What the Numbers Don’t Tell Us

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. –Jeremiah 31:15

I am writing this the day after a teenager walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and killed nineteen children and two teachers, and wounded 16 others.  Before going to the school, he had also shot his grandmother.  This was just 10 days after a young white racist killed 10 people and wounded 3 at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York.  Nine days ago, another gunman killed 1 and wounded 5 people at a church in Laguna Woods, just down the freeway from here.  In the past 10 days, there have been 17 mass shootings across the United States, resulting in the deaths of 44 people and leaving 89 wounded.  This is just a small 10-day sample of the 213 mass shootings which have already occurred in 2022.  By the time you read this, that number will be higher.  I guarantee it, because there were a total of 693 mass shootings in 2021 and we’re already on pace to match or exceed that.  You can see all the numbers at www.gunviolence.org.

There have been a total of 119 school shootings since 2018.  There were 34 school shootings in 2021, and the shooting at Robb Elementary was the 27th so far this year. 

There are 393 million guns in private hands in the United States, the equivalent of 120 guns for every 100 citizens.  Fifty-three people a day on average are killed by firearms in the US.  79% of all homicides in our country are caused by guns.  

According to Pew Research, 53% of the people in this country favor stricter gun laws, including universal background checks.  NPR and Forbes place that number at 60%.  Gallup breaks that down, finding that 91% of Democrats favor stricter gun control but only 24% of Republicans and 45% of independent voters.  77% are in favor of “red flag” laws that would remove firearms from the hands of persons in a mental health crisis, spousal abusers, and persons who threaten violence.  All in all, the takeaway is that a clear majority want stricter gun laws.  Two major gun control measures were passed by the House of Representatives last year: the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 and the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021.  Both bills are stalled in the Senate.  Think about that for a moment.  Fifty Senators are blocking legislation that the majority of the people in the country want to see passed.

All of that is just numbers.  Those numbers describe a country that is addicted to personal weaponry far beyond all need or reason, a country where life is cheap.  Those numbers tell a story of a country that is so sick in its soul that significant numbers of its people are so turned inward on their own fantasies or pain that they can’t see the other people around them as, well, people.  Not even children.

Those numbers tell us a lot.  But they don’t tell us anything about the pain of bereaved families.  They don’t tell us anything about the heartbreak.  They don’t tell us anything about the fear that scars the survivors of gun violence for life.

Nineteen kids in the 4th grade didn’t make it home from school yesterday.  That breaks my heart.  But my heartbreak is nothing compared to the devastation the families and friends of those 19 children are experiencing.

Nineteen 4th graders.  That hits so close to home that I can’t stop the tears as I write it.  Two of my three grandsons, the twins, are in 4th grade.  Their mother, my daughter, Brooke, is a former School Psychologist.  My son-in-law, P.A., is an elementary school principal.  Here’s what my daughter wrote on Facebook earlier today:

“This morning I talked to the twins about the Texas school shooting before school.  I remembered my school psych training, where we had to practice how to discuss this exact topic with different age groups.  We were taught to emphasize how rare it is for this to happen.

But…I just couldn’t say those words without feeling like a complete liar.  Instead, I reassured them that it is very unlikely that something like this would happen at their school and we discussed the safety measures in place.

And then I left them at school.  And I couldn’t stop worrying.

What if someone starts shooting at recess?  What if they’re in the bathroom?  Where are the most likely entry points?

If they come through the office this might buy enough time for the children and teachers to get into their locked classrooms.  But then, what will happen to the people in the front office, like P.A.?

What will happen to all my friends who are administrators, school psychs, counselors, speech pathologists, administrative assistants, parent volunteers?  What will happen to the teachers? WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE CHILDREN?

What if one fourth grader comes out of the school, but not two?  What if three kids come home, buy my husband doesn’t?”

