I can’t watch the reports on TV now, not without turning away. I can’t read them in newspapers or hear them on radio. It’s not because I have a granddaughter who will be 6 in a few days, or a grandson who is 5 and lives in Connecticut. I listened to President Barack Obama on the day of the shooting in Newtown, but I turned to a different channel when he spoke to the nation two days later. He is saying and feeling what we want our public leaders to say and feel, but he can’t offer what we need. He can’t offer comfort – 20 little boys and girls gone. He can’t offer explanation. He can’t even offer hope. He can only bring himself to say we have to change. He can’t say more because he doesn’t truly believe, and we don’t truly believe, that more is possible.
I can’t look at the pictures of the kids. Their faces plead for an answer. I can’t listen to the parents or families. Their grief is too exposed. I can’t listen to the media. They know they have to say something. They talk about the murderer shooting his way into the school, having Asperger syndrome (perhaps), being home-schooled (perhaps), about the inaccuracies of the early reporting – as if any of this matters. It doesn’t matter. They, we, Mr. Obama, we’re all babbling. We need to be able to say, “Never again,” and we can’t.
We know what’s coming next. We know that, after the funerals, when we can no longer hide behind the grief, we have no answer. Emotions will turn to politics and issues. Old divides will be reopened – rural-urban, red neck-intellectual, red-blue – old roles will be taken up, old arguments will be fought with old words, passions will rise, each side will sound heroic to themselves and demonize the other until the fight won’t be about 20 dead kids but about immutable and irreconcilable “principles” – and the result will be the same. No real change and, in a year or so, in some other part of the U.S. in a place whose name until that moment we haven’t heard, we’ll go through this again.
I can’t watch because grief without hope of an answer is pointless. I can’t watch because we can’t even give to the parents of the kids who died their one desperate modest hope – that some tiny little good can come out of this immense awful bad.
When I was a kid growing up in a suburb of a big city, my father had two hunting rifles, and my older brother, after a lot of coaxing by our parents, had a .22. My father, every few years, went deer hunting in the fall, until he didn’t go at all. When I was about 11 and 12 and about once each year, my brother and I went to the family Christmas tree farm and shot at tin cans or fence posts with his .22. Once, the three of us, my father, my brother and I, went partridge hunting. They each shot a partridge; I don’t think I even saw one. At other times, the guns stayed in the attic. Once, seven years ago, on a trip to Israel as a minister in Paul Martin’s cabinet, I shot at a target in an indoor shooting range with an AK-47 to find out what it felt like. That’s the extent of my direct experience with guns. We don’t have a gun, and have never considered having a gun, in our home.
In the occasional explosive pressure of sports, a player will sometimes lose it. A batter might charge the mound; a tackler might target an opponent’s head; a hockey player might swing his stick. As a goalie, I slashed at opponents’ legs. I’ve screamed at a TV. I’ve felt hatred I didn’t know I had in me. I’ve lost it. Some people trigger easily for chemical or other reasons; some seem too controlled and rational to ever trigger at all. But everyone has a trigger point. It’s in everyone to do something stupid.
When I do something stupid, I don’t want it to be really stupid. I don’t want it to be so destructive to someone else or to me that it can’t be undone. A punch in the nose can be undone; a gunshot in the head can’t. That’s why I don’t want a gun around our house.
This isn’t about knowing how to treat a gun, about being around guns all our life so we know how to use them and know what damage they can do. This isn’t about accidents, cultural traditions or constitutional rights. This isn’t about having a gun so it’s not only criminals and police who have guns. This is about human behaviour that will not change, and the one time in a thousand when unable to control ourselves we lose it, and the one time in ten thousand or more when we lose it with more than abusive language or the power we wield. Gun experts, like everyone else, can be stupid, too.
A few hundred years ago, people could also lose it. But with a Brown Bessie musket, four shots a minute – tops – then a long reload, they couldn’t do much damage. Today, with a Bushmaster .233, 30 shots in a few seconds, push a button, a new magazine, 30 shots more, they can do carnage.
It doesn’t take a crazy person. This is about mental illness only in small part. The media asked students who knew Adam Lanza what he was like. From what they said, he sounds a little odd and disconnected, but not so different that he’d set off any alarms. This is the hardest part. We’re never going to spot an Adam Lanza before he becomes Adam Lanza. We’re never going to be able to secure schools so an Adam Lanza can’t get inside to do his damage. The answers we want aren’t answers.
It isn’t just sick stupid people who do sick stupid things. But without opportunity, bad things are less bad.
Maybe once it made sense for all citizens to have guns. Maybe life made it so. Maybe the trade-off then in collateral lives lost was minimal and acceptable. Then technology changed. Human behaviour, of course, did not change. We are left with a lethal mix. We hold dear our traditions while we kill each other.
Twenty years from now, the latest Bushmaster will be able to fire many more rounds much faster, and a person normal-enough looking to be invisible will lose it and massacre scores more kids before police can get close enough to him for him to kill himself. The next gun control debate is just beginning. If it begins in the same place as every other time, it will end in the same place. And it will end in the same place if it’s driven, as it always is, by politicians and politics. But if it’s driven by simple humanity, by natural, normal human outrage that refuses to accept explanation and excuse, that refuses to be buried under politics and process, that refuses to accept what’s humanly unacceptable, if this is the tone and voice of the debate, if its leadership comes from here and politics is only its means – because Mr. Obama, the Democrats, the Republicans and the media, overwhelmed by history, will not truly believe change is possible unless the public believes – if this debate begins here and stays here, it can end in a different place.
Ken Dryden, a former MP and an author, is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He played goal for the Montreal Canadiens from 1971 to 1979, and for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.