Friday, 21 December 2012

Guns and Roses...

Picture courtesy (via Google Images)
I may be wrong, but the Connecticut massacre, on Friday, 14th December 2012, seems to have had even more publicity than many previous mass killings. Perhaps it is because of the fact that this has involved kindergarten infants and their bravely protective teachers, and that it has painfully and poignantly made us all feel the grief to a much greater degree. I felt myself choking up in my own grief, thinking all the while of my own grandchildren, whilst I watched some documentary background on the whole thing the other night.

Equally, but perhaps more uncomfortably, it is not difficult to understand the utterly heart-wrenching position of some parents, who, in life's random deck of cards, are dealt the hand of a child with a mental illness and all the side effects of this condition, both on the child and on their family and wider community. The USA's crisis with mental illness is also easy to understand, and is clearly illustrated in this article, but it is not just confined to the USA. It is everywhere in the world.

The response to the Connecticut killings has, as ever, polarised commentators, politicians arguments and discussion. The anti- versus the pro-gun lobbies are lost in their own arguments about whether or not tighter regulation of firearms is a relevant solution. It does not surprise me, however, that not enough has been made of the discussion about mental illness, quite possibly because it is so often a taboo subject, particularly amongst the better educated and more affluent middle class. 

Let me explain that statement. 

When I point a finger at the 'middle classes' I do so with reservation, but not to be 'accusing', and not just as a reference to the natural process of denial, in a social class for which mental issues could be deemed an 'inconvenience'. There are of course those who have had to endure any number of experiences with children suffering from some form of mental illness, whether this be a less severe form of depression or the most serious mental illness such as that - and this is an assumption, prior to the official conclusion - which it would seem very likely affected the ill-fated young man responsible for the killings in Connecticut. I would, in fact, argue that mental illness knows no class boundaries. It is just as likely, if not more so, to affect the less well educated, the less privileged in society. However, I defer to the educated, affluent middle class, because they are more likely to have the ability to lobby, to articulate and to influence the powers that be, to help create a seed change in attitudes toward mental illness. It is only our denial, our inability to cope with mental illness, that causes this block to genuine progress. Yes, it is very hard to come to terms with mental illness, when it is so close to home.

If I were to summarise my feelings about this disaster, it would be in this way... 

Unlike the central theme of media coverage, which seems to have been focussed solely on the gun laws, I maintain that there is no one single cause that needs to be looked at; no one single course of action, on its own, that needs to be taken in response to Connecticut and all the other killings; there are, in fact, several things that need to happen in parallel. Let me propose at least two of those things.

The first is not only that more resource and education is needed to create a wider and more thorough public awareness, understanding and, perhaps the most important objective of all, acceptance that mental illness is a fact of life. Whilst improving how everyone in society can learn to cope with mental illness is very important, to improve it's treatment by the medical professions is equally so. I have personally witnessed the best signs of the use of CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) lead crisis teams to support the individual as well as their family, which is a logical extension of an holistic approach to treatment that enables, empowers the service user as well as the people close to them to assist in the healing process and thereby reduce dependence on the pharmacy as well as the paid professionals. It would appear, on the face of it, that there is a gradual change in the establishment's attitude to the treatment of mental illness, although, from some perspectives, there is still a long way to go! The following article, written and presented in his previous life by friend and Poet, Peter Wilkin, is a revelation to me: "A Feminine Economy of Caring: Gifts and Wrapping". There is also a follow-up article, by Peter Wilkin, that appeals to the poetic as well as to the logical spiritVale of tears or Vale of Soulmaking? Keats’ gnostic vision as an alternative to mainstream mental healthcare’. 

There is another trend emerging. Organisations that promote understanding of mental illness are gaining an increasing presence, particularly with the aid of social media. There are a number of front running organisations like Rethink as well as personalities like Alastair Campbell (search for articles in his blog on the subject of 'mental health' and you'll find plenty), successfully raising public awareness in this way. 

Meanwhile, back in Newtown, Connecticut...

The second thing that must happen, whether or not you are a supporter of the Second Amendment (that part of the United States' Bill of Rights, which protects the rights of people to keep and bear arms), is an old favourite logical argument of mine. Given my scientific training, if you have any understanding at all of the statistical concepts of chance, probability and risk, it cannot be denied, that, whilst tighter firearm regulations will not necessarily remove the risk of these incidents altogether, the irrefutable logic for me is that reducing the ability for everyone to get hold of guns and ammunition, restricting access to firearms, simply must result in a reduction of the probability, the risk of such incidents recurring in the future. The number of firearms in circulation and available to be used, must be proportional to the number of victims of gun crime. If this is not obvious, then please explain to me why? It is a matter of proportion: getting things in proportion to their potential effect on an outcome.

