Hello. Yeah, its been awhile. Like the rest of the country, and the world – I have been mourning the precious, priceless lives lost in Newtown, CT last week. And having a very, very, very hard time dealing with it all. The incessant media coverage most particularly. While I want to stay up to date with breaking news, I must – and have – shut down the news except for brief periodic check ins for no more than 10 minutes at a time. My Christmas tree, so incandescent and sparkly at this time last week – has lost its brightness and luster. Christmas Carols make me cry. I’m crying at odd moments regardless. The feelings are overwhelming. We’ll get through it – but we won’t EVER get over it.
So, just how DO we have “meaningful conversation” about this horrible tragedy and move towards prevention of a repeat? The issues are so multi layered and interconnected. The knee jerkers would institute a broad ban of firearms. I speak now as a country girl with a long family history of responsible firearms use behind her. My grandfather was featured in a 1967 issue of American Sportsman magazine (before it was a TV show) – as one of the preiminent hunter/sportsmen in the New England area. At his knee, we all learned how to responsibly and carefully use guns (in my case a .22 rifle). One of the things I learned was this, : “Use the gun you need to get the job done, nothing more, nothing less.” Which brings me to my first thoughts: Civilians do not need to own or have access to assault weapons. These firearms belong in the hands of well-trained and evaluated military and police personnel, period. Hunters and outdoors men don’t use HK6’s or a bushmaster to shoot deer or elk. There wouldn’t be much left to the carcass if they did. Sure, it gives people a thrill to utilize that kind of firepower -but these types of guns are not necessary for hunting or for self defense for the average citizen. A 9mm Glock, or a Smith and Wesson.38 or .45 will do the job quite nicely, thank you. Just because one WANTS the rush of a 100 round a minute shoot-em-up does not mean one NEEDS to have it. Its time we wake up and realize as Mick and the boys would say ” We can’t always get what we want.” Or rather, we SHOULDN”T always get what we want.
I am a strong supporter of the right to bear arms. But with that right comes a great and terrible responsibility. In my mind, this has to mean meaningful CHANGE in the processes by which we allow our citizens to arm themselves. It should not be easy to obtain or retain ownership of a firearm. I propose a certification and training system similar to how we license people to drive.
1. Minimum age requirement. I suggest 18 and up. My hometown was sadly the scene of a horrible tragedy in 2008 when an 8 year old was STUPIDLY allowed to fire an Uzi; shot and killed himself in the process because he did not have the motor skills or the hand eye coordination to handle the weapon safely.
2. Certification from a physician that in their medical opinion there is no physical or mental impediment to the person owning and using a firearm.
3. Completion of an intensive multi-hour training and certification course (like drivers ed at least 20 hours of gun range time and also classroom instruction) BEFORE you are allowed to even purchase a weapon. And, mandatory recertification every few years. We can track when dog licenses expire and fine owners. We should be doing the same type of thing with firearms. (and generate a new revenue stream in the process….) Also, making ammunition more expensive.
4. Legislation that would hold gun owners completely liable if they do not store and lock their weapons safely and someone gets hurt as a result of their negligence.
5. If you are living with someone with mental illness you cannot own or possess a firearm. You should be held criminally responsible if you do, and something happens.
Meaningful conversation about this also MUST include a discussion about mental health. I have worked in Human Services for over 30 years and I can tell you we are most definitely NOT doing enough to assist our brothers and sisters who are afflicted with developmental disabilities and mental illness, their families, or the hardworking staff who support them in their daily lives. I started out in the field doing per diem shifts at group homes for the mentally ill. Doing “awake overnights” much of the time. And being scared, a lot. Staff are provided “applied non-violence” training which consists of about 24 hours of hands on and classroom instruction about how to defuse explosive situations and physically get yourself out of hairpulls, choke holds etc. And how to restrain someone when necessary. I can tell you from experience this training is only helpful when you have to use it on a regular basis. And, if the individual gets hurt as a result of any intervention a staff does, the staff is required to report themselves to the DPPC (Disabled Persons Protection Commission) as an alleged abuser – even if the person just got a bruise in the course of being restrained. Direct care staff take off their rights as individuals when they arrive at work just like you take off your jacket when you get home. I have multiple scars from bites and scratches, and arthritis in my shoulder and hip from injuries I received while working with aggressive individuals. All this staff do for the bargain basement price of about 10 dollars an hour, barely above minimum wage. That in itself is not right. Direct support is an incredibly difficult job. Staff must be caretakers, negotiators, mediators, teachers, chauffeurs, and also dispense medication. They are also required to do charting, write progress notes and reports as well. Most of them are not college educated.
My experience as a direct support staff working with the mentally ill ended thusly: I worked the awake overnights at an “Intensive Supervised” apartment program in town. Which meant I worked with people with severe mental illness. I was on my own from 10 pm to 8am with 3-4 individuals. I could ring a buzzer to summon a staff from the third floor if there was a problem but back in the 80’s that buzzer was high up on a wall – I could not press it wirelessly. One day, we were informed at a staff meeting that we would be getting a new admission. This young man had been arrested in town after breaking into a gun shop and wandering down the street with the loaded rifle – while hearing voices that he should kill people. He was promptly involuntarily admitted to the State Hospital which was still in operation at the time. The clinician who was reporting to us at the meeting said that, while he was still having issues and hearing voices, he was considered stable enough to be discharged. That night, I had a horrible nightmare that I arrived at work to a bloodbath on the walls and the young man jumped out from behind a wall with a bloody axe – screaming in my face “You’re next!” I quit before he was admitted to that residential program, and found meaningful work within the developmentally disabled population, where I have remained ever since. I brought up this incident a few years later in conversation with The Viking. In a strange coincidence he informed me that he had been asked to come down to the police station for a line up identification after the gun shop break in – because he lived down the street and had the same physical description as the mentally ill young man (6’1″, blond hair, blue eyes, late teens/early twenties) Weird, huh? These days I work in an administrative capacity – direct support is most definitely a job for younger folks than me. But I digress.
Better care of the mentally ill starts with better medical insurance coverage for families who’s members suffer from this terrible disease. It contunues with better access to facilities for treatment, better access to psychotropic medications at an affordable price, and a more streamlined involuntary commitment process (in balance with and a sensitivity to individual rights of course) And a system that is willing to assist people in making difficult choices. We must keep in mind that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. We must increase wages for direct care staff and provide them all the support and training they need to help the individuals they work with every day. In my opinion we must also reopen discussion about institutionalization for those with severe mental illness. Those who present a danger to society because of their disease. This is already happening within our penal system. We are warehousing the mentally ill in places like Rikers Island in New York and have been doing so for quite some time. Prison is not the place for these people, surely we can do better. These folks have no choice about their behavior. We have to assure that those folks living in the community stay on their medication, and if they won’t – make sure they are institutionalized safely where they cannot harm anyone. We must also support family members to monitor their loved ones. Its not gonna be easy. EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE ON THE TABLE in order for any conversation or solutions to be “meaningful”. These issues are too important, we need to act thoughtfully, responsibly and quickly. I’ll end with a prayer:
Please guide our steps and heal our hearts as we move forward through our grief to finding sensible solutions to the problems we face. Help us protect our most vulnerable citizens; and give our leaders the moral strength to make the decisions that do the most good for the greatest amount of people. Please place your loving protection around the families who have lost so much – and help the rest of us to support them as we too grieve their loss. Amen.