Getting to the Right Answer Starts with Asking the Right Questions

by Dr. John H. Jackson, Schott Foundation President & CEO

I was recently interviewed by a local urban newspaper following the tragic shooting of 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The first question was, “What can schools do to stop a shooter who comes to their school?” Whether the journalist just phrased the question badly or was resolved that this is a new reality – the question hit me the same. How to stop a shooter when they’re at a school is the wrong question to ask. After calmly responding “nothing,” I explained to the journalist that if a distraught individual is able to arm themselves with an AR-15 automatic rifle and desires to use that on school grounds, it is very likely that unnecessary casualties would follow.

The question we should be asking is: “What can we do to impact the factors that lead to such a horrific act of violence?”

To be clear, although Parkland is our current context, not too long ago it was Las Vegas, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and week after week gun violence has been present on the streets of Chicago, New Orleans, Little Rock, and Baltimore. While the facts are different in each case, the end result is unfortunately the same – the senseless loss of too many sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers.  If, for even a second, we discount the outcomes based on our own geographic proximity to the harm, we will lack the fortitude to address the problem until it shows up at our house.

As I have in the past, I stand resolutely with the students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and with the vast majority of people across our society who are demanding that weapons of mass destruction like the AR-15 automatic rifle be outlawed from our country. The very fact that we allow the lawful purchase of a weapon that can shoot and kill more people in a minute than we can touch is a damning statement about our nation’s values. In addition to the moral high ground, eliminating the purchase of such a weapon of mass destruction is a critical component to fixing the set of circumstances that allow an individual to obtain military grade weapons, like the AR-15, and show up at a mall, church or school with the pain and firepower to easily snuff out lives.   

In addition to curtailing the sale and distribution of military weaponry, the FBI should track and flag the sale of certain weapons and large ammunition purchases, much the same way the financial industry tracks and flags large monetary transfers or deposits, or the pharmaceutical industry tracks and flags the sale of certain prescriptions, such as opioids. We should also move the gun industry to adopt technological advances like trigger locks and smart guns that prevent accidental use and misuse by children and teens. Will a determined individual find a black market or work around? Absolutely. Will it cost the individual more money, more determination and more time?  Absolutely. And each additional minute will provide us with an opportunity to reach the individual or expose the plan. Killing scores of people is far too easy in the U.S. today.

Reforming gun laws is essential, but that alone is not sufficient to solve the problem. The data point of gun violence altercations is what we consider a “thermometer” indicator – it’s an important metric for understanding current conditions around love and support in communities, but there is a wide range of policies and practices that together institutionalize the violence and hate which lead to tragic outcomes. Our overarching goal has to be concretizing the supports, policies and practices that create healthy living and learning environments where all young people have the supports that they need to thrive. Instead of institutionalizing policies that protect systems of destruction, our collective goal should be having all young people grow up, be able to make mistakes and still ultimately succeed in loving systems from birth.

From our elected officials to parents nationwide, we all have an important responsibility not to sit on our hands and allow this moment for change to pass us by. We must no longer accept the presence of automatic weapons in our society while we search for answer on how to stop a shooter. Instead, we need to stop access to such destructive weapons while we begin to answer the question, “what steps can we take to create healthy living and learning environments where all children have an opportunity to learn and thrive?”

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