A few days before writing this commentary, my husband went into town on a quick errand. When he didn’t return for a longer time than expected, my first thought when I began to worry was this: Could there have been an act of gun violence?
While waiting nervously for him to come home, I learned that two days earlier in Bellows Falls an 18-year-old, part-time, “provisional” sheriff’s deputy armed with a gun and with inadequate training had fired his weapon next to a school — which fortunately was closed — and into a house where a bullet landed in a bedroom wall. Luckily, no one was injured.
What might easily have been a tragedy in my small, sleepy, rural town was deeply disturbing. It was also unimaginable, which is what we all think when our sense of immunity in the face of growing gun violence kicks in.
In a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, I wrote, “How is it possible that an 18-year-old person not long out of high school is permitted to serve on a police force, part-time, with a firearm, with limited if any training when research reveals that it isn’t until the age of at least 24 that the human brain is sufficiently mature to have developed impulse control and sound decision-making? Why is a junior, part-time cop in a small Vermont town allowed to carry a gun, especially without adequate training?”
Why, for that matter, is anyone so young allowed to readily purchase or gain access to guns — and in some states to open-carry them; especially long, lethal guns designed for military use specifically to kill?
It is notable that numerous research studies published in recent years have addressed the issue of brain development and its relation to impulsivity and poor decision-making in adolescents. The studies are highly relevant to the issue of young people, including junior cops, who are males between 20 and 30, having access to guns. They show that “poor cognitive control and the tendency toward impulsive behavior influence the ability to make reasonable choices in daily-life situations during adolescence. In fact, many risky behaviors … are closely related to impulsivity in adolescence ….”
Put colloquially, “Neuroscientists are confirming what car-rental places already figured out — the brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25. Up until this age … the part of the brain that helps curb impulsive behavior is not yet fully developed. Some scientists say this could illuminate a potential factor behind a recent spate of acts of mass violence.”
The many questions flooding my mind and the mind of so many others in the aftermath of the Uvalde massacre are questions that have loomed ever larger since the slaughter in Newtown, let alone all the other school killings and fatal shootings in malls, movies, markets, clubs, churches, and other venues. They are questions that contribute nonstop to rage, grief, sadness and fear, all of which have grown exponentially until these feelings begin to inhabit our bodies in alarmingly somatic ways that illustrate the mind-body connection many of us now experience.
Some questions regarding gun violence are rhetorical, while others are frustrating beyond measure. Why, for example, after Newtown, have legislators on one side of the Congressional aisle — the side that wants to protect fetuses but continually prioritizes guns over babies or child welfare — still be able to remain in office? Why expect more guns to resolve the epidemic of mass shootings, or think that teachers with guns are the solution, as if teachers would take up arms when trained cops are afraid to in the face of military weaponry that rips bodies apart in seconds? Why are we the only country in the developed world with this growing, egregious, tragic problem even though other countries have mentally ill citizens, too?
Those are big questions for all of us to ponder, but like other moms, wives, family members, friends and others, my personal questions haunt me to the point of neurosis because of the horror of continuing gun violence: Why haven’t the kids texted or called back? When will they phone to say they’ve arrived home safely? Is it safe for me to enter this bank or that restaurant, the grocery store, a performance venue? Should I walk here? How can I not be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Would I survive unspeakable loss?
In searching for a relevant end to this rumination I read copious anecdotal and empirical works about situational anxiety and depression, written or spoken by notable as well as lay people, before guns and violence became so much a part of our lives. They all sounded like tired cliches, superficial sound bites in this time. Now the urgency of what I read about anxiety and depression related to gun violence is markedly different. It is a collective, clarion call pleading for an end to what has become our country’s new, hideous, destructive normal.
I am reminded of something Martin Luther King Jr. once said, in a different context: “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl, but by all means, keep moving.” If that’s the most a governing body can offer its citizens, what does it say about who we have become, and where we are headed?