It is currently popular to call for “gun control” in the United States, especially in the wake of senseless mass shootings that have rocked the nation. However, most proposed “gun control” legislation has at its center the punishment of blameless people for the violent acts of a few. That is, these measures restrict or prohibit gun availability to citizens who have broken no laws, have harmed no one, and have merely exercised their rights under the Constitution to buy and own weapons. Promoters of strict “gun control” often seem to vilify gun owners as a sub-class of humans who do not merit recognition, rights, or respect. This polarizing attitude makes effective communication almost impossible.
Compounding this communication problem is the wide range of concepts that various groups attach to the term “gun control.” While one group’s aim is to remove guns from the reach of anyone who might shoot harmless people, the next group’s intent is to remove all firearms from all members of the general public.
The regrettable reality is that gun control regulations have been enacted increasingly in the United States since 1975, and they have coincided with an increasing frequency of mass shootings, not a decrease. Gun control regulations are clearly an inadequate means of ending or reducing mass shootings. Worse, with each new piece of gun control legislation, the U.S. inches closer towards a tipping point where legitimate gun owners feel endangered and may believe they need to take up arms to defend their rights and liberty.
In this context, the Quaker philosophy that we should strive to “take away the occasion for all war” becomes complicated. Taking away people’s legal rights to own guns, coupled with unwarranted punishment of the innocent, could actually become an “occasion for war” itself – a civil war.
In the United States, gun ownership and freedom are tightly interwoven – historically, philosophically, and emotionally. For many U.S. citizens, the idea of a loss of gun rights is tied directly to a perceived loss of freedom. Ignoring this fact is akin to ignoring gravity while rock climbing – and ignoring gravity’s potential for causing disaster
Senseless shootings have complex origins and many contributing factors. Solutions to the problem of gun violence in the U.S. will require thoughtful examination and weighing of a multitude of causative factors. Quaker practices of discernment are especially applicable to multifaceted questions, like the proper place of firearms in U.S. society. The Quaker Way is to examine diverse viewpoints impartially and to arrive at decisions that respect other peoples’ basic decency. In examining the problem of gun violence in the U.S., we need to consider the viewpoints of people across the political spectrum and across geographies – from rural to urban.
Leading up to every senseless shooting is always a series of events, like links in a chain. Removing any one of the links can stop the shooting. Although the links are different for each event, upon examination, we find some common traits among them, including: militarization of law enforcement, insufficient mental health programs, challenges confronting schools, violence-promoting social media, and the erosion of family unity. I will examine the first two factors further.
Militarization of Law Enforcement: Since the mid-1990s, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have become increaingly militarized, and this has contributed greatly to mass shootings. (See: “ ‘Do Not Resist’ and the Crisis of Police Militarization,” by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, May 13, 2016.) Before1995, the standard motto of most police forces was: “Serve and Protect.” The adoption of military protocols, methods, training, and equipment by U.S. law enforcement agencies over the last two decades seems to have transformed that motto into: “Preserve the Police.”
Typically, civilians think of militarization in terms of dramatic, offensive, patriotic undertakings, such as the D-Day Invasion of World War II. Most civilians don’t appreciate the high degree of advance planning that precedes any military assault. According to traditional military philosophy, protecting against loss or damage to the military unit takes high priority in the process of planning an assault. The planning process deliberately seeks to identify well-defined risks and to protect the unit against them.
Law enforcement, on the other hand, must deal with a plethora of risks – both defined and undefined. Further, law enforcement does not respond primarily to threats to the unit; law enforcement’s primary duty is to respond to threats to the public. Law enforcement also deals with many dangers that require immediate response. For example, a domestic violence incident involving a baseball bat does not allow time for preplanning a response nor for advanced group discussion about it. Nor does it allow for consultation with upper management while making real-time decisions.
Military philosophy embodies a defensive posture, extensive preplanning, and top-heavy authority in the chain of command. Effective law enforcement philosophy embodies an offensive posture, the ability to react spontaneously to changing situations in the field, and a great deal of autonomy for field personnel. These two operating philosophies are dissimilar and not interchangeable. As a result, the militarization of a law enforcement agency leads to a defensive organization, which becomes less protective of the public.
In Parkland, Florida, February 14, 2018, law enforcement officers arrived on the scene of a school shooting while active shooting was still in progress. Officers reportedly either departed the scene or “took defensive positions.” Those officers’ supervisors later asserted that this was the agency’s protocol for dealing with an active shooter situation. In other words, the agency follows a policy that directs field officers to find a safe place to wait until one of four things happens: the shooter shoots himself/herself, someone else shoots the shooter, the shooter runs out of ammunition, or the shooter gets tired and simply leaves (which is what happened in Parkland, Florida).
Again and again, we see tragedy resulting from a defensive posture by law enforcement. In the case of Parkland, the shooter had been confronted by Parkland law enforcement over forty times prior to the shooting. On each occasion, law enforcement backed down, and the suspect remained free. In the San Bernadino mass shooting of December 2, 2015, the police response was so slow that there was no need for the attackers to use the assault rifles they carried. Single-shot shotguns would have obtained the same result. In the case of the Las Vegas mass shooting of October 1, 2017, there is still no evidence of any police response other than counting the dead.