It is unlikely to be coincidence that, following a massacre, at the Scottish Primary School in Dunblane, of sixteen infants and one adult in March, 1996, and the banning in the UK, one year later of handguns, particularly those used in this incident, which were magazine loading semi-automatic weapons, no subsequent such incidents, at least at a school, have recurred. The only subsequent incident, the Cumbria shootings in 2010, was marked by a different set of circumstances, not involving school children, albeit still using guns, but not handguns.

I therefore do not believe that tighter restriction in the availability and ownership of firearms cannot enable a reduction in the risk of such incidents recurring in the United States. Nor can I believe that a sizeable number of United States citizens, particularly parents of small children, don't feel the same way. It may only be those, perhaps with a vested interest in the firearms industry (understandable), as well as those absorbed by the dogma and 'tradition' and almost sacramental belief in the Second Amendment, who oppose such restrictions, and who, I believe, are blinded by that conviction. The Second Amendment, like any law or regulation, anywhere in the world, was written and constituted by people; it can by altered, like any law in any land, by people.

It is people, their mental health, safety and security of their families and communities, which are the most important features of civilised life on earth. So come on, Mr President Obama, have courage to bring about significant change; sow the seeds of such change as could have far reaching consequences, for the benefit of mankind. Let us put down the guns and pick up the red rose 
that represents the love of humanity. 

(The poem, "Rose Petal", which I wrote eighteen months ago, in response to another, but different signal, seems more than particularly poignant in light of these circumstances).


  1. The fact that this essay simmered on a back burner, while you had to attend all those other bits of your holiday menu, is a grand thing, John.

    It shows the distilled and intense thought of a man not given to carelessly boiling over with leap-before-looking discourse.

    Thank you for your reasoned and heartfelt thoughts, my dear friend.

    1. Joe, my friend, you must think me rude for not acknowledging your kind comment, but it disappeared into spam, oddly! You've commented before on this blog, so I've no idea why that should have happened.

      Anyway I do appreciate your input here.

  2. Such a thoughtful, considered & well researched post, John. I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing. The mental health issue/problem is one that I can only see increasing, sadly. Something must be done to address it. I am very thankful to be having a happy & peaceful Christmas, surrounded by loved ones. I wish you the same, and everything good in 2013 x

  3. Rachel, thank you for your comment and it's very good to hear from you again.

    Yes, like you, I count my lucky stars and particularly this Christmas will be thinking of those families in Newtown, Connecticut, who will be deprived, not only of little innocents, but also of the opportunity to renew their joy at seeing the sparkle in the eyes of a child at first sight of the Christmas tree and how this can refresh the otherwise laden grownup spirit. These families will be feeling crushed this year.

    God bless you and yours.

    1. just a shame he didnt just take his own life and have done with it instead of killing all the rest. very selfish really but the good thing is I dont envy where he now finds himself after what he's done.Afghan Andy.

    2. Thanks for calling in Andy, and, indeed, we wonder.

      Maybe, just maybe, in his last moments, he might have had a sudden awful moment of remorse, in the light of what he'd just done. But, then, I wonder how a seriously disturbed mind works under such circumstances; we'll never know.

  4. Wow, John, heavy post for me to read just hours from a new year, but it’s an important subject, no doubt.

    As with everyone else across the globe, I was outraged by the killings of children and adults in this latest incident of gun violence in the US, but I have to say I was not surprised. These horrific incidents have become much too commonplace in America. Each time a killing occurs, there is an outpouring of grief, debate and then more debate, and then the outrage passes … until the next time.

    I’m Canadian, as you know. We don’t have the fascination with guns that Americans do. We have the same concerns for our own safety, but arming ourselves to the hilt is not top of the list for self-preservation. As an Englishman, you would probably agree.

    I’m sorry to say, but American attitudes about guns are complacent. In all the outpouring of bewilderment that has followed every one of the shootings prior to Newton, there was never much made about the fact that there are too many guns in the US, they are just too easy to get. Finally this is being said, perhaps due to the gruesome nature of killing children, but the subject of gun control now competes with the ongoing issues of the mental health system.

