The most recent in a spate of mass shootings calls upon our courageous capacity to act in a new way. The circumstances surrounding this travesty, as in Sandy Hook, Charleston, and Sacramento, are familiar. Mental instability finds direction and affirmation in hate groups, and a combustible ending through firearms designed for mass destruction. We have only two choices at this critical juncture in our nation’s trajectory: embrace a courageous path forward, or a cowardly one. The choice we make is intertwined with who inhabits the White House next year, and our economic and cultural future.
Examples of Success Abound
What happened yesterday and as far back as many younger Americans can remember is neither inevitable, nor irreversible. Acting courageously at this moment in our history is fundamental to our collective future as a nation. In prior writings on this site (Lessons from Nelson Mandela) and elsewhere in four books (See Failure Is Not an Option ™ for example), I’ve shared five elements of courage, as well as the origins of the word, which comes from the French root “le Coeur” or “heart.”
Echoing past, failed approaches or aphorisms ( like: “guns don’t kill people – people do!”) when faced with a crisis is not courageous. Nor is generalizing the act to an unrelated group, or promising retribution before confirming the perpetrator’s identity. The outcome of such actions is still with us more than a decade after invading Iraq.
Operating from the heart – as if one’s own child were affected – moves the conversation away from the politically correct; pandering to one’s “base;” or being swayed by politically or economically powerful forces in America. While raw emotion, anger or hatred might hold sway for a brief period, most parents who have lost a child will eventually, courageously turn to questions like “What might I have done to prevent this?” and “How can I protect others from the same tragedy?” While we can’t bring back those whose lives were taken, we can take steps to assure their deaths were not in vein. It begins with one of the principles of courage: Facing the facts and our fears.
Look North to Canada
If we turn our eyes heavenly – or at least to Canada – we see a democracy with a very similar demographic to America, and with a citizenry that is filled with hunters, and gun enthusiasts. The number of guns per capita in the Northwester regions of Canada are consistent with that found in America. Yet there has been only one mass shooting in Canada’s recent history, and in 2012 they had 173 homicides by gun compared with 9,146 in the USA. School shootings in Canada, moreover, can be counted on one hand. Why?
There are likely many contributing factors to Canada’s success. They invest heavily in the education of their citizenry and far outrank us on international exams like PISA; they have social nets and baseline health care for their citizenry so their mentally ill citizens aren’t desperate as they are here; and their media doesn’t extol the virtue of violence.
Beyond all these factors, a Canadian who may still be inclined to commit acts of mass murder would be challenged to do so. Law-abiding, mentally stable Canadian residents can obtain a gun after the proper waiting period of 60-days, a safety course and a background check. None of these criteria are necessary in America in private gun purchases. It would be easier to buy a gun here than to rent an apartment, or register to vote in many states. This is true of purchasing high-powered automatic weapons as well in the United States.
Other examples of success are available to draw from for courageous leaders seeking real answers over rhetoric.
A Courageous Shift in Australia
The modern-day Australia, that began with the arrival of 11 British carrying banished convicts from South Wales, has long had a reputation fueled by its rugged and often violent history. Yet 20 years ago in April 1996, following a mass murder of 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, the country’s leaders found the courage to pull together and change their trajectory. Australia’s leaders had the courage to use this crisis as an opportunity to unite, not further divide the various stakeholders, and provide real protection for its own citizens, versus bluster around getting tough on some little known, or non-existent distant enemy.
Within weeks, the country united to defend itself from itself. The gun-protection legislation they enacted was reasonable and amenable to doves and hawks alike. Most importantly they haven’t had such an incident in 20 years, and gun violence is down 50%.
Courage isn’t about wildly striking out at weaker foes, those who don’t look like us, or those we fear. It’s about overcoming our own fears to take wise, positive, and decisive actions aligned with our hearts.
As Pogo said after a long search for such foes: “We met the enemy and he is us.” What we do next will be a test of true courage and determine our character as a nation, and all that follows.
Harvey Milk prophetically said, If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door. It would be something if, to mourn those 50 people lost in Orlando, our political leaders unified around that cause.