Sunday, December 16, 2012


Sandy Hook

We’ve stopped in Sandy Hook any number of times over the last few years, driving between Massachusetts and New Jersey.  It’s a cute little town just off route 84, about halfway between Danbury and Waterbury.  It has several good lunch places, and a lovely upscale toy store in an old house that couldn’t be any more New England-y if it tried.  Behind the toy store there’s a creek with several decks overlooking it, and if I remember right, even a mill wheel.  The last couple of times we were there, we spent more time than was strictly necessary, just because we liked it so much.

It never occurred to me that it would make national news, and certainly not like this.

From the pictures on the news, Sandy Hook Elementary looks a whole lot like TG’s school.  It has the same grades, and was probably built around the same time.  The kids who were walked through the parking lot could have been TG’s classmates.  

As a parent, there’s no way to avoid thinking like that.  It’s just too vivid.

On Saturday I took The Boy to the Lego League state championship at WPI in Worcester.  The spectator-friendly part of the event took place on a basketball court, on which teams of nine-to-eleven-year-olds ran their programmable robots through obstacle courses.  (The meet also featured closed-door judging of projects the teams designed to make senior citizens’ lives easier.  TB’s team developed a mechanism for putting on socks without bending over.)  The parents -- hundreds of us -- were careful not to mention anything in front of the kids.  But when the kids were out of earshot, most of the conversation was about the shooting.  And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit wondering about the wisdom of gathering all those kids in one easily accessed place so soon afterwards.  Anyone could walk in by just walking in.

Of course, the same could be said of shopping malls and movie theaters.  At some level, risk is just part of life.  I know enough statistics to know that mathematically, the drive to Worcester was more dangerous than the event itself.  But knowing that and feeling it are two different things.

Colleges are no strangers to these issues.  Over the last several years, they’ve started taking a more focused approach to security issues, simply because they’ve had to.  

But no single institution can become a bubble.  In a culture in which gun ownership is a right and health insurance is a privilege, some awful outcomes are probably inevitable.  In America, young men with serious issues can get weaponry more easily than they can get treatment.  That isn’t true everywhere, which is why these shootings don’t happen everywhere.

I’ll probably get accused of “politicizing” the shooting in saying that, as if periodic massacres of innocents were just acts of Nature.  But the truth is the truth.  As a parent, I’d be negligent if I didn’t try to protect my kids against mortal threats.  In this case, the mortal threat is political.  I’m tired of having to leave the newspaper face-down on the kitchen table in the morning so TG doesn’t see the latest news about people who look like her being shot dead with legal assault rifles at school.  I’m just tired of it.  If that annoys some conservative somewhere, then so be it.  I care a lot more about my kids than I do about appeasing someone who only read the second half of the second amendment.  And I’m tired of having to find just the right words to convey to an eight year old girl why a grown man would shoot his way into a school just like hers and kill children, but that she shouldn’t worry.  There are no right words for that.  The very topic is an obscenity.

Until Friday, Sandy Hook was known only as a cute little town.  Now it’s famous for a reason nobody would ever choose.  I struggled for the right words with TG, but I think I know the right words for us adults: Enough.  Enough.

The events of the last few days have been awful, and I can't imagine what it must feel like to be an American parent worrying about their child at school, at sports practice, etc.

And that's the point - I can't imagine it because in the rest of the developed world it is unimaginable. I don't say this just for the sake of it, but because I'm increasingly convinced that Americans have no idea just how violent their society is by comparison to other western societies, and have normalised a level of threat and fear which the rest of us frankly associate with the middle ages; or at the very least with the period before organised law enforcement.

I live in Ireland and work at a university here. No college in this country has a 'lock down' procedure to deal with a gunman, and the concept has probably never even been discussed. Our campus security worry about burglaries, and the occasional (unarmed) mugging is discussed as a serious threat to civilised life on campus.