    Mental illness is a legitimate problem, and people with it need proper care. I don’t dispute this, but gun control and mental health are each huge problems. Tackling both together is impossible. It’s splitting hairs as to which problem is worse and caused the killings in Newton. In the interim, my fear is there will be another shooting. What will it take to realize that guns must be controlled? A massacre of a hospital nursery filled with newborns?

    There are so many things to blame for gun violence - violent TV, movies, Satanic rock music, mental illness, but these conditions exist all over the world, and you don’t have massacres like this all over the world with the same frequency. So ultimately, I conclude what distinguishes America is its access to guns, and its deep-seeded belief in the Second Amendment as the means to justify their rights to own guns.

    Surely, the American forefathers could not predict that suburbanites living in peacetime should have access to high-powered rifles and handguns that could shoot hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

    The Second Amendment was intended to give rights to bear arms and protect its citizens from tyranny, to allow people the ability to overthrow an oppressive regime. Exactly what was a suburban middle-aged woman living in Connecticut doing with a Bushmaster rifle, that eventually fell into the hands of her son, who then used it to kill 26 people?

    Nobody wants their rights stepped on, but like you, I agree laws were not written in a vacuum, and they can be changed. Consider some that have: Women can now vote, blacks don’t have to sit at the back of the bus, and gays can now marry. Whether you agree with all these new laws or not, they have changed as society has moved forward.

    I think Americans will need to reconsider their ‘so-called’ rights to bear arms. As far as gun control law is concerned, the only one I see that’s benefited is the NRA, which lobbies so tirelessly to protect the constitutional rights of its citizens.

    Exactly how has that right helped the 26 people who were massacred in Newton?

    All the best to you and your family for 2013, John. Thanks for getting me riled up, as usual.

    1. Wow and double wow, Eden! I can always trust you to give me a considered and lengthy comment! Very gratifying, but I am sorry if it upset your equanimity at New Year's end ;).

      Observing the polarised and sometimes vitriolic debate on the pro's and con's of gun control on social media recently makes me realise one thing. That the Second Amendment is ingrained in the psyche and culture of a significant number of United States citizens, but ingrained in a way that suggests a real fear, which seems to amount to serious paranoia in some cases, of being emasculated without their guns, that such a change would remove the last means they have of defending themselves against... and this is a worrying aspect of the posture adopted, the language used, when 'the enemy' is mentioned, whoever that 'enemy' might be; like a big stick waved over the heads of Second Amendment detractors.

      If only that section of the population, who feel so insecure about losing their weapons, could experience how it feels to live in the continent of Europe, which is integrally attached to form a much larger land mass than North America, not separated from the rest of the world by such large oceans, then they might get that fear into some perspective. There will always be a gun problem everywhere, but none so acute as in the USA. In continental Europe we are not being overrun by hoards of enemy invaders and, whilst we can never be complacent about the security of our democracy, we still retain our electoral voting rights; we don't need a gun to enable that!

      Thanks again, Eden, I always value your contribution to the debate. One day we shall sit down with a cup of coffee and debate the world's problems.

  5. Hahah! John, Love your response, but I must say - a cup of coffee? What kind of Englishman are you?
    You and I are both tea drinkers, I suspect - Early Grey or chai for me, and I'll make the chai with real cardomon, ginger, and nutmeg if you'd care for a cup.

    As for the debate of gun laws that continue in the US - there was no gesture more apparent to prove the American "right" to bear arms than the immediate stockpiling of weaponry after the Newton incident. Gun sales went up for fear of impending legislation that would ban it. How sick is this logic? Who is the enemy?

    Under the guise of protecting the 2nd amendment, the NRA is making money hand over fist with its fear mongering. To your point, this fear is aimed toward those who (in general), are ignorant of the rest of the world, have never traveled, and don't even own a passport. The unknown breeds an illogical fear. Xenophobia is compounded by news networks such as FOX that do nothing but divide the right and left.

    The worse thing about this is it will not be the last time. Mark my words, John. Until the Americans take up arms in an attempt to reduce arms, bloodshed will continue.


    1. I consider your words well marked, Eden, well marked.

      And, if it's not eleven o'clock in the morning (aka 'elevenses') then tea it is at all other times ;).

  6. Belatedly, in light of the current presidency - and its woeful inadequacy - this was brought to my attention by Jamie Dedes. A visit to the school and a very personal embracing of each and every family member of the murdered infants by Barack Obama. How Americans must miss the touch of this man, whose humanity towers by orders of magnitude over the present incumbent of the White House.


Don't leave without letting me know what this article made you think, how it made you feel ... good or bad, I'll take either.