This past week we spent several days in Boston area, interviewing some really fantastic people for our documentary. After a morning meeting in Massachusetts on Friday, we got on the highway to continue our journey. On highway 84 we turned on the radio and were horrified to discover that 20 little kids and several adults had been killed in one of the largest mass murders in America’s history.
As the details unfolded, I glanced down at our map. Turns out we were four exits away from Newtown, Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it. What were the chances that after visiting 8 countries in the last two months, this little town was literally minutes away from where we were at that moment. We took the exit and stopped to say a prayer for Newtown, and the families whose long journey of mourning was just beginning. The coffee shop was packed with journalists and photographers. A local woman was being interviewed. The baristas looked shell shocked, teetering on the edge of tears. In this quaint little town, with its beautiful Christmas decorations and cozy homes, an event of such magnitude seemed like a crude paradox.
We spent that night just minutes from where another massacre took place a few years back, at West Nickel Mines School in which 5 Amish girls were killed. Now we are in Virginia, where the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history took place at Virginia Tech in 2007. The theme of the last 24 hours has been gun violence.
I have a hard time taking off my goggles of prevention. My passion for prevention has only grown in the last few months as we have been examining the issue of sex trafficking through that lens. As a result, I have been asking myself what prevention looks like in many other contexts as well. Teen pregnancies. War. Cancer. Domestic abuse. Poverty. Gun violence.
On bus, train, plane, and car rides over the past several weeks, Jay and I have spent hours discussing systems. We need to put systems into place that protect us from ourselves. Just as there are systems that allow sex trafficking to flourish, there are systems that enable other abuses and crimes to exist.
A researcher we interviewed recently pointed out that not only does the law have a penal effect, but also a normative one. Laws have a role in shaping societal norms, and societal norms can promote or deter violence, or exploitation, or abuse. America’s gun violence problem leads me to look at the system that allows it to flourish. When a 20 year old legally has access to a weapon akin to what is being used in war combat, I must start asking the question of what message is being sent through the law. Rifles are used to hunt animals. Handguns and semi/automatic weapons are used to hunt people. Though the law itself cannot stop someone who is determined from walking into a school and opening fire, it can make it harder for them to access a weapon and it can certainly shape societal attitudes regarding the acceptability of using a gun to deal with various circumstances.
Deep down we all know that even gun control is not primary prevention, because the real causes reside within people – pain, anger, disappointment, revenge, bitterness, mental health issues. Addressing these is a much more complex journey. We need each other. This has certainly reminded me of the importance of being intentional in my own relationships. Systems and laws aside, to “know and be known” not only helps prevent things like this from happening, but promotes the opposite – love, belonging, hope, and real community.
As the sun made its blazing decent, I could not help but think of how Newtown, in one tragic day, had indeed become a new town. I grieve with the families who lost their little ones in this sad event.