That law enforcement agencies have adopted a defensive posture is well known to shooters. Chillingly, a shooter in Denver, Colorado, chose a specific movie house to attack by determining that it screened its customers with metal detectors, thus assuring that no guns other than his own would be present at the scene during his attack. The shooter knew that police would not respond quickly or offensively. He planned his attack so that, while he shot people, he would confront neither return fire nor interruption by law enforcement. If “Protect and Serve” were still the guiding principle of law enforcement, mass shootings like this would be less likely and possibly eliminated, since law enforcement (armed and wearing protective gear) would place themselves between shooters and innocent people, not the other way around.
Since Elizabeth Fry began her work for prison reform in the 1700s, Quaker activism over the centuries has done much to help make prisons internationally more humane. Quakers have a history of getting involved in intractable, emotionally charged situations and mediating conflicts, including mediation between offenders and victims in the Restorative Justice movement. This same dedication may be required of Quakers to move police departments and communities back to a “Protect and Serve” philosophy of law enforcement. The Quaker tradition of mediation in difficult situations could be a resource in helping our nation resolve disparate viewpoints towards law enforcement philosophies and gun control.
Insufficient Mental Health Programs: At one time, the U.S. had a robust mental health system, offering hope to almost anyone afflicted with mental illness. This system was launched during the years that followed the Great Depression and World War II, two events that brought broad recognition of a nationwide mental health problem into the open. Then, after decades of growth and development, this system was abruptly dismantled. In 1981, President Reagan signed a budget bill which – overnight – ended community mental health programs, closed residential treatment institutions, and ousted tens of thousands of mentally ill people onto the streets to fend for themselves. In other words, effective, federally funded, public mental health institutions and clinics were closed, and patients were released into the community. The homeless population exploded. Some state-funded institutions remained, housing only the most severe cases.
By 1982, there were few publicly funded mental health services available in the U.S. Closures resulted in a national crisis in which families facing mental health issues with family members had nowhere to turn for help. The private facilities available were too expensive for most people. Health insurance largely failed to cover psychological or psychiatric expenses.
As a result, the stigma attached to impaired mental health increased dramatically. A mental health issue, if diagnosed and/or documented, could become economically and socially devastating. Educational and employment opportunities were reduced for a person with a mental health diagnosis. Thus, many people chose to hide and deny the existence of mental illness in a child or family member, and mentally ill people without strong family ties simply became homeless.
Not recognizing mental illness does not make it go away.
As a society, we must fund and deal with mental illness. This includes providing and sometimes requiring institutional care for people who need it.
With the falloff in public funding for mental health services in the U.S. in the 1980s, the prime directive to the field of mental health shifted from “protect society first” to “protect the patient first.” As mental health services became increasingly financed privately, rather than publicly, service providers’ responsibilities shifted towards the concerns of their private clients and away from concerns of public health. Accordingly, a therapist might suspect a client of a potential pending act of violence, but might also feel prohibited from warning anyone.
Thus, an ethical conundrum arises over the degree of public accountability that should be required of mental health services, when those services have been delegated to private companies. The re-establishment of publicly funded, accessible, robust networks of community mental health programs, which hold the protection of society as their core mission, could help reduce violence.
Similar to Quakers’ historic accomplishments in conflict resolution, nonviolence, and restorative justice, Quakers have a long history of working equitably with people who are disadvantaged and underrepresented in mainstream society, including people with mental illness. Many Friends are skilled in public health, psychology, and social advocacy. As a result, along with the Quaker public policy organizations, individual Quakers can and should support efforts to improve the nation’s mental health system.
Overall, solutions to gun violence are not straightforward or simple to achieve. Such solutions must resolve a plethora of societal dilemmas, including the two discussed above. A singular focus on removing citizens’ rights to own firearms is a simplistic, kneejerk reaction to a complicated issue. In the minds of most U.S. citizens, gun ownership is closely aligned with freedom. For many, the loss of the right to own a gun is viewed as a move toward state authoritarianism and an attack on democracy.
Quakers have a long tradition of using intervention, nonviolence, careful consideration, and respect of various viewpoints to move attitudes and public policies in productive ways. It is time to use our knowledge and wisdom to end senseless shootings without disenfranchising a large segment of society and risking civil war. ~~~
Timothy Jarvis is originally from Wyoming and is a retired scientist who worked in toxicology at a National Laboratory and who also worked extensively overseas as a consultant for the U.S. Government. He lives on the USA/Mexico border in San Benito, TX, and is a frequent attender of Western Friend’s online meeting for worship.
To read a “bonus” story that Timothy tells about Antoinette Tuff, a school administrator who nonviolently disarmed a school shooter in DeKalb County, Georgia, on August 20, 2013, look online at: westernfriend.org/media/spiritual-weapons