And why? Because we have health care and no guns. We think our health care system is dreadful, it's a source of constant national complaint, but those complaints often take the form of 'if we go on like this, it'll be like America'. And when I say no guns, I really mean it - farmers have shotguns, competitive sharp-shooters have guns they keep at their clubs and that's about it. Of course some criminals have guns, but to be blunt they mainly shoot each other. Our police force is unarmed, except for a specialist armed response unit who are rarely deployed - I've lived in Dublin for half of my life, and I've never seen a police officer with a gun in his/her hand.

Our society is far, far from perfect. But I know - absolutely know - that there will never be an armed man roaming my campus, shooting my students and colleagues. I worry about American friends who work in universities. I visit American universities several times a year for conferences etc, and it always goes thru my mind at some point that this place is dangerous, that every person I see may have a gun; I push the thought down, but it would be a VERY serious consideration in the decision to move to the US. Many of my friends here have cited guns as a reason they wouldn't move to the US.

So what I'm trying to say is, this isn't normal. And it isn't necessary. And it would be nice not to have to worry about my American friends who work on campuses.
Well Canada has had mass shootings as well. My kid's school has lockdown procedures although they don't seem to drill on them very often. And we had a shooting a few blocks from my house - 19 injured, two dead - this summer. But they were handguns, so the death toll was lower.

I think the Onion pretty much summed it up:,30743/
And yet there is no conversation about the murders in China by a man with a knife.

Maybe it really is too soon to be talking about the why's and how to fix it's of this situation. Perhaps America can take a step back for one second and just hold onto each other for a little while.

Our children are gone and the ones left behind have lost their innocence.

There is a day for the conversation about gun policy and mental health care. Today is not that day and I don't think tomorrow is either. Maybe after those parents and siblings and friends wake up on January 1st and somehow make it through the day, then we can talk about what we can do about our country. Maybe if they can make it through the holidays and into a new year, we can have a meaningful conversation.
Anonymous -- in part, that's because all of the children attacked by the lunatic with the knife in China survived. Access to firearms matters.

The ready access of firearms, abetted by gun worship, is a fucking disgrace. Garry Wills puts it best.:

"That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year)."
TG thought the gunman broke into the school to steal money, like a bank robbery. To her, that's the only reason someone would do something like this. She's so innocent. It broke my heart to explain to her that this person came into the school specifically to hurt people. The look on her face was awful.
"There is a day for the conversation about gun policy and mental health care. Today is not that day and I don't think tomorrow is either."

I really don't understand this approach. The bereaved themselves aren't the ones who it is being suggested should be having this conversation. It's everyone else, as the least that could be done to recognise the entirely unnecessary suffering of the bereaved. And as John Stewart (with rightful anger) pointed out on the Daily Show last week, one of the problems with demanding some kind of 'now is not the time' period of silence around mass killings in the US is that they are so frequent that it may be difficult to find a time sufficiently removed from such a killing. Given that there has been at least one incident since Sandy Hook of someone opening fire in a crowded public space, he had a good point.

Oh, and the incident in China with an assailant wielding a knife? An appalling event, in which quite a lot of children were injured. But no-one died - because the amount of damage you can do with a knife in a short period of time before you're overpowered is a LOT less than with automatic or semi-automatic guns. And also, is China really the model of civic society that the US wants to be compared to?

But then you and everyone else knows this. No-one actually needs to have it pointed out. Which makes others wonder what the determination to hold on to uncivilised and uncivic amounts of firepower, at quite likely the expense of fellow citizens' lifes, is really about.
I may receive a Bad Parent of The Year award for this, but I didn't discuss the shooting with my 6 year old at all. It was his birthday on Sunday, and I don't know - I didn't have it in me to destroy his innocence over the birthday weekend.

I may come to heavily regret that decision, depending on what he hears at school today. But, I'll see what he knows when he gets home and deal with it.

