Phil Chamberlin was his name. He died of encephalitis. Phil was a friend at Westminster College—a good friend. I can still see his face as his body was on display at the funeral.
The experience was jarring—death of a young friend will leave an indelible impression. I had lost relatives but all were older and their years ahead were few. But, a 19-year-old whose health seemed at a peak?
I wonder if today death arrives with the same impact. Or does death of another remain an abstraction? It seems that each week brings another story or two of a shooter gone mad. Most often the shooter is killed so we are left to wonder at his motivation. And yes, his, is almost always the pronoun.
Motivation is a curious word, often used. Why did somebody do something unexpected is frequently the subject of conversation. But when it comes to taking the life of a person unknown to the shooter motivation seems an aimless search. Back in the day we would simply say he was mad, insane.
All this leaves me to wonder whether life has been devalued? Whether our sensibilities have become deadened by sheer volume? Calloused. I say this because we really don’t do anything very meaningful to reduce the risk. Maybe rather than video of a police official explaining what happened the news media should assault us with visuals of those killed.
Certainly, the culture has moved. Electronic games featuring killing have intensified. Intensification defines 21st Century marketing. Guns are easily acquired; guns that have much the same capacity as military armaments. And over time we learn that while protective policing is needed there isn’t enough money in the world to make a substantial difference given current gun laws.
When I first came face-to-face with the loss of a youthful friend mass shootings were virtually non-existent. Maybe the non-existence is informative. Maybe the story tellers were more responsible. Maybe more people went to church or synagogue and paid attention to the Ten Commandments. Am I wrong, was there more accountability around? Certainly, the available guns were less lethal and the shell magazines were of much lower capacity.
But there was more; the dignity of life. The evil of taking a life. The act spreading shame in the shooter’s family. And in the media, editors then followed a logical but upsetting news dictum: “If it bleeds it leads”. No longer, mass shootings have become a commodity news story.
In many ways we now live in a gun culture. They have become sport well beyond hunting. They have become symbols of manliness. They are often a part of poorly written screenplays in which weapons play the leading role. They have become a prop used by people who live in the moment, finality is not their concern.
A plan to reduce mass shootings eludes me. When a seemingly immunized article of the Constitution is paired with callousness, I’m not sure any plan will work. But we should push against the inertia and I say this as a hunter.
So let me go from the more philosophical to the operational. Red flag laws have been passed in 21 States. This is Wikipedia’s definition: “a red flag law is a gun violence prevention law that permits a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who they believe may present a danger to others or themselves. A judge makes the determination to issue the order based on statements and actions made by the gun owner in question. Refusal to comply with the order is punishable as a criminal offense….”
None of us have deep knowledge of how efficacious Red Flag laws will be; they are too new and the provisions vary. What we do know is that we have a very real problem. Not only are innocents dying but America’s reputation is suffering.
I emphasize Red Flag laws because we are all tired of political talking points. Mass murderers are not going to pause while we sort out interpretations of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. As I type these words, the United States has faced at least 351 mass shootings so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Florida leads the nation in the use of Extreme Risk Protection Orders or ERPOs. Studies have found that rather than using the term red flag law the public is more responsive to the ERPO language. Of course simply tracking the effectiveness of red flag laws on a state-by-state basis, while a good beginning, fails to adjust for State cultural and population differences.
National leadership is needed. It should be bipartisan. On the Left, the ACLU has argued against Red Flag laws stating that “People who are not alleged to have committed a crime should not be subject to severe deprivations of liberty interests…in the absence of a clear, compelling and immediate showing of need.” And on the Right the 2nd Amendment is often used to excuse the inexcusable. Protecting innocents is a first principle.
In the meantime, the great majority of Americans favor ERPOs or Red Flag laws. They favor going beyond the blockade of politicians whose debating points are stale and whose attitudes have become calloused.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.