Sunday, November 5th at 11:20 a.m., a deranged white man donning all black, a ballistic vest, and an assault rifle casually walked into the First Baptist Church in small town Sutherland Springs, TX. There, he opened fire on the unsuspecting congregation as they were waiting for the Sunday sermon to begin. Devin Kelley managed to kill 26 people between the ages of 5 and 72, and he injured 20 more. With this act of domestic terrorism, we now have the largest mass shooting in the history of both the state of Texas, and in a place of worship.
As details emerged throughout the day on Monday Nov. 6th, we learned that Kelley was 26 and twice married.Though a motive wasn’t yet named for his actions at that time, Kelley reportedly had a domestic situation with his mother-in-law, a member of First Baptist Church. He had previously served in the air force before being court-martialed in 2012 on one count of assaulting his wife, and another count of assault on their young child.
Two years later he was dishonorably discharged with 12 months confinement, and a reduction in rank. He allegedly tried to get a gun license in Texas but was denied. Still, he was able to obtain a Ruger AR assault-type rifle, and a week before the massacre, he posted a picture of an apparent AR-15 style semi-automatic weapon on Facebook along with the caption: “she’s a bad b*tch.”
In the aftermath of this horrific event, in his usual manner, the President issued a few apathetic stock phrases at a press conference. Reading from a script, he referenced how Americans “join hands & lock arms” in the face of tragedy, and he offered his (and America’s) “thoughts and prayers.” Seemingly, an attempt to build social cohesion, but on the delivery Trump failed to invoke any emotion whatsoever. Not that anything is wrong with “thoughts and prayers” – it’s a phrase many of us use when there simply is nothing good to say – but coming from Trump, who cannot trust himself to take his eyes off-script for even just those three words, it feels incredibly disingenuous.
Not to mention, at a time like this, thoughts and prayers alone can no longer suffice. Any self-professed Christian should understand this. Jesus himself said that we are not to offer prayers alone at the expense of doing something practical (“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” – James 2:17). Throughout the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus’ life included a healthy balance of both prayer and action.
When Jesus encountered the adulterous woman who was facing not only public humiliation but also a torturous death by stoning, he didn’t merely offer his “thoughts and prayers” and then head on down the road. He stayed with her. He got down on the ground, drew a line in the sand, and called for the one without sin to cast the first stone. What do we do to protect people? Thoughts and prayers are a start in the healing process, but they need to be accompanied by action. (Preferably, action in the way of informed, local voting. We simply need to show up.)
When questioned at a joint news conference in Tokyo on Monday, it came as no surprise that Trump refused to blame this heinous act of terrorism on guns, considering that the NRA broke their own record in 2016 for campaign spending, giving approximately $36 million to their beneficiary, Donald Trump and his campaign. With the NRA literally owning Trump and the GOP, it’s also no surprise that we can expect no compromises – or action, for that matter – on the gun control debate. Every hollow “thought” and “prayer” issued by the GOP in the wake of our 378th mass shooting in 2017 is about as useful as an inflatable dartboard.
It’s also interesting to note that Christians as a whole – the group more likely to offer up prayers in the wake of tragedies – are also more likely to own guns and to oppose stricter gun control measures than those who aren’t Christian, or even religious. Between the NRA’s stronghold over the predominantly religious GOP and narcissistic Donald Trump, who claims, “I alone can fix it,” gun control measures aren’t going to happen. (Actually, I think we all know that decision was decided with Sandy Hook.) Sadly, it’s now a beyond-lost cause.
So now, instead, the debate has turned to the issue of “mental health.” Yes, our country is woefully lacking in good and affordable mental health care. But honestly, hearing Donald Trump say of the Sutherland Springs shooter, “This is a mental health problem at the highest level” is actually kind of the highest level of irony, since Trump himself has been diagnosed as “narcissistic,” a “sociopath,” and worse, by both armchair and renowned psychiatrists alike.
I don’t know about you, but I’m just kind of over the blame for mass shootings always falling on America’s “mental health problem.”I absolutely agree the healthcare system often fails patients with mental health issues. But, we don’t need to further stigmatize mental health, nor do we need to mistake mental illness for “raving, murderous, sociopathic lunatics.” I mean, we should at least separate “sociopath” from the rest of us Americans who live daily with mental health issues, yet still manage to be productive, functioning, decent humans who positively contribute towards the betterment of society.
I have mental health issues in the forms of dysthymia, anxiety, panic disorder, and OCD. There are millions of others like me, yet we don’t own semiautomatic weapons or ever think of actually killing people. In fact, every country in the entire world has mental health issues, but what don’t they have? They don’t have the ready access to guns that any and everyone in America has. Guns are the one common denominator that makes America’s gun violence problem so unique.
I’m also wary of the oft-referenced pro-gun argument that it’s “pointless” to make new gun laws because “murderers are going to commit murders regardless of any regulations, restrictions, or laws;” a.k.a., “criminals will be criminals!” To make that kind of statement is to suggest that anarchy is America’s reigning principal, and we therefore shouldn’t even bother with trying to enforce restrictions because humans are just hard-wired to commit crimes and murder. That’s exactly what the NRA wants us to believe, because to not believe that would put a financial hurting on their bottom line.
I call it a gun problem; Trump calls it a mental health problem. Well, since he has identified what he thinks the problem is, what is he going to do about it? It’s anyone’s guess, but actually, President Trump signed a bill last winter that made it easier for people with severe mental illnesses to buy guns. In so doing, he magnified what he claims the problem is. In so doing, he nullified regulations signed by President Obama immediately after the massacre of 26 people (20 of whom were 1st grade children) at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The regulations President Obama signed in 2013 were predicted to prevent approximately 75,000 people with severe mental health issues from buying guns. Trump reversed that. Why? Because he owed a favor to the NRA (who, by the way, publicly applauded Trump’s action in signing this bill). Of course, we know there is no guarantee, no absolute stopping of mass shootings altogether. But what we can hope to do is to lessen the amount of harm done with assault rifles. Can we at least agree that that is a reasonable goal?
Unfortunately, with Trump in power it will never be about sensible gun restrictions, not when “mental illness” is the perfect, all too convenient scapegoat. With scapegoating, we can take our uncomfortable feelings surrounding why other humans commit mass shootings, and we can project those uncomfortable feelings onto an huge entity like “mental illness.” Because it is already a vulnerable thing, mental illness is an easy scapegoat; it can’t defend itself because it’s already stigmatized.
Once we’ve named the thing responsible for this reprehensible behavior, we can dehumanize mental illness (conveniently forgetting that 1 in 5 people suffer from some form of it), and then we can conflate mental illness with “raving, murderous, sociopathic lunatics,” and we can comfort ourselves by knowing that, by the grace of God, we don’t know any “crazy people who’d do something like that.”
The dehumanization part of scapegoating is very important to this process because it makes the scapegoat more scary and more powerful. Ultimately, we allow the scapegoat to be a sort of pre-ordained cosmic fatalism, and therefore, it relieves us of any guilt we may feel on our parts. This line of reasoning is a set up for epic disaster after disaster, and a never-ending cycle of “thoughts and prayers” being regurgitated ad nauseam.
Thoughts and prayers are meaningless without action. The second amendment needs to be amended (which it absolutely can be, because it’s literally called an amendment). When the 2nd amendment trumps the right of innocent people to simply live their lives, it’s time for serious thought, prayers (if that’s your thing), and action – action that leads to tangible change.
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