The trauma from these incidents isn’t limited to the victims and their immediate families.  It spreads out in ripples and damages all of us.  I am heartbroken.  But I am also furious.  I am furious with a culture that lionizes violence.  I’m angry at a culture that makes life so cheap.  I’m furious with a country that puts profit above health and safety.  I am particularly angry at the politics that greases the wheels of all this.  I’m incensed by 50 Senators holding the country hostage to this violence while their campaign chests are being stuffed by the gun lobby.  And, quite frankly, I am also angry with all the people who wring their hands and say we’re helpless, that nothing can be done.  I am furious with all those people who work to oppose common-sense legislation to curtail the damage done by an overbroad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.  The words “well-regulated” are in that amendment.  Let’s start there.

We long ago crossed any imaginary threshold of an acceptable number of deaths.  We are way past the threshold of patience.  We have spent too much blood on the altar of alleged “rights” and not nearly enough sweat on the sacred ground of responsibility.

And yes, we need to pray.  We need to hold the victims of our violent culture in our thoughts and prayers.  We need to ask God for help.  But we also need to ask God for the courage, the wisdom, the will, and the vision to be part of the solution as we try to find a way to disarm this country and to address the alienation and dysfunction that’s at the heart of these incidents.

Finally, I know that some people who read this will not like what I am saying here.  I offer no apologies.  My ordination vows obligate me to speak for justice and to stand with victims.  But beyond that, I want to live in a country that loves its children more than it loves guns.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve

Another Sacrifice to the Shadow god

So. Another mass shooting. This time at a community college in Oregon. Last time it was at a church in Charleston. The time before that… well, I’m losing track.

I sit here confused. Not stunned anymore–it’s happened too often now. Not brokenhearted. I think I wept enough over Charleston that my well of anguish has run dry and I confess that the part of me that checks my own spiritual, psychological and moral pulse is more than a little worried about that. Not outraged. My outrage, too, is spent.

I sit here confused. And sad. And more than a little worried for the world my grandsons are growing up in. And more than a little fearful for the schools where my wife, my son-in-law and so many other persons I love so dearly are dedicating their lives to guide others down the transforming path of education. I sit here sad, worried, and fearful. But mostly confused.

I’m not confused about what will happen next. That’s all too boringly predictable. What will happen now in this great mediasphere in which we all spend too much of our time and energy is this. We will have a new cycle of anti-gun vs. pro-gun arguments. A few Facebook friendships will be terminated. But this cycle will be shorter than the last one because each one gets shorter as we become more accustomed to, less surprised by these random acts of violence. Blended into that small tornado will be a lot of talk about how we need to do more to care for the mentally ill, but the focus will be more about how we might be able to spot the dangerous psychopaths than how we might actually care for this unfortunate contingent of our population.

I’m not confused about how we came to be in this bizarrely immobilized nexus of violence. I study history. I doesn’t take a genius to graph the rise in gun possession and the radical neo-con reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment against the defunding of mental health care. On a more esoteric level, it would probably be useful, too, to include some pages on the deconstruction of America’s common mythos of mutuality and how in its place we’ve been sold a mythos of individualism mixed with a simultaneous real-life devaluing of the actual individual in any kind of meaningful context of community. I would need to include the decline of the Church and religion in general in all that. No, I’m not confused about how we got here. The story is a bit complex, but not really all that long because it wasn’t all that long ago that it simply wasn’t like this. I know. I’ve lived through the changes.

It wasn’t always like this.

Some history. And a warning before you read any further: in what follows, it is not my intent to trash Ronald Reagan, although I confess that as one who lived through his era and has looked at his record in some detail I really don’t see any validity in lionizing him the way some do. Nevertheless, what follows is probably going to read as though I’m targeting him and blaming him for our current state of affairs. If it seems that way, it’s because, while history is complex and even starting points have roots somewhere, the fact is that everything does have a starting point and more than a little of the difficulty we face now began on his watch. I really don’t mean to malign Mr. Reagan. But history is history.

As both Governor of California and later as President Ronald Reagan let bottom-line accounting overrule both compassion and common sense. The irony here is that this kind of accounting, which is so necessary in a household, is disastrously short-sighted and crippling when applied on the macro-economic scale required by a national economy. I could write a good deal more about the fallacies and short-sightedness of Reaganomics, but I’ll save that for another time.

When Mr. Reagan was Governor of California in the late 1960s and early ‘70s it seemed to him like a good cost-cutting idea to close down all the state mental hospitals. It looked good on the bottom line and helped to “balance” the budget— to match income to outflow on an annual basis as he moved to give new tax cuts to corporations.

