Sometimes it is a specific event, one that appeals to the emotions or something that could be described as a tragedy even, that motivates people to work towards social change. Other times politically-based organizations band together to make change happen through the legislature passing laws. The Sandy Hook school shooting is a single event that would be described as a tragic loss of many young lives and also a situation that has motivated both ordinary citizens and political groups to take action a harsh look at current gun control laws. States across the nation are wondering what to do in response to what happened in Newtown, CT so that their citizens feel safe and protected. Rather than be accused of doing nothing, President Obama issued 23 executive orders designed to address the gun violence situation.
In Pennsylvania, the gun violence debate went from state reps and state senators discussing what laws needed to be passed to protect the citizens to special interest groups lobbying for gun rights. In the latest turn of events, the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show that was scheduled to open in Harrisburg on February 2nd is now postponed due to the event organizer's decision to ban assault rifles at the show. Reed Exhibitions position on the ban on the assault rifles was an effort to re-focus the public's attention on the hunting and fishing aspects of the show and to detract from the gun control politics surrounding the shooting at Sandy Hook. It was reported that hundreds of vendors who were to attend the event pulled out of the show leaving the organizers in a lurch wondering what type of draw the Outdoor show will be for the public without those vendors. What initially made the news last month was a story about the horrific loss of lives in a small school up north by a very sick disturbed young man and turned into a debate about gun violence in America.
On one side of the debate are the gun rights supporters filled with members of the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups who state the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees them the right to keep and bear arms. On the other side of the issue are the gun control advocates such as the NAACP who believe that gun violence can be prevented and should be controlled by laws that limit the rights of gun owners. Naturally, the two sides with such opposing viewpoints about guns are at odds and even more so after what happened in Newtown, CT. On January 23rd, a pro-gun organization Pennsylvania Responsible Citizens lobbied at the Capitol in Harrisburg wanting to protect the rights and freedoms under the Second Amendment. Also attending the rally were members from the opposition including CeaseFirePA, NAACP and Citizens Against Violence who are in support of bans on assault rifles which seems to be one of the sticking points in the gun control debate. What most people either do not recognize or are unwilling to acknowledge is the role that that single event at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT played in reviving the debate about the 2nd Amendment.
Had it not been for the fact that the shooting occurred at a school and that over 20 children were murdered in the act of violence, this debate about sanctions on guns, banning assault rifles at an outdoor show and rallies at the Capitol would not be occurring at this moment especially not right after an election year and Presidential inauguration. If it were not for the fact that children were murdered in cold blood and so very many of them too, it might have just been another shooting. That is the sad cold hard truth of the situation. People die every day. People are murdered every day. When it is children that are killed, people respond differently than if it were adults. Why? Because children are innocent vulnerable and need to be protected, and on that cold day in Newtown, parents sent their children to school to learn and to grow and to come home safe at the end of the day. Sadly, that was one day that those little children did not come home to their parents. The response from the public was a combination of devastation, outrage and fear. People around the country mourned with the parents and families of the children and teachers who died in Newtown. Very quickly those emotions turned to anger as people wanted answers and furthermore an explanation as to why someone who was barely out of high school himself would go into an elementary school and just start shooting people especially little children as young as kindergartners. Finally, fear set in as parents, neighbors, community members, teachers, school administrators, police, lawmakers and other government authorities were faced with the reality that what happened in Sandy Hook could happen again and in any school in any town in the United States. With no answers forthcoming about the motives and mental state of the shooter, people were afraid of the unknown and wanted to take action against something tangible that they could address and that was gun control.
Interestingly enough, not much was said about gun control prior to what happened in Newtown. Shootings in the cities happen. Violence is more prevalent in metropolitan areas- this we know from years of research. In fact, as it was reported earlier through a list on Neighborhood Scout, Harrisburg was #30 on the list of the top violent cities in the United States. Making the news Friday, January 25th on PennLive was a report that 19 year-old Tyrell Gooding was sentenced 17-34 years in state prison for the robbery-motivated shooting of Deangelo Letterlough in July 2010. Senior Deputy District Attorney Johnny Baer stated that the conviction and sentencing were more or less about getting tough on crime getting violence off the streets. Public comments to the article were in support of the judge's sentence. What is most striking about this article is that when reports of the shooting first made the news, there were no public outcries for justice and to lock 'um up and throw away the key. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Comments from the public in July 2010 were callous and desensitized to the violence to the extent that people referred to the people who were shot and their shooters as "restless" and "animals" and alleged that violence is what happens in the summertime in the Allison Hill area of Harrisburg blaming a "generation of black youth" who are "lost" because of "welfare and the culture they worship".
Also topping the news yesterday in Harrisburg stories about crime and violence is the unfortunate story of the outcome of another shooting that occurred in the summer of 2010 at The Brook at the Colonial Park Apartments. Rahem Bilal, now 23 years old and a former football player for Harrisburg High School, was sentenced to 31-62 years in state prison for shooting to death 18 year old Dontel Taylor. It began with words exchanged between a male friend of Taylor's to Bilal's girlfriend and ended up with what was thought to be a physical fight between Bilal and his group of friends and the man and his group of friends who included Taylor. Bilal pulled out a gun and fired four shots at the group of guys killing Taylor. Lori Maxwell, who is Taylor's aunt, was quoted as stating that "[p]eople can't have a fist fight anymore. People have to bring a gun to a fight." Dauphin County Judge Richard A. Lewis also brought up the fact this was another example of "senseless violence" and that there are no winners when guns are involved in a fight.
