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When Will We Ever Learn

Last night I put together a "Grocery Store Stand" for my four-year old granddaughter. I had difficulty, not because I hadn't been engaged in a similar activity for about 25 years, reading with weary eyes "Easy to Follow" directions written for MIT grads. No, I had a hard time because I would have tears in my eyes thinking of the parents in Newtown, Connecticut who would not be prying open boxes, assembling bikes and bridges and stores and castles, assembling what would be the joyous shouts of discovery, of Christmas.

As most Americans, I wept for them and for this nation, this wonderful nation, this giving nation with nimble democracy, a nation that can change when it wishes, a nation that banned slavery, gave women the right to vote, passed civil rights and anti-gay discrimination laws, and, overcoming deep prejudices, elected its first Roman Catholic President and then its first African American President. A friend and colleague from Montreal, with whom I worked when I served as a board member of the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime called me when Obama was first elected four years ago. He said, "I get mad at your country so often, your violence, your disparity of wealth."  "And then you do something like this. You are so flexible. You do terrible things, then you change. And when you do, you give us all hope."  His words were choked. He thanked me. He thanked America "as a beacon for what nations can be."

Will we have this courage? Will we then, overcoming deep prejudices, passionately held views, agree to aim the diagnosis beyond the individual , to us, our social values?  We protect what we value:  if a car is defective, it is recalled, the driver not blamed for a broken axle; the FDA tests and retests drugs, and if one is proven harmful, as Thalidomide, it is banned; if tainted spinach poisons a handful of individuals as it did recently, the government stops growers from growing, not eaters from their menu selections. Recall that spinach was removed from grocery store shelves across the nation. Toys are recalled because the paint, if licked, can cause stomach aches, and large warnings emblazon plastic bags that can suffocate children.

But not so a weapon, a weapon once banned, a weapon of war, a weapon raised high in Syria, and Libya, a weapon designed for U.S. troops in Vietnam, a weapon that kills a roomful of children in minutes, a legal weapon, a weapon, a toxin in our civic stream that remains while spinach is pulled.

The ironies are almost too painful to recount. A sudden "international newsbreak" on one of the TV channels I was watching interrupted the agonizing, incomprehensible Newtown story to report on a disaster in Syria in which 20 civilians, mainly women and children, were killed. Syria, a nation at war. 20 dead. America, a nation not at war, 28 (this does not include others who were killed that day by guns across the U.S).

On December 15 the New York Times reported on a deranged Chinese man who stormed into a classroom of kids brandishing a knife, intent on killing. 22 received knife wounds, and 22 survived.

My life's calling has been to serve and help improve the lives of children and families and the neighborhoods in which they live. I have served on the state and federal levels and as President and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council. More recently I have been working with 24 cities across America helping these cities craft and then implement gang and violence prevention plans blending prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry (returning offenders). Those I've had the pleasure to meet and work with are the most committed, professional and courageous individuals I've ever met - among them law enforcement, educators, mayors, faith and community leaders, recreation officials,  the philanthropic sector, public health and hospitals to name only a few . Yet their delicate and complicated work, work that tries to change a social norm to one that does not tolerate violence, one that supports, nurtures and protects, can be shattered by a shooting. "We are outgunned," one law enforcement officer told me. Yet in the face of this fire, they continue.

And so do those living in war zones. I was asked to run a "listening session" of parents living in a high crime area of Philadelphia. One woman told me that her goals in life is to get her kids "to and from school without being shot."  She escorts her kids to school and back, sometimes walking on pavements "with dried blood on them,"  and always by "little memorials, a cross, flowers for kids who have been shot and killed." Just across the river in Camden, New Jersey on the City Hall's front lawn, 55 crosses bear stark and public witness to the killings in that city . Not Syria: Philadelphia, Camden and sections of all large cities across the nation.

We hear "loner" this, loner that. Perhaps it is a trait among the shooters in Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech and Newtown, but most loners don't kill. Do we screen for lonerism? Are we more violent than other nations? We are not a different species, but guns make the difference: anger and depression, however mild, have probably touched most everyone who has lived. In the face of a divorce, loss of job, death of a spouse, death of a child, loss of a girl friend, a few "normal" people can break. Spouses shoot spouses, rejected lovers shoot those who spurned them and disgruntled employees shoot employers. It matters enormously whether what is at hand for those who break is a knife or an assault weapon. E.J. Dionne points out in his Washington Post Editorial on December 17, that we should improve our "treatment of those who may be prone to violence," but that this is "too often part of a strategy to evade any action on guns themselves." 

We must, at a minimum, ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines (and consider rewards on existing weapons and magazines that are turned in), perform rigorous background checks on all who would purchase a weapon, disqualifying those have committed a felony and those with  history of mental health problems, and close gun show loopholes. We must also support jurisdiction-wide planning and implementation of comprehensive violence prevention plans that interweave prevention, intervention, enforcement, rehabilitation and reentry thus making every effort to change a culture of violence.
Bob Dylan's haunting "Blowin' In the Wind" asks "How many times must the cannon balls fly before they're forever banned?" He continues:  "How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?  How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?"  Perhaps this time we will have seen enough, heard enough, been, finally, ashamed enough to acknowledge that the front line soldiers in this debate were little children who were slaughtered by a hail of bullets.
Business Week, hardly a liberal journal in its August 16, 1999 issue said, "It is vital to crack down on the handful of gun dealers who time and again provide weapons to criminals... There is no rational reason of any individual to possess an assault weapon. There is no reason for most people, especially those with children, to own handguns. There is no reason why extremists should determine government gun policies that threaten the lives of innocent people. It is time for serious gun control."

The Greeks have two words for time, chronos time, as in 9:15 p.m., the time I'm writing this blog; and chiros time as in "wasn't that a time,"  an epochal "time" in history. Let's commit at this time in our history to stop the cannon balls from flying, each of us pledging that this is the time to change: Time that this nation again rose to greatness by having the courage to change.

Jack Calhoun, December 20,2012
Director, California Cities Gang Prevention Network
Former CEO and Director, National Crime Prevention Council
Former U.S. Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families


Jack Calhoun was a keynote speaker at the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council Annual Justice Dinner in April 2010. Reprinted with permission from Jack Calhoun and Hope Matters.
                                

                     

 

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