“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
This is one of my favorite Irish proverbs, and I find it particularly poignant now. A few nights ago, I attended The Vigil Against Gun Violence, Extremism, and Racism in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. We were responding to the recent horrific shootings in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
In both cases, two men hell-bent on murder acted on their despicable thoughts, leaving trauma and heart-rending grief in their wake. I won’t glorify them by writing their names, but I will elevate those who will never be returning to their families as a result of the rampages.
In New York, the victims were all African American, toward whom hatred was a weapon as sure as the projectiles shot from his gun. In Texas, the 19 children and two teachers died, in part, because of the actions of someone determined to create carnage and the inaction of the police who, for an hour, did nothing, while children were terrorized and murdered.
Allegedly, he said “Good night” and “You’re all gonna die” before opening fire. Some of the children pretended to be dead, with at least one child covering herself with a friend’s blood so that the killer would think he had dispatched her too. The damage to their little bodies was so severe as to render them unrecognizable, so the parents needed to do a DNA swab to match genetic material with their precious children. The damage to the psyches of those who escaped is incalculable. I hope that trauma specialists are at the ready to help heal these children whose wounds are invisible.
As a therapist, I have paradoxical opinions about the mental stability of anyone who would pick up weaponry to intentionally commit murder. There are those who adamantly declare that by linking gun violence to mental illness we are furthering the stigma against those with psychiatric diagnoses. How can anyone claim to be emotionally stable when contemplating and following through on such heinous acts? And where were the families and friends of people who saw the signs and did nothing to intervene?
Posts on social media declaring racial hatred, texts to friends intending harm, threats to self and others all should have been obvious red flags. I had read that the Uvalde killer had self-injured by cutting his face and the few friends he had thought he was just acting weird. He was bullied and isolated, and at one point, someone in a four-person chat he was on asked why he bought the gun and wondered if he was going to “shoot up a school or something.”
So many questions. What the hell were the people thinking? If they saw that this kid was deteriorating, why didn’t they tell someone? If the grandmother saw the cuts on his face, why didn’t she get him help? If the person or people who saw the private message had called the police, the tragedy might have been averted. I am not blaming them for his actions; that is on him alone. This was such a horrible combination of his mental state and the easy accessibility of weaponry.
How did an 18-year-old who worked at Wendy’s have the money to buy an AR-15-style rifle and the tactical gear to go with it? To be clear, I am not saying that people with mental health issues are likely to pick up a gun. I am not saying that people who are bullied are likely to pick up a gun and go on a rampage. The shoulder-shrugging acceptance of violence and the fetishizing of weaponry contributes. The frightening part of this and so many other mass killings is that sometimes we don’t know what goes on in some people’s minds until they take action. This person left clues as evident as Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail. Why the f*ck didn’t people follow it?
I also ponder the reality that the majority of mass shootings are carried out by white boys and men. According to Jackson Katz, Ph.D., Founder and President of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), “Over 99 percent are done by boys and young men. If the main factors were either mental illness or availability of guns, the two pillars of the mainstream debate, then why aren’t 50 percent of the shootings done by girls? It seems so basic, doesn’t it? Because girls have every bit the mental health challenges as boys, and the same access to guns.”
When I was at the vigil, I listened to community members and local politicians share thoughts on the matter. Many quoted statistics and urged making our voices heard with our votes and called out legislators who are beholden to the gun lobby. As I listened, I was inspired to step forward and speak as well. I can’t recall everything I said because it was channeled in the moment. I will attempt to recreate what I shared as I looked out at the folks gathered around, signs and candles in hand.
I introduced myself as a therapist and interfaith minister. Then I added that I was a mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law of a teacher who didn’t sign up to be a bodyguard when she started teaching in 2003. I touted the importance of being in the comfort of community while we mourn and speak out with our words, our letters, to legislators, and our votes.
No one should ever fear for their safety.
People matter more than weaponry used to kill them. This should not be a partisan issue. Bullets, guns, and shooters don’t care who you voted for. If those who are NRA members and legislators who vote against sensible gun laws think it can’t happen to them or their families, they are in denial. If those who put their second amendment rights ahead of the lives of their community and think it can’t happen to them or their families, they, too, are mistaken.
To everyone who thinks thoughts and prayers will be enough to comfort those who have lost loved ones or prevent this insanity from happening again, they are desperately misguided as well. If prayer was sufficient, why would mass murder happen in houses of worship? I quoted a powerful line from one of my favorite books called A Wrinkle in Time, “Stay angry, little Meg.”
My initial reaction when I heard the news was numbness, hopelessness, and then upping the amps to full-blown, protective Mama Bear rage. I am determined to use the anger as a tool rather than a weapon. I encouraged people to not allow these crises to isolate them from the world, but instead to reach out to others, to family, friends, clergy, and therapists. If they have a spiritual practice, I urged them to use it to comfort and heal their hearts. I told them that I have regular God-versations. In the midst of them, sometimes the most profound question I can pose is WTF? I don’t always receive the answers I want.
I consider the impact on this type of trauma on the survivors and the families of those who were killed. As a therapist, I know that this kind of trauma can last a lifetime. There are suggestions for ways to speak with children about gun violence. Even this is insufficient because the reality is anything can occur at any time and any place. I would encourage allowing for expression of emotions about what occurred and remind them that there are more people in the world who are kind, caring, and non-violent. “Sesame Street” touches on the subject as well.
Friends had their input on the topic:
“Did sermons on this. But did a play on words. Shelter of others, depending on circumstances, could be shelter, yet it’s all you know until you can break free and find true comfort and shelter. Or, until those creating the disturbance understand that we are meant to be a protection and safe harbor for one another. Philosophical differences or survival strategies can lead some to dominate perspective on what shelters us.”
“I always feel how sad it is that it takes a crisis for people to be together. Once it is over, regardless of the fact that for some it will never be over, life goes on. Thank goodness for organisations like The Parents of Murdered Children, The Compassionate Friends, Victims Services of Montgomery County. Many others and they never forget.”
My dear and wise friend, Dr. Yvonne Kaye, is angry and she doesn’t care who knows it. She is using her indignation to insist on change in gun regulations.
When gun owners say that the problem isn’t the gun, it is the person holding the gun, I remind them that without possessing and using a weapon of war, anyone whose minds are so dark and desperate to do ultimate damage wouldn’t be in a position to inflict as much. I saw a meme that said if one child hits another with a stick, you hold the first child accountable and you take away the stick.
Actions you can take:
>> Donate to Mom’s Demand Action.
>> Donate to the City of Uvalde’s fund for the victim’s families.
>> Contact your legislators to demand common sense gun reform.
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