What's Tony Thinking

Mass Shootings: Asking Deeper Questions


Does the current, if temporary, status of abortion suggest a solution, of sorts, on guns? The abortion “solution” has, in effect, been to return the matter to the states to decide. We now have a checkerboard of different laws, varying state to state.

In my outrage and frustration with gun violence, I wonder if we might just divide the country up into the gun-toters and the nons? Some states where everyone and anyone who wants them has guns of all sorts and parades about openly carrying their weapons. Others where gun ownership is severely restricted, where there is no “open-carry,” and it’s a crime when parents let kids get a hold of their guns. You want to live in a “shoot-em up” state? Go for it. Me, I’ll take my chances living in a gun-free one.

That is, as I say, my outrage talking. Practically, guns move across state lines too easily to make a gun-toting, gun-free division of the nation realistic. Nor do I wish gun violence on anyone, no matter what state they live in. But you take my point. I’m sick of it.

As Nick Kristof points out in a excellent piece on the issue of gun violence, written in January, and now periodically updated for each new shooting, “For decades, we’ve treated gun violence as a battle to be won rather than a problem to be solved.”

“This,” he continues, “has gotten us worse than nowhere. In 2021 a record 48,000 Americans were killed by firearms, including suicides, homicides and accidents. So let’s try to bypass the culture wars and try a harm-reduction model familiar from public health efforts to reduce deaths from other dangerous products such as cars and cigarettes.”

The balance of Kristof’s article (highly recommended), outlines a “harm-reduction” approach to gun violence and mass shootings. Even if this is problem that will not be completely “solved,” progress can be made, harm and trauma can be reduced.

Moreover, my impractical idea of dividing the Union into gun and non-gun states isn’t completely wrong. State legislation probably stands more of a chance than does anything coming out of the U.S. Congress, which can’t even govern itself and where some members come to work carrying. Kristof points to Massachusetts as a state that has done many things right, including requiring gun owners be licensed. Washington has made some progress but needs to do more.

The unending shootings may drive us to despair — “nothing works,” “there’s nothing we can do.” That simply isn’t true. While there is no “magic bullet” (sorry), there are different steps and strategies that do work. But, as Kristof points out, we have to give up on treating gun violence as a battle to be won and instead treat it as a problem to be solved.

Introducing the word “despair” here brings up, though, another kind of question, a spiritual/ theological one. Why? Why is this happening? Why are civilians shooting other people, en masse, and seemingly randomly? Why are men and boys (it is overwhelmingly males) shooting people they don’t even know? Why, in God’s name, are people shooting children?

These questions have to be asked even though there aren’t any easy answers. While human beings have been violent from the get-go (See: Cain and Abel), the kind of mass shootings and gun violence with which we now live in this country, has not always been the case. There have already been 70 such mass shootings this year. Something has changed. But what? Yes, we can point to the availability of guns, and that accounts for some of this, but not all. It seems that things that had once been unthinkable are now, not only thinkable, but daily reality. How has this come to pass?

These questions take me back to a 1998 book by the Canadian theologian, Douglas John Hall, titled Why Christian? In it Hall engages in a dialogue with a person at the edge of faith — considering it, but posing hard questions about religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Hall’s conversation partner says that much of what Christianity has traditionally proposed to save people from — death, hell, sin and guilt — aren’t things he (or she) worries much about. (ABR: not sure I totally buy that)Hall responds:

“What most Westerners need to be saved from today isn’t dread of death, and it isn’t a crippling sense of guilt — I agree. It’s the gnawing suspicion that humans may be purposeless things . . . in the end random, arbitrary, and . . . ‘superfluous.'”

A bit later, Hall adds, “So I accept the conclusion you yourself were led to in our discussion: that the great, overarching, undergirding question by which most people in our context [modern West] are grasped is the question of meaning, of purpose, or vocation (‘What are people for?’).”

There is a crisis — a terrible vacuum — of meaning and purpose in the modern West. It is not difficult to feel superfluous, unknown and unneeded. Add to that the recently pandemic-aided isolation of many in American society. People without meaning and purpose, devoid of real relationships and community, not infrequently take out their frustration violently on other people.

Each of us has to struggle with the questions of meaning and purpose, but we also need a society and communities, religious or spiritual, artistic or civic, that are built around honest and humane frameworks of meaning. We are meaning-seeking, meaning-making creatures. We want, we need, to matter, to mean. Lacking purpose and meaning, some of us turn on one another in the worst possible way.

People are dying — and killing — for want of meaning and purpose — for want of mattering.



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