Letter to the editor

Dr. King and the gun debate

January 10, 2013 

Dr. King’s birthday celebration will soon be here. As I’ve wrestled with the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Conn., I’ve kept coming back to one of his phrases: “Unmerited suffering leads to redemption.” He was reflecting on the deaths of three civil rights workers 50 years ago, but his insight is as fresh as today’s headlines.

If ever there was unmerited suffering, it happened in that Connecticut school. How can it be redemptive?

Those children have forever put a face on gun violence. They will not let us forget. Twenty years ago, I was a staff director for a U.S. representative from suburban Atlanta. The Brady Bill, which required a background check for those who purchased a handgun in a store, was being debated in Congress. The congressman was reluctant to support the bill. Then a man checked out of a mental hospital, purchased a handgun, went to a mall in the area, shot up the food court and killed a young husband and father. Two days later the young widow was in our office. If the Brady Bill had been law, her husband would have still been alive. The congressman became a strong supporter of Brady.

As awful as that incident was, it pales in comparison to the Newtown shootings. However, both speak to the truth that putting a face and names on statistics gets things moving.

Obviously our nation needs more resources devoted to detection and intervention in mental health related situations. The shooters involved in the tragedies that have happened over the last several years share similar stories. Bright, isolated young men who couldn’t make it. They determined that the only way to make a name for themselves was to kill others and in the frenzy of that violence quiet their demons. Often there were warning signs.

Unfortunately, in our society reaching out for mental health help has had a stigma. We have got to find ways of providing resources so that doctors, judges, police, families, clergy, teachers, neighbors, families and more have resources so that potential shooters can get help, even if they don’t want it.

We also need to revisit gun laws. I’m a former infantry officer. I know from personal experience that military-style, semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity clips are designed for one thing only: to lay down accurate suppressive fire so that the enemy can be killed or captured. They are not hunting tools. They are the tools of mass violence and should be banned. We also need to prohibit the sale of ammunition over the Internet. Even if there had been an armed resource officer or teacher at that school, he or she wouldn’t have stood a chance. My hunch is that if the so-called assault weapons ban had not lapsed, the weapon of choice of the Conn. shooter would not have been available to him.

As a Presbyterian minister I’ve found it telling that the shooting in Newtown happened right before Christmas. Maybe, just maybe, we can make a connection with the Christ child and the children of Newtown. In my religious tradition, God came to us as a baby in need of reassurance, care and connection with others. Perhaps this tragedy will remind us that indeed whatever happens to the least of these does impact all of us. Perhaps, little children will lead us.

The writer lives in Pawleys Island.

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