The school shooting in Newtown, CT, affected the nation in a profound way. How the small New England community will heal is an endeavor that defeats most human understanding— my own included. However, the manner in which we as a nation will respond in the short term— not the long term— is absolutely critical.
I thankfully was not directly affected by the tragedy. I knew no families who lost loved ones. My friends who are Connecticut educators teach in other districts. Yet, Sandy Hook Elementary School is 10 miles from the house in which I was raised. That makes such a tragedy not a distant, anonymous act of violence but one for which I can apply familiar imagery. To me, that is unsettling and terrifying.
However, we all grew up 10 miles from Sandy Hook. We all live in or have family from small, tight knit communities. You know this town even if you have never had the opportunity to be there. This tragedy revealed not just a fear about the unpredictability of life and the worst of human capacity. It revealed a need to address public policy, and we must.
Too often in the face of policy crisis, we as a nation are too timid or too angry to address solutions. This is the case for acts of gun violence and for topics thrust to the fore by newsworthy, sudden events. We either justify inaction by saying “now is not the time”—cowardice in the first degree. Or we vilify opponents, politicize policy ideas, and poison the discourse that offers the only path to preventing a repeat of history.
What first springs to mind in the wake of a mass shooting is a debate over gun laws, but this tragedy exposes much more. A debate on guns must be had, but we must also have one about school safety. We must also have one about our opinion of teachers in society. We must also have one about mental health care, for patients and families of patients.
Now is the time to address these issues in a level-headed, scientific, solution-seeking way. We must do this at the local, state, and federal levels. And we must do this at a personal level. We have an absolute obligation to ourselves, to our communities, to our nation, to our constitution, and to the victims and families of this tragedy and others like it.
The approach is straightforward but not simple. First, we must change our rhetoric, then our policies.
Gun owners cannot be seen as violent, unbending, dangerous individuals. Gun control advocates must not be seen as anti-American, anti-freedom supporters of government intrusion. Nor must we think that gun owners and gun control advocates are different people. Most who own firearms understand fully the need for laws that protect society. There are extreme factions on both sides, but let that reality not dictate the debate. Let the more moderate views of almost all Americans drive legitimate, beneficial policy solutions.
Similarly, we must improve our ability as a society to provide mental health services to not only to those with access, nor only those who want them. We must provide them to everyone in need. We must sever the recent health care debate from the one we must have now.
Opponents of universal health care consider it European-style, socialist policy that is harmful to freedom. In the context of mental health care, we can do better than this debate. Mental health care touches each of us in our lifetimes. It ranges from depression over the loss of a loved one to PTSD among our brave soldiers (and now brave teachers) to a diagnosable violent psychosis. Addressing how we improve the personal, medical and societal need for this care must become a critical cause.
What is worse: universal access to mental health services or universal mourning and grief? Should we prefer government officials helping those with mental illness and need or first responders storming an elementary school or house of worship or theater or mall or home or business or wherever tomorrow’s act of violence will occur because of untreated illness? We must look inward; we must debate policy now; we must do better, but ultimately, we must.
In response to this tragedy, many Americans will work to protect their Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms. We should also work to preserve the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the laws. That guarantee will remain unfulfilled until mental health services are inexpensive, easily accessible and without stigma. Expanded services and a system better able to deal effectively with those with violent tendencies serve the individual, the community, the nation, and the community of nations.
On Sunday, I returned to the United States from a business trip in Europe. When a ticket agent in the airport in Paris saw my home state on my passport, sadness flushed her face, and she said, “I am so sorry for what your state is going through.” I thanked her and thought, “Why must this be how she thinks of my great state and our great nation?” In reality, it is not, and we must do better.
Editor’s Note: John Hudak also took questions on this topic in a live webchat. Read the chat transcript here.