This weekend was the first time I said to my husband, who is Canadian, "can you check out the feasibility of getting a job in Canada," and really meant it. We always assumed we'd raise our children here. Now I'm not so sure. It's not fear, per, especially in our affluent suburban neighborhood, is still statistically an extremely safe place for our children to be, and I know this. It's more that I'm worried that we have turned some kind of corner in this country, culturally. That this violence is just part of who we are, and is the price of living here, and that we will do nothing to change it because today is never the day to talk about gun safety.

I'm a little encouraged to see that we aren't letting the conversation go (there were THREE DAYS in between the Clackamas murders and the Sandy Hook murders, not to mention what happens in our cities and less affluent neighborhoods constantly - how can there ever be a "right day" if the violence never stops?!) and that a sitting President will stand up and say that things need to change, now. But this epic horror is what it took to get us to at least have the conversation.

But yeah, all that said, it's not like the sickness of violence respects the northern border. Canada has far more sensible gun safety laws, but it isn't exactly immune to these horrors. I just don't know.

What I do know is that it was very hard to send the kids to school today. It was only comforting to know that all the other parents at the bus stop felt the same way, even though we weren't talking about it in front of the kids. What a sad comfort, though.
here are some interesting statistics about america (compiled from data from the CDC):
- approx amount of gun deaths a year: 10k
- approx amount of people that die from falling (yes, falling): 25k
- approx amount of people who die from intentional poisoning: 6.5k
- approx amount of people who die from drunk driving: 11k (1/3 of which were not the driver)

then there's diabetes...

the sad thing is, in america, we have much bigger fish to fry. a massacre like this brings guns to the forefront. but it's a pretend issue when you look at the numbers, especially the ones for self-inflicted disease.

banning soda sales in anything but restaurants would save a LOT more lives than gun control, and would be a lot easier to implement.

guns are out of hand. but they are statistically a small problem. as someone who lives in one of the highest gun-toting states, i really don't fear them. i very much fear drunk drivers and car accidents more than an incident involving guns.
I do not understand the math where drunk driving becomes a "very much fear" problem at eleven thousand deaths per year (with the vast majority of victims being the drunk drivers themselves), while guns are a "pretend problem" at ten thousand deaths per year.

But okay. Let's call it a pretend problem. I am still completely, utterly happy to see so much energy devoted to this pretend problem. The doctors who study diabetes and the machines that plaster yellow warning symbols on ladders and the people who develop new and better caps for rat poison and the engineers who design safer cars aren't going to drop their work mid-stream because folks suddenly care about gun violence now. We can work on all of the above at once. It's a big country with lots of energy and lots of smart people.
"I’m tired of having to leave the newspaper face-down on the kitchen table in the morning so TG doesn’t see the latest news about people who look like her being shot dead with legal assault rifles at school. I’m just tired of it. If that annoys some conservative somewhere, then so be it. "

Do you really think conservatives are not tired of this also? You must not know many conservatives. BTW, "conservative" and "gun nut" are not synonyms. Conservatives are just as outraged as you are, so characterizing them as "the other" is a surprising turn for you to take.

I was sitting at a McDonald's in my rural, Appalachian little town this morning, eating breakfast and listening to the old guys at the next table. They were drinking coffee and talking about all the guns they own and complaining about how "they took God out of the schools" and so this is the kind of thing you have to expect.

They continued in this vein for a while. Then they said that they didn't see any reason on God's green earth why any ordinary citizen needed an assault rifle, and, oh yeah, there ought to be more mental health services available for obviously troubled young people.

I don't know what this means, really. But surely we can have a discussion about the middle ground between "ban all guns" and "let's have everyone armed to the teeth."

If there's a big flood, I think it is legitimate to start talking right away about whether building in floodplains is a good idea. If there are multiple mass murders committed with guns every year, I think it is legitimate to talk about why it happens and how to stop it.
And you know, thinking more on this, drunk driving is a relevant model. Drunk driving deaths have decreased significantly in the U.S. over my lifetime. Some of this is just the happy result of technology - safer cars, better roads.

