Is Your Town Newtown?

  I would so much more be writing about clouds or marbled murrelets right now. But it is time for the Accidental Naturalist to write about something that is not beautiful or rare.
   Sunday night, friends hosted a casual dinner for six—a dinner they had planned over a week ago. My husband and I arrived to a home that was warm and fragrant, where a Christmas tree was lighted, soup simmered on the stove, the main course baked in the oven, the table was set, and another couple wore matching Santa hats. The event had the look of a jolly holiday dinner. But Newtown was on everyone’s minds. So we took our places at the table and launched in.
   We didn’t know how willing each of us would be to discuss this tragedy (was it too soon? would it ruin the party?) or where the conversation would lead (would it get uncomfortable? would we offend each other?), but we began offering up ideas on how such an event could happen. Everyone had ideas and theories, and everyone had opinions about everyone’s ideas and theories. In no time, the volume ramped up and we began completing each other’s sentences, interrupting each other, having side conversations. The host grabbed a yellow cat toy.
   From now on, he announced, we could speak only if we were holding the cat toy. While we ate our delicious meal, the host deftly moderated from the head of the table, making sure everyone had equal time, calling on people (me) who dorkily raised their hand for a turn to hold the cat toy and speak.
   It soon became clear that we were all serious but we could also laugh, joke, and tease each other while having a difficult conversation. We wanted to do something that might make a difference—even a small difference—to change the pattern of violence in our communities. We knew there would be no quick fixes, we suspected gun sales would escalate in the wake of the shootings, but we weren’t content to shrug and resume “business as usual” after a weekend of heartbreaking news.
   After dinner and before dessert, our host stood up and walked over to the whiteboard.
    Our friends’ kids have used this whiteboards for years to work out complex homework problems, equations, and formulas. Now, the six of us would use it to work out the complex set of problems we believed were at the root of the Newtown tragedy. Keep in mind that at the time of our dinner (2 days after the shooting), the police had released little information about the crime; we were all speculating based on what we had read or heard about Newtown, and similar shootings.  

a)   the mother (what kind of mother keeps four assault weapons in a house with a child with mental health problem?)
b)   gun availability (anyone can buy an assault weapon with minimal oversight)
c)   mental health problems (shooter - diagnosed, mother – remains to be seen)
c)   the media (turning shooters into “celebrities”)
d)   pharmaceuticals (mismanagement of anti-depressants, other medications a factor?)
e)  business case (there is money to be made by pharmaceutical companies and gun manufacturers for keeping population in constant state of fear)
f)  access to violent video games and TV
g)  lack of meaningful connections/care in family/neighborhood
h)   divorce of parents
i)   no job prospects for young adults
j)  social isolation/”loner”
k) we are a nation involved in multiple wars
l) lack of crisis intervention in schools

     Then we erased the board and started a new list of action items—things we could do to prevent this kind of violence from happening in our community and in communities across the country. “Writing our representatives,” to encourage them to support tighter gun control measures and to support counseling services in our public schools. We soon discovered that we weren’t exactly sure of our state gun-control laws or where our representatives stood on the issue. How about contacting our county commissioners instead? We didn’t know enough about county gun laws to jump on this plan either. How about our neighborhood associations? What about our own neighborhoods?  Hey, I said, what about us?
     Here we sat, three married couples collectively having raised 6 kids to adulthood, pointing fingers at a single gun-proud mother, her troubled son, and a host of problems they evidently failed to control. We were in dangerous territory: we had made ourselves exceptional. We had distanced ourselves from this mother, this son, and their community’s problems. We were expecting our elected officials to fix the problem. We were approaching this the wrong way. So I took a risk: I asked a round of uncomfortably personal questions questions. Through raised hands alone, here is what we learned:
   All six of us had been lax parents at times,  that our kids weren’t always happy in high school where they often seemed depressed and isolated, that we let our kids play violent video games, that we took them to movies that glorified guns and violence, that our sons had had occasional violent outbursts, that at least one kid in every family had undergone some type of psychological counseling for depression at one time, that our medicine cabinets contained more than Pepto Bismol and Advil, that we had watched for warning signs of suicidal behavior at one time or another, that our kids were anxious about the economy and finding jobs, that we adults didn’t know all our neighbors. And that everyone household had a gun.
     I felt ashamed and horrified admitting to all of these things—especially about the gun (one used 30 years ago for skeet shooting, but still a gun). But there we were, our true confessions bringing our families closer to shooter Adam Lanza and his mother and our community closer to Newtown. What was the tipping point? We were inclined to blame a severe imbalance of pharmaceuticals, but then retracted it. Any of the 11 factors could tip the balance. Now what? What meaningful change could we enact?
   One couple vowed to eliminate the recent holiday laser-tag event at their office party during which they admitted (much horrified) they were “running around shooting kids!” Less than 12 hours after our dinner party, our friends notified me that they had succeeded in getting their company to agree to eliminate laser-tag from its 2013 holiday party…and every party after that.
   Another couple planned to spend more time talking to neighbors and engaging their son and his friends in conversation about Newtown, gun control, and about reaching out to their peers who might need support.
    My husband took up the job of writing our state and U.S. representatives. The U.S Congress, sold and delivered to the gun lobby, needs to enact meaningful reform—to support tighter controls such as limiting gun purchases to one a month, restricting sales of high-capacity magazines, imposing a universal background check for gun buyers, and backing efforts to microstamp handgun shells. Enacting these reforms will take a while, but the pattern of mass shootings needs to end: there have been 68 deaths from 8 separate shootings since April 2012.  At that rate, we are due for another one in January or February.
     Me? I will keep this conversation going—with my kids, neighbors, extended family, friends, and community. One young man took twenty-eight lives on Friday. One conversation might help save a life or lives. Conversations heal woulds, bind neighbors together, help keep the troubled out of trouble.
     Do something—no matter how small you think your effort might be—to keep your town from becoming the next Newtown. I believe it will make a difference.