While it is painfully obvious that there is a real problem with violence in our society and that guns are often the weapons used to commit a crime, it is also true that placing bans, increasing penalties and passing stricter gun laws will not eliminate violence and may not even reduce crime. In Bilal's case, he was not permitted to own a gun because of charges he had on his record as a juvenile. It is probable that Bilal did not legally purchase the gun that he used to kill Taylor, so all the laws in the world would not have stopped Bilal from obtaining the gun if he purchased it illegally to begin with. That being said, the Pennsylvania Responsible Citizens are not the problem either. While it is not unheard of, it is also highly unlikely that they are the ones running amok committing violent crime with their guns. Most of the folks who are petitioning for their Second Amendment rights are not running the streets of Harrisburg robbing people at gunpoint or stealing cards rather they attend probably live in rural America, events like the outdoor expos and enjoy such activities such as hunting and fishing.
The point that everyone is missing here is the whole gun control debate and violence is that we live in an adversarial society where we must compete against one another to win sometimes at all costs. Our society became accustomed a very long time ago to using the police, the courts and the penal system to resolve our conflicts. People who are having arguments and disagreements with someone do not talk it out to work out the dispute, they resort to other methods of conflict resolution which usually are to confront the person possibly in an aggressive manner, call the police and have charges filled or hire lawyers and sue. Conflict is seen as negative or a problem to avoid and if there is no way to do that the alternative is to fight back. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that "homicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10-24 years in the United States. Violence is also a major cause of non-fatal injuries among youth. " The CDC found that the majority of young people who went to the emergency for an injury was because of an assault involving violence. It is not just people in the inner cities or our youth who resort to violence to resolve our conflicts. Anyone from anywhere who resolve their conflicts by competing with others could just as easily pull the trigger of a gun as anyone else. For example, Andrew Blum, a 43 year-old man from Trumball, CT, pulled a gun in a road rage incident. Blum, who had a permit to carry the Glock .40-caliber handgun was charged with reckless endangerment and threats and was ordered into the ARD program and to take anger management classes. Blum may very well be a responsible gun owner who attends outdoor expos and likes to hunt and fish, but he also reportedly carries his gun for protection and apparently uses it to resolve the situation the night of the incident.
As a society it is not just gun violence that is a problem that can be controlled by imposing newer and stricter laws. The criminals are not thwarted by legal barriers to commit crimes; they circumvent the police and courts to essentially do criminal acts. The gun owner who just wants to go out with the guys during turkey and deer season to go shoot some game is not the problem either. The real problem is getting people to shift their thinking and to find alternative ways to resolve their conflicts without violence. Erik Erickson in his theory of psychosocial development defined conflict as the turning point in an individual's struggle with both vulnerability and strength as the person attempts to attain success or failure. In other words, conflict can be either negative or positive depending upon the person, the situation and their responses. Gene Sharp, a senior scholar and researcher from the Albert Einstein Institute, believed that "conflict in a society [w]as inevitable and often desireable." For example, people who talk about diverging points-of-view to share information and ideas are on the forefront of various different theories.At one point in time, people believed the world was flat. There were others who disagreed with that belief and proposed alternative theories later proven to be true through science. Still, at the time, that caused conflict. After all, Christopher Columbus almost did not said to the Americas because people believed that the world was flat and he would fall right over the edge into the unknown. There was much dispute about his exploration plans prior to him finally receiving permission from the monarchs in Spain to be able to set sail in 1492. While Sharp believed that conflict was neither good nor bad but neutral if anything, he did go on to say that "the most serious problems in conflicts arise not from the conflict itself but from the use of violence to conduct the conflict." His resolution to violent conflict was to use positive and peaceful ways to work out disagreements non-violently.
In thinking back to the Bilal sentencing hearing, one young man is dead and another is in prison for the rest of his life. All of that happened because someone else allegedly made disparaging remarks to Bilal's girlfriend. She apparently did not like what was said and called upon her boyfriend to defend her honor. He did what many young people do, he rallied up his posse up against his group of guys and they went at it. The only difference in the ending compared to some others is that someone brought the gun to the fist fight and now two lives are ruined. Could Bilal's conflict have been handled differently? Yes, absolutely. Even without a gun in the picture, it could have been discussed in a non-violent way and worked out between Bilal, his girlfriend and the guy. Taylor did not have to get involved and could have minded his own business. After all, it was not his conflict. The same goes for the shooter in Newtown, CT. We may never know what drove him to make the decision to go to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and shoot a bunch of people. What is known is that he had a conflict in his life internally and possibly with others and he used violent methods and a means of conflict resolution. Before he entered that school he already decided what actions he was going to take, but even at the moment before he pulled the trigger, he could have walked away. He chose violence instead. If we as a society want to see changes happen towards gun violence in our country, we have to remember that this is a problem with all violence not just crimes involving guns and to look to collaborative ways to peacefully resolve our conflicts.