When my nine-year-old daughter asks me if something like what happened in Newtown can happen at her school, I say “No, absolutely not.” I tell her that things like this simply will not happen. Can we know for sure that horrific things, unimaginable things, will not happen? No, the truth is we cannot know for sure. But I do not believe that children understand probability, certainly not young children. Therefore, to tell a child that the probability is very low that something this terrible, this scary, will happen again, I feel, is not helpful to the child. “The probability is low” to a child’s ear, and particularly an anxious child (which most are these days) sounds like it could, and therefore probably will happen again. Children need to know things for sure; they need absolutes, not maybe-s. While there are very few things we can actually know for sure, as parents, we need to create the experience of a world that has some certainty, some no matter what-s, some safety. There is a time to get comfortable with uncertainty but childhood is not that time.
In thinking about all this, I began to wonder about us adults and what we need in a world like the one we live in. Do we also need to know that something, anything is for sure? In a world so volatile, and frightening, with politics, the economy, and weather so unstable, and violence a constant presence, it seems that we adults also need a few places where we can know that it–whatever it is–simply can’t happen.
This brings me to the issue of guns. It is actually in our power to create a world where people cannot get access to weapons that kill. Why would we not choose to make it impossible for us to kill each other, and it is increasingly clear that we do kill each other. Why would we not make it impossible for the horror of a Newtown to happen again? If civilians cannot get access to guns then other civilians do not need guns to protect themselves. If civilians cannot get guns then they cannot kill innocent children with the guns that they don’t have. Why not give ourselves the certainty that this kind of tragedy cannot be repeated? To those who say, “But even that won’t guarantee it,” of course we all know that. There are exceptions to everything. But the truth remains: if people cannot get guns, people will not be killed by guns. While it may not be a foolproof solution, it may be as close to a “this can’t happen” as we can get.
I wonder too, why is it that those with mental illness increasingly express their disease in a manner that will afford them notoriety? Are these monstrous tragedies what it looks like when the disease of our society, the desperate need for attention—regardless of cause—intermingles with a mentally ill mind? Is it possible that our cultural obsession with fame is now appearing in an even more destructive manifestation?
The right to bear arms is in the constitution, an inalienable right of all people. But we are not who we were and our culture is not what it was when that document was written nearly 250 years ago. We need to change in response to the way our world, our culture and our people have changed.
Why not give ourselves one place of certainty in this increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world? We can do this; it is within our power, unlike so many other things. When I tell my child that this kind of terrible thing absolutely will not happen again, I want to know that this is not just what she needs to hear, and what I need to say, but also what is true.