But some of this is because we made it a priority. Nobody talked about a "designated driver" forty years ago, and now it's part of the cultural fabric. We decided, as a society, that even though drunk driving was not the Single Biggest Killer of Americans, the price we were paying in deaths was still too high, especially among young people. So we started awareness campaigns, started better enforcing existing laws and yeah, even put new laws into place.

It all helped. We've made progress. And we did not have to, in the process, go to a prohibition model. I'm still free, as an adult in the United States, to get as drunk as I want to, as often as I want to. But I'm far less likely than my parents were to get behind the wheel after doing so.

The optimist in me wants to believe we can do the same thing with guns.
At Sandy Hook Elementary School, the principal, the psychologist, and several teachers died like heroes while attempting to protect the students under their care. This points out the primary duty that we as teachers have—to protect our students from harm while they are under our care. This is true not only for elementary schools, but also for high schools and for colleges and universities as well. In an extreme emergency, our duties to protect our students might have to come at the cost of our own lives.

Teachers in primary and secondary education are often bashed in the media, with constant complaints that they are greedy and out of touch, that their pensions cost too much, that it is impossible to get rid of bad teachers, that the teachers union has too much power, etc. etc. But the teachers at Sandy Hook performed very well, and several of them made the ultimate sacrifice for their students.

I am a complete outsider on this issue. Much like Irish Academic, I live in a country (Belgium) where even most of the police force is only ever armed with collapsible sticks and tear gas, if at all. And our health care system has some not insignificant issues, but lack of access to it isn't one of them.

From my Western-European perspective, it seems utterly incomprehensible how a tragedy like this can happen roughly once every six weeks in the U.S. (as another commenter pointed out, there have been eight mass shootings just this year), and yet the question being debated is not *what* to do about the current gun ownership laws, but *whether* to do anything at all about them.

People say 'now is not the time to have this conversation'. But, as has been pointed out, when the distance between mass shootings is measured in weeks rather than years or decades, it's unlikely that 'now' will ever be the right time. Moreover, when will there really be a better time than right now, when the media are all over the story, and the shock and outrage are still fresh in the minds not just of those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy, but of society at large?

There are bigger fish to fry, says jas. That may be true, jas, but let me latch on to two of those 'bigger fish' that you explicitly mention: diabetes, and falling.

All kinds of initiatives are being undertaken to combat obesity and its associated health problems (such as type 2 diabetes, among other things). You yourself, jas, seemed sincere in your suggestion that it might be a better idea to outlaw soft drinks outside of pubs and restaurants than to outlaw guns.

All kinds of mandatory safety procedures exist to prevent falls in the workplace — to the point where whole businesses can be temporarily put on hold until they comply with the most critical ones.

And yet, the mere suggestion of putting restrictions on gun ownership — as one of the measures that almost certainly would help lessen the impact of a mad man on the loose — seems to be unpalatable to a disproportionate number of Americans.

You yourself, jas, provided the numbers that show how people with guns are virtually as much of a problem to society as drunk drivers. You seem to have no problem with zero tolerance for driving under the influence, or walking down the street with an open container that holds something alcoholic, or selling alcohol to people under 21. Yet somehow, people who carry a concealed firearm, or go to Wal-Mart and buy a boatload of ammunition regardless of who they are, are just exercising their fundamental right as an American citizen.

Next you'll probably say that guns don't kill people — people do. Which is true. But as the Chinese incident shows, it is a lot harder to kill a room full of people in a matter of minutes when you don't have a firearm.

What's wrong with making it harder?
Do you really think conservatives are not tired of this also? You must not know many conservatives. BTW, "conservative" and "gun nut" are not synonyms. Conservatives are just as outraged as you are

Edmund, tell me - what is the conservative solution to this problem?? Because without some limitations on what people can buy and have I just don't see how things are going to change.

"Do you really think conservatives are not tired of this also?"