In 1980 when he was elected President, one of his first acts was to discard the Mental Health Systems Act which President Carter had signed only a month before. Again, it seemed like an easy way to cut a huge chunk of change out of the budget which would enable him to cut corporate taxes. So for one year-end report and a corporate tax cut, you get a better looking bottom line. But what happens next?

Here’s what’s happened. According to USA Today (2014) it now costs us, nationally, about $444billion a year to care for the mentally ill in our current non-system system. Most of that is toted up in ancillary costs that have to be paid for through interesting tricks in accounting since the category itself is largely defunded. It’s paid mostly by counties and communities, very few of whom have personnel, funds or facilities specifically designated for or prepared for dealing with mental illness.

Today in California there are 124,000 homeless people. 40,000 (1/3) of them are on the streets because they are mentally ill and simply incapable of managing themselves into a residence (2013 Sacramento Housing and Regulations stats). According to HUD figures, the cost to the state is $40,000 per year per homeless person, most of it in police, community services, shelters, and temporary series-hospitalizations, which means a total cost of $1.6billion per year to take care of mentally ill homeless persons living on the streets of California. Another 30,000 mentally ill in California are housed as inmates in our prisons at a cost $50K per annum each. That’s $1.5 Billion (Dept. of Corrections), for a grand total of $3.1billion per year. But according to the state’s Medi-Cal estimates, it would only cost about $900million to provide the necessary psychiatric care in home-based or institution-based residential systems like we had before Reaganomics. That would be a savings of $600million per year.

Aside from the cost in dollars there have also been staggering social costs as the homeless mentally ill become a ubiquitous feature of our urban and suburban landscapes. When I was a kid, my buddies and I took off in the morning and came back home when the street lights came on. We rode our bikes for miles and hung out in the city parks unsupervised by parents. I can’t imagine my grandsons doing that now, and for every blog I’ve seen on free-range parenting, I’ve seen an equal number of responses from people who think the idea borders on neglect because the world now is just too dangerous for that.

So when all is said and done, the free-range mentally ill are actually costing us considerably more than can be measured in mere dollars and cents. In light of all this, it seems grossly illogical to complain about or be perplexed by mass shootings by mentally ill people when we are failing to provide any treatment whatsoever for 40% of severely schizophrenic and bi-polar persons in our midst. Historically speaking, our budgetary priorities created the problem. Historically speaking, our refusal to properly regulate guns because we refuse to balance individual freedoms with collective responsibilities weaponized the problem.

So where does that leave us? We’re not willing to more strictly regulate firearms, to insist that they only be available to well-vetted, well-trained persons for use in a specific context, even though the 2nd Amendment begins with the words “A well-regulated militia.” And we’re not willing to pay for the necessary care and therapy for those poor souls whose mental illness makes it impossible for them to find a place where they fit in the world, which pretty much guarantees that from time to time the more violent among them will find access to some of the more than 300 million firearms abroad in this country and use them to act out their own pathologies and short-term mythologies in ways that are dangerous, tragic and horrifying for the rest of us.

And here’s the part where I’m confused. Apparently we’re okay with that. Apparently we’re okay with these random outbursts of bloodshed and violence. We must be, or else, like Australia, we’d do something about it. But apparently this continuing sacrifice of innocent victims is a price we’re willing to pay, although why we’re paying it, what it’s buying us, has never been explained in a way that makes any sense to me.

Why are we willing to continue tolerating these increasingly frequent episodes of bloodshed? Is this a sacrifice demanded by our society’s unnamed but clearly violent shadow god? Is that why so many treat guns as if they are somehow more sacred than the human lives they steal so abruptly? Is protecting corporations and the wealthier individuals among us from an additional 1% or 2% in taxes more sacred than providing care for the mentally ill?

We know what the problem is. We know that it rises from the easy availability of firearms intersecting with the lack of care for the mentally ill. We know this, so we know that fixing those two things would stop the bloodshed. But we don’t seem to want to. And why that is–why we just don’t want to– might be the most important question of all.