The tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, struck all of us hard. With the Conyers, Georgia, shooting, the nightmare continued. As we speak with family, colleagues, and friends amid grief outrage, and “what to do,” each of us wrestles with the devastating events, sometimes arguing with, and sometimes agreeing. If we’re honest, discomfort is a given. If we are passionately for gun control, we cannot deny the underlying causes of violence. If we come down on the side of blaming the culture, how do we explain away more than 34,000 deaths–homicides, suicides, and accidents–by firearms. Comfort must not be our goal; it will not solve the problem.
* Get guns out of the hands of kids.
* Get adults into the lives of kids.
* Get kids into the life of the community.
Getting guns out of the hands of kids: Why do we have major fights over trigger locks when we mandate safety caps for prescriptions and seat belt use in cars? Why does a one-gun-a-month purchase restriction upset anyone except gun traffickers? Why are so many kinds of gun sales exempt from so many of the rules? Why don’t we hold criminally responsible adults who make it possible for children to get their hands on weapons? Why can’t we wait three days to purchase a gun, when that might curb an impulse, save a life? We’ve done a stunning job in reducing crime to its lowest level in thirty years. Our crime rates are now comparable to or better than those of such major foreign cities as Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Sydney, with one exception–homicide by firearms.
Getting adults into the lives of kids: Why don’t we spend more time just being with our children rather than doing, doing, and doing? Kids need adults desperately. The isolation and worry of adolescence are real. Kids need the relationship, the love, the limits, the support, and the guidance. Youth may reject us, but we cannot reject them. The message to parents, coaches, teachers, mental health workers, anyone whose life impinges on kids? Engage them, and engage for the long term. We need adults who care, but we also need strong adults who refuse to cede their value-setting responsibilities to a popular culture awash in shameless, gratuitous violence in videos, computer games, movies, and music.
Getting kids into the life of the community: Why do we demonize teens when we know that the vast majority are good? Fifty-nine percent of our teens volunteer versus 49 percent of adults. Harris and Klebold, the Columbine shooters, will be remembers for years, while few will recall Aaron Hancey, who tried to save the life of his teacher in Columbine’s bullet-strewn hallway. This country has millions of Aaron Hanceys and other young people who do the right thing. Why not invest in them and celebrate them?
Many youth are alone or feel alone, disconnected from family, neighborhood, school, friends, even from the future. Yet most of our policies center around controlling (punishment, supervision) or repairing (“fixing” after the damage is done). Though each may be appropriate in certain circumstances, little is done to connect, to engage, to claim young people as part of the community. We must tell our young people that they are needed and passionately claimed. We must communicate to our youth that they have skills and talents that their communities need now. Instead of equating success with the absence of trouble, we should insist on a higher standard: active involvement and energetic engagement. Psychologically, it is bonding. Politically, it is asking youth to become signatories of the social contract.
There is no single answer. Those who demand one solution or insist on a quick fix strip responsibility from each of us. We must ask our civic leaders to move forward, but we must first answer this question for ourselves: What will I do?” There is but one inexcusable response–failing to act.
We must choose: discomfort and action, or comfort and more Littletons. We are all on the hook.
John A. Calhoun is the executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council.
*This editorial written by John A. Calhoun first appeared in the June 18, 1999, edition of The New York Times.