When I was eight years old, I already knew the terrifying power of guns. When I was the subject of a teasing and bullying incident, my solution was to go into my house, get my father’s .22 rifle, and chase my tormentors down the street. I didn’t know if it was loaded, and I didn’t know how to operate it. The results could have been disastrous. That was 1951.
46 years later, in 1997, sixteen American youth PER DAY on average — the equivalent of the Columbine school shooting — died from firearm homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting. We have known these stats for 15 years and it seems doubtful the situation has improved. The FBI reports that a shooting of 4 or more people occurs in the US on average every two weeks.
Arun Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi) said, “I think anyone who buys a gun is mentally ill.” I ask you, who is more insane, the shooter or the rest of us? We live in a culture of violence that we support in small ways every day with violent thoughts, words, and actions. It is the elephant in the room that very few people are talking about. It is a complex spiritual-emotional-mental-political cesspool that has been gaining momentum for centuries.
In 2012, the Institute for Economics and Peace released a report detailing Total U.S. Public and Private Expenditure on Containing Violence – International & Domestic. The study accounts for all expenditure that is related to violence, such as medical expenses, incarceration, police, the military, insurance, homeland security, and the private security industry.
The cost is $2.16 trillion, four times greater than the Department of Defense budget. If Violence Containment was classified as an industry, it would be the largest in the U.S. and has expanded by 25% in the past ten years.
However effective gun laws are at damage control, they don’t address the root problem. When they (you know who) say, “Guns don’t kill, people do,” it would be more complete to say that people lacking skills in conflict resolution attack other people, oftentimes with guns. Repression of weaponry will not reduce the dependency on violence to resolve conflict. It will be quicker, more cost-effective and sustainable to provide universal conflict resolution skill support than to orchestrate “responsible gun ownership” with more laws, rules, and enforcement.
If you search online for things like non-violent crisis intervention, conflict resolution training, hostage negotiation skills, compassionate communication, restorative justice, or stories of victims disarming their attackers with kindness, you will see many possibilities for replacing the culture of violence. Personal education in understanding with compassion the goals of violence, and awareness of alternative strategies for reaching those goals without violence offers a radical shift in our treatment of violence from symptoms to root causes.
I went to a college that required every student to pass a simple swimming test before receiving their degree, in order to prevent drownings. This was not a state or federal law, it was an administrative policy of pro-active prevention implemented because one student had drowned. A sane response to the multiple shootings of students could be to require education and testing in violence-prevention and conflict resolution skills.
I propose that in addition to students at all levels, that people incarcerated, applicants for purchase of a gun, as well as every public employee and candidate for office be educated and then required to demonstrate their competency in conflict resolution. The political and moral culture of violence would begin to dissolve. The funding for such a program would be a small fraction of all the violence-containment costs. Can you imagine how such a program would reduce the use of any weapon — including verbal abuse — to resolve conflict? The ratio of benefit-to-cost would be huge. It would allow the NRA to save face and keep their guns.
I have two ideas about why my proposal is unacceptable to many people: fear of vulnerability and toxic shame. To be effective at conflict resolution skills, we have to expose our unmet needs which could be seen as weakness rather than simple honesty. In addition, we have been conditioned by our culture to believe that we live in a system of competition for scarce approval for being, doing, or having “enough.” We have impossible demands placed upon us which we can never meet, so we carry a heavy load of toxic shame. To protect ourselves from exposure we isolate ourselves with anger, alienation, and apathy.
Self-isolation, the fear of connection, the fear of loss of individuality, a false and temporary kind of strength, is the acting-out of a belief that we are alone, abandoned. We make abandonment real by not talking, not trusting, and not feeling, which are ways of keeping ourselves numb. Those practices lead to the most violent forms of self-abuse and other-abuse we know: suicide on the installment plan.
It’s a paradoxical process, somewhat “irrational,” to become strong by letting go of power, to become decisive by letting go of analysis, to build community by looking at oneself. Yet, as we practice giving away our compassion to each other around the issues that we share in common, we become internally balanced and secure. We find strengths and courage we never knew we had. The fear and depression resulting from isolation are very addictive alterations of our mood and brain chemistry, and once we are free of those cycles, we will see and hear things as they really are. We are not alone. We are part of a much larger flow of evolutionary change that moves at a speed that is relative to our willingness to participate in it.
The crisis we face together is a dangerous, beautiful and awesome opportunity to leap the chasm. Breathe deep, and take a run at it. Do that much, and you cannot fail.
David Hazen is the Imagineer for Eugene Peace Team and author of Love Always Wins: Hope for Healing the Epidemic of Violence.