Shortly over a year ago, Adam Lanza—a profoundly disturbed twenty-year-old man—fatally shot his own mother before walking into Sandy Hook Elementary School and gunning down twenty first-grade students and six staffers. The atrocious rampage was the second deadliest shooting by a single person in US history. It left families destroyed, hearts ruined, and a nation devastated.
As an immigrant from Europe, where the use of firearms is relegated exclusively to law enforcement, I’ve struggled long and hard to accept the US’s policy on gun control. The Second Amendment gave citizens the right to bear arms during a vastly different era, and one can’t help but ask: What is its validity and purpose in a modern society, particularly when it can lead to horrific events like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary? We are one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries on the planet. We pride ourselves on freedom and justice. We value education, the environment, community, family and, namely, peace. And yet, in spite of this, as a recent study found, America has more guns and gun deaths than any other developed country in the world.
The heartbreak left by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary was squarely on my mind when I went to the movies several days ago. And so I was stunned and distraught even more than usual as I sat through the trailers. All six of the previews showcased a hero who used excessive violence. All six of the previews featured an assault weapon of some kind. All six of the previews, it seemed, idealized the protagonist precisely because of their power to kill. As the day progressed, I was hyper-aware of the amount of violence we’re subjected to on a regular basis. A number of music videos glamorize fire arms. Images of death and destruction are prevalent on almost all news sites. Many video games, like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto,” encourage hostility, promote aggression, and reward players for causing death and injury. In short: The “culture of guns” in which we live is inescapable.
Our youth is incredibly susceptible to the messages portrayed in violent material; those who are mentally disturbed and have a difficult time distinguishing fiction from reality are especially vulnerable. And when access to assault weapons is viable, the reality that some, like Lanza, want to create—to escape their misery, to attain the glory, honor, and acclaim that’s lavished upon violent characters in film, television, and video games, or to exercise their aggression—has the potential to happen all too easily.
We are ruthless when it comes to seeking justice and condemning murderers, and we need to be equally ruthless when it comes to restricting violence in the media. As parents, we need to limit our children’s exposure to antagonistic movies, television shows, and music. We need to monitor the video games they play, and encourage them to participate in activities that take them outside, into nature, and away from television and their computers. We need to support educational efforts that help children understand the enormous divide between real and fictionalized violence. We need to explain the desensitizing effects of overexposure to violence. As citizens, we need to advocate for new policies that force media producers to take greater responsibility for violent content, support bills that examine the impact of violent video games and programming on kids, and call for more severe firearm restrictions. Moreover, we need to promote mental health awareness and work together as a society to remove the stigma associated with mental illnesses so that people like Lanza, Jeff Weise, and Jacob Tyler Roberts, among others, receive the professional help they require. In the wise words of Andrew Solomon, who wrote a poignant, provocative piece about Lanza for the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/opinion/sunday/anatomy-of-a-murder-suicide.html?_r=0), if “we want to stem violence, we need to begin by stemming despair.”
I’m not capable of altering or eradicating the Second Amendment. I’m not capable of single-handedly improving our gun laws to ensure that weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands. But I am capable of controlling the volume and intensity of violent images and behavior my family consumes. While doing so, I’ll be mourning the senseless deaths that have happened in the past, praying for those who are grieving in the present, and hoping for a future in which mental health services are as straightforward and accessible as obtaining a firearm. I hope you’ll do the same.
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