That is correct. I think conservatives are not even a tiny little bit tired of this also. I think conservatives view this as entirely appropriate. I think conservatives pretend to be tired of it so they can look like human beings, but they hate most Americans so much that they do not care even in the slightest and are, in fact, mildly confused as to what the big deal is.

Or maybe it's all different now that it's white kids instead, I dunno. Conservatives make no goddamn sense.

this violence is just part of who we are, and is the price of living here, and that we will do nothing to change it

I think that about sums it up.

Back a century ago, when Canada didn't have gun control, the murder rate was still a tenth that of the US. Violence is part of American culture.
I spent some time reading the comments on a libertarian site today ( It was an example of the stridency of the other side of this debate. I didn't come away with any fuller an understanding of the pro-gun side of the argument, which I've never fully grasped.

It was the usual: it's seen as virtuous to fight fire with fire. Allow teachers to carry weapons. Worried about getting killed accidentally by your own gun? 200,000,000 guns in the US and only 10,000 deaths means that gun owners have a 0.005% chance of being killed by a gun and they'll take those odds any day.

The other thing is that moments like this create bad policies because they are hurried into place. I disagree. Smart policy people in government who care deeply about this kind of issue craft policies they know would work but don't have a political opportunity to be implemented. So let's reach out to them. Ask for the best ideas from think tanks and civil servants. See what has the most merit and try it.

Maybe it's limiting gun ownership to the firearms available in 1791 (the date of the 2nd ammendment).

Maybe it's treating guns like tobacco and taxing the hell out of it. An annual tax on every gun (which gives you a convenient 'tax evasion' excuse to nail those who refuse to register). It could escalate as the gun's utility declines ($50/yr for a rifle or shotgun, $500/yr for any gun capable of carrying a 30 round magazine).

Maybe it's suing the gun manufacturers for all the health care, policing, prison, and legal costs related to gun crime - they did, after all, profit from it.

Maybe it is clarifying what the first half of the second amendment means under the law.

But all of these will be bleeding heart liberal interferences. Impositions on some notion of "Freedom".

Guns don't kill people. People kill people. People with guns kill people faster. Let's take the guns out of the equation and see if that makes it any better.
As an administrator, what's your sense of the safety standards we have on most campuses now? And do you have any insight into how we might enhance safety for students and teachers when they're on campus, without turning the place into a locked-down prison?

I just nattered on about this subject at Adjunctorium, from a lowly adjunct's point of view. IMHO, the setting at my college is eminently unsafe, largely because of the way classrooms are set up and because of the evident lack of concern about potential risks. Case in point: when one of my students showed signs of being about to harm herself, I discovered that even the head of Counseling is a part-time adjunct.

This semester I made the decision to quit teaching comp courses, for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with the present issue. But as you admit that you wondered why you and the other parents had all those kids gathered in one place, so I have to admit that on Friday another reason for quitting came to mind: to eliminate the chance of ever finding myself with 25 young people in the middle of something like this.
I'm still trying to process the first part of your article. I can think of several small towns that have been regular stops for us when we travel a few well-worn highways. They are all Sandy Hook. What this incident drove home was the fact that this and previous shootings take place in "nothing special" towns across the US.

We can no longer pretend that the causes are local and personal. They are social, and guns are the symptom rather than the cause. Look at the stabbings across China, for a different example.

Our college is much safer than before the VT shootings. Response time of our campus police is about a minute (although that only limits followup attacks) and colleges have their share of Marines and other combat veterans who would respond without thinking. Will we go further and lock classroom doors to keep out late arrivals? I doubt it.

Our college separates "counseling" (which is really advising) from "mental health professionals". The latter are part time at my institution, mostly due to the cost of licensed professionals (right up there with Nursing faculty) but also because the demand is, fortunately, not too high.
Punditus @1:34PM -

I know some conservatives who support the NRA but are opposed to the sale of 60-round clips for assault weapons. Their sane voices are in the majority but cannot protect their Congressmen from the NRA. At least that was the case before last week.
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