying Democrats and the media are coming for our constitutional rights, meaning Second Amendment rights?
You’re looking at this in a narrow way. It is not just a gun problem. President Biden said more gun control. Neither of those men is going to be fixing this, because this goes far beyond guns. We have more guns than ever before in the history of mankind; violence increased 30 percent between 2019 and 2020. This is a problem of personal responsibility. It is a problem of devolving in society, of disconnection, of not caring for one another, of not being compassionate. It is a problem of ego. It’s a problem when our leaders, who we look to for help, are just fighting each other.
Somebody asked me what I wish Biden would say. I said, I hope that he commits our country and our government to making our children’s safety, health, and well-being number one. He didn’t! He doesn’t have a plan. I hate to break it to people, but there isn’t anybody that’s going to come in and fix it. It is going to be us, starting by modeling what good behavior looks like in kids.
C’mon, everyone, I know you’ve been having fun behind the anonymity of your screens, poking jabs at one another—that is not productive. We need to put our phones down and start getting involved in our lives, be present with our kids and in our community. It is simple, but it’s not easy.
BU Today: Would you say you’re indifferent about, or against, gun safety regulation, like Biden is talking about?
It [that talk] didn’t work for me 10 years ago, when my six-year-old son was murdered alongside 19 of his first-grade classmates and 6 educators. I think the laws that are being proposed make common sense. I’m not against it. Go ahead, continue to try to promote that. But at the same time, we’re going to have to start addressing the root cause of this violence or we’re never going to get ahead of it.
BU Today: Your emphasis is on social and emotional learning, and teaching children love. How many schools have embraced your curriculum nationally? In Texas—I don’t know if Uvalde did it?
No, unfortunately. But we do have hundreds of schools in Texas and around 10,000 in the United States and over 120 countries. Love is what connects us all as human beings. We all have a want and need to love and be loved, and when we’re not, we suffer. [Texas] Governor [Greg] Abbott came out saying that this guy was just born evil. I honestly think that’s a cop-out. No one’s born evil. That would say that we don’t have any control of this. Every single shooting is preventable. So was that one, by the way. We do teach hate. We see it, the fighting amongst our lawmakers. If we can teach hate, we can teach love, because love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. That’s a quote [from Nelson Mandela].
BU Today: Is there a critical mass of schools that must adopt social and emotional learning before you would breathe easier that we’re on our way to solving this problem?
When you look at the science and research behind the benefits that these essential life skills offer kids, we should be teaching this in every single school. We know that kids that have these skills get better grades and test scores, they have higher attendance, higher graduation rates, less stress and anxiety, less behavioral issues. It’s a statistically effective way to reduce and prevent bullying. Later in life, there’s less mental illness, incarceration, violence and anger, divorce rates. It’s even a moneymaker—there was research that for every dollar invested, there was an $11 net, present-value, return to the community.
BU Today: Is there anything you’d like to say to the families grieving loved ones in Texas?
I would like to say that you are not alone, that we love you. Every individual in America has a broken heart right now for your loss. We are going to live the rest of our lives honoring your children. Their lives are not going to be in vain. We’re going to rise to the occasion. We’re going to model for our children and each other what choosing love looks like.
BU Today: The passion I’m hearing in your voice is your belief that this will happen? It’s not despair that it won’t happen?
I have a tremendous amount of hope, because I’ve seen it work. I just spoke to 1,400 kids at Londonderry High School in New Hampshire. It was a student-driven event. They wanted to talk about mental health, coping skills, and safety. Kids are craving this right now all across the country. Our children are struggling. If we put our kids’ health and well-being as the number one priority—as we should, these kids are our future—then this wouldn’t be happening.