Please note that as always these thoughts are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the National Register Board of Directors or its staff.
50 Americans are dead and over 50 more wounded in yet another episode of horrific gun violence in this country. This time, yet another historically disadvantaged community was targeted–though how many of the dead were members of the LGBT community we don’t know. These were young people in Orlando, gay and straight, out having a good time dancing on Saturday night. We don’t know how many of the dead were gay, we don’t know how many were straight, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that they were killed by a homophobe who had twisted his religious ideology into a justification of hate. They’re dead. Just like it doesn’t matter that the parishioners in Charleston were African American or that they were killed by a racist European American male. They’re dead. Hispanic, black, white, grade-schooler, middle-schooler, high-schooler, college student, movie-goer, it doesn’t matter. They’re all dead.
You and I are complicit. We have accepted the deaths of these grade-schoolers, high-schoolers, college students, parishioners, dance-clubbers, movie-goers, all. We have accepted these deaths because we have grown either complacent or cynical about the number of weapons of mass destruction that are available for legal purchase in this country. We have accepted that the Aurora, Colorado, shooter could legally purchase online - needing nothing more than a valid credit card- thousands of rounds of ammunition and ultra-high capacity magazines.
The newspapers note somberly that this is a record–the most killed in a single episode of domestic gun violence in America. Please don’t pause to take note of this. This record will certainly be broken, and probably sooner than we dread. After the massacre in Charleston last year, the Register published its Sourcebook on Gun Violence. Some readers wondered if it were the role of the Register to comment on events like the Charleston massacre. This is a good question, though not for the reasons those readers might suppose. After all, the psychological response to trauma and grief is perforce limited. However much we may help an individual come to terms with the effects of violent loss, the loss has already occurred, the victim is forever and brutally gone, and the lives of the survivors (for there is never just one survivor) are ineluctably altered. What we can do to assist these victims and their communities pales in light of the ever-growing threat of mass gun violence.
I served over 20 years in the US Navy. I wear expert marksman Navy rifle and pistol medals and qualified as Marine Corps expert pistol. I carried a sidearm while serving on the 1st Marine Division combat surgical team in Fallujah. I have seen what guns do to humans- Marine, sailor, soldier and civilian alike. I also know that because armorers, combatants, and officers treat weapons with the respect they deserve that it’s far more difficult for honorable men and women in the US military to get a weapon than any citizen with a credit card and a grudge.
There will be plenty of outraged columns and editorials like this one– so many that it really doesn’t matter. There will be plenty of other opportunities in the future to write similarly outraged columns. So in the end it really doesn’t matter. Maybe we can help a little bit – maybe we can help survivors make sense out of shattered lives, maybe we can help communities understand the destructive power of hate and intolerance. But unless we – as psychologists, but more importantly as members of our communities – take concrete action, we will not have done very much at all.
What should such action look like? One obvious step is to restrict the availability of high velocity, multiple round assault weapons. But this problem is more nuanced than a ban on assault weapons can address. A ban is a political and some might argue a moral decision, arguably necessary but not sufficient. As psychologists, we have ethical obligations to act in the best interests of our patients. This means that our involvement cannot be merely reactive, but must also ameliorate long-standing inequities that lead to feelings of alienation, hopelessness and despair. These feelings and other manifestations of multiple inequities need to be addressed in the consultation room. Our scholarly literature on societal inequities and "isms" shows that both therapists and patients are too often silent on these issues.
Finally, as doctoral-level health care providers we have an ethical obligation to demonstrate leadership by example. Compassion, empathy, tolerance and understanding can be taught, modeled and disseminated. What better profession than we to do so?
For those 20 plus years I served as a naval officer, I lived by the Navy ethos: First ship, then shipmate, then self. In other words, the collective need is greater than the individual need, and we must answer to the needs of those around us before answering to our own. A difficult ideal to live up to, but perhaps one that can provide a rudimentary guide to help us out of our current dilemma.