I was in high school when the Columbine shootings occurred. I attended a large suburban high school that did not seem all that dissimilar from Columbine. There was a palpable…maybe not fear…but discomfort in the halls in the days following the tragedy. An abstract fear had suddenly became something within the realm of possibility. Shortly after Columbine I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper urging school leaders to resist the urge to overreact with security measures that limited student freedom and autonomy. I believe I requested leaders to not turn our schools into a prison. Perhaps they took my advice because nothing changed.
I was living on the Southside of Milwaukee when a white supremacist murdered six people at a local Sikh temple. My wife baked cookies and we took them over to our neighbors who worshiped there.
The day I interviewed for my first academic job (the one I have) was the day of the Sandy Hook massacre. Between meetings I followed the details on my phone, I was shocked like everyone else, but also convinced that this is it. This was the tragedy that will finally open the policy window for action. The next day I returned to work at my conservative leaning think tank and penned a call for the right side of the aisle to embrace more common sense gun control. I received a little bit of pushback, but found people across the political spectrum willing to recognize we had a problem. Of course nothing changed.
In 2016 I wrote, in response to the Orlando massacre: “To me the best response to this tragedy is a steady commitment to our ideals as an open pluralistic society. If we as a nation lose that, we lose our very humanity.” After the Las Vegas shooting I had nothing to say.
Today I am once again writing about more mass shootings. I know that nothing I write will change anything, I write for me as part of my struggle to make sense of things. I can point fingers. I can blame incivility, I can blame mental illness, I can overthink it a million different ways. But one of the things that attracted me to public administration was the field’s commitment to addressing issues as they exist, not as we wish them to exist. Mental illness is part of the human condition. We can and should take steps to address it, but it will always exist. Incivility in our politics is something we can and should push to the fringes, but it will always exist to some degree.
The common denominator in all of these mass shootings is easy access to guns. The main difference between the U.S. and other similar democratic societies vis-à-vis mass shootings is they do not have easy access to the weapons used in mass shootings. The reasons these shootings occur are complex and I am not dismissing the role of mental illness, hate, and the like. But the simple direct issue that can be addressed through policy change is gun control. Not taking meaningful action because of our ideological loyalties is a choice we make as a society. The consequences of that choice will no doubt continue.