On Guns and Security: A Parent’s Plea for Reason

I was in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. The events in Newtown have affected me as nothing else since 9/11, now that my wife and I have children, ages 7 and 5. We try to shield them from a climate of anxiety that already seemed pervasive.

The National Rifle Association’s call for paramilitary school vigilance is — as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said — “paranoid.” The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre warns of “genuine monsters” and the need “to stop a monster from killing our kids.”  Such a warped vision could make LaPierre the monster of children’s nightmares, if parents cannot deflect his ghastly portrait of schools, life, and risk.

The NRA is funded by gun manufacturers and distributors; their interest is selling guns. LaPierre urges Congress to “act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation.”

Imagine if this country were to “act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary” to ensure the success of “every single school in this nation.”

Most don’t need armed guards. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, what young people need are fewer “adverse childhood experiences” — less stress, neglect, abuse, and violence. Much of that violence is made lethal by easy access to guns and ammunition. Too many shootings plague families and communities, including New Haven.

According to CDC data for 2010, deaths by firearm — from either suicide or homicide — ranked third among injury deaths, accounting for more than 30,000 funerals that year in the United States. Firearms caused 43 deaths of children ages 1 to 4 and 58 deaths of children ages 5 to 9. Firearms were associated with 107 homicides and 80 suicides among children ages 10 to 14, as well as more than 3,800 homicides and 2,000 suicides among ages 15 to 24, and so on, and on, and on.

One-third of the nation’s schools already have armed guards. Given real budget reductions in state and local government in recent years, the opportunity cost of arming tens of thousands of additional schools would be substantial.  With states and districts having cut back on teachers, librarians, and classroom aides, educators in many schools would recognize higher priorities than having someone “packing heat.” If armed volunteers were used systematically to supplement professional security personnel, deadly accidents would happen.

We don’t station firefighters everywhere or ban matches. Instead, we insist on measures — building codes, smoke detectors, sprinklers, regulation of explosives — to limit the risk of fire, to prevent a major conflagration.

It would be absurd to restrict adults’ access to kitchen knives because some individuals deploy them as weapons. Only a nihilist would declare that because an insane young man murdered his mother and attacked a school of innocents, all parents should routinely fear for their children’s safety.

But certain weapons and ammunition are different; it’s reasonable to minimize potentially dangerous use of them, particularly by unstable people. Closing the gun-show loophole to increase background checks, improving those background checks and databases, and limiting access to assault weaponry — including high-capacity magazines –should be part of a public safety effort that includes better mental health protections.

Schools are generally safe, notwithstanding concerns that led to metal detectors as well as armed guards in certain schools. School safety can be improved, but violence in our society — amid easy access to guns — is the bigger problem.

My father owns rifles and hunts. My grandfather was a hunter who owned many guns and gave me a .22 caliber rifle for my 11th birthday. The NRA doesn’t speak for us.

If zealots want to help schools and families, they should lock away their guns and calm their rhetoric. Volunteer to help a child learn to read. Mentor a child with an absent father. Coach a youth sport that doesn’t involve gunplay.

This is about how we define security, its reality and its perception. What actually makes our communities and families secure? What makes our children feel secure?

When my children are fearful, I soothe them. The mantra: Bad things can happen, so we take precautions to minimize risks while keeping those risks in perspective. Cars get into accidents, so wear a seatbelt. Smoking kills, so don’t smoke. Nutrition and fitness matter, so cultivate healthy habits.

Further stoking fear and swelling the gun supply would not be healthy, least of all for children.

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