The headline of the story on the Fox News website was startling. “Texas church shooting is latest of many attacks at U.S. houses of worship in recent years.” The shooting, a Sunday bookend to the Christmas holiday, unfolded at about 10 a.m. at the West Freeway Church of Christ, just outside Fort Worth, Texas. According to the Fox News count, at least 13 deadly shootings have occurred in American houses of worship in recent years.
The shooting at a church follows on the heels of the spree of attacks in Jewish houses of worship, many in New York. Five Jewish people were stabbed in a rampage at a rabbi’s house in a suburban community, following a week of anti-Semitic attacks. The suspect, Grafton Thomas, has been charged with hate crimes.
Mr. Thomas’ family and his lawyers told reporters that Thomas did suffer from mental illness, including schizophrenia. The response of a social worker was that the man is insane. While not trying to downplay the reality of mental illness, the truth is that by our own definitions someone who executes this type of crime is insane. No sane person would commit such acts.
The number of mass shootings in the United States has outpaced the number of days last year. According to the nonprofit group Gun Violence Archive, there were 406 mass shootings in our country as of Dec. 25t, the 359th day of 2019. The GVA defines a mass shooting as an incident in which at least four people are shot, excluding the shooter. A mass murder, as defined by the FBI, touches incidents where at least four people are killed.
Response to the shootings has been predictably partisan. Former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted that the shooting shows that the Texas gun laws are not working. Front-runner Joe Biden called the Texas laws allowing people to carry guns in churches “totally irrational.” Conservative politicians and ministers claimed the gun laws allowed people to protect themselves and kept the tragedy from seeing dozens more deaths. How can our response to intense tragedy be bickering? Can’t our first response be compassion? If a 9/11 catastrophe were to occur today, would we first blame Donald Trump?
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said last year that “people of all faiths must stand together and declare that we will never tolerate such hatred.” We should be able to peacefully assemble together, especially in gatherings of worship, and feel safe. Providing that safety is a part of the job of the government. But have the days of that kind of safety vanished?
Curbing the problem of violence does not have an easy answer. Murders have been occurring since there was but one family on the earth. This is not an issue of guns, though guns make killing easier. It is not an issue of laws and regulations, though laws help people understand that killing of this nature is wrong and they may serve to be a deterrent. This is an issue of what is inside us — it is a matter of the heart.
Instead of arguing about who has the right answer, could we just take some steps to move things in the right direction? Here are less than a handful of suggestions:
• Let’s quit ridiculing religions and religious teachers. Movies, television shows, comedians, and even newspaper columns are quick to point out the frailties of religion. Yes, there are bad apples in every barrel. Let’s denounce the ones that teach that violence is an answer toward getting their way. But it seems to be important to support the religions that promote community and fellowship. Most religions teach morals and ethics. Get on board with those principles, even if they are taught by someone of a different faith than yours. Christian scholar Frank Gaebelein once wrote, “All truth is God’s truth.” Doesn’t matter who teaches it. If I understand the Bible correctly, God has even used non-religious people to accomplish His purposes from time to time.
• Let’s teach there are better ways to handle anger than violence. When little Johnny becomes frustrated, he picks up his blocks and throws them. While we can debate what type of punishment needs to be administered, let’s all agree that little Johnny is making a bad choice. Take the time to teach there are more constructive ways to deal with anger. Lashing out never solves problems, and often creates more. It takes time, effort, patience and vulnerability to teach. Aren’t children and our society worth the extra effort?
• Let’s be more consistent in the application of what we are teaching. My father used to joke, “Do as I say, not as I do.” We all realize that is not a good model for teaching. If we believe that lives are important in the kind of setting involving mass shootings, we must also teach that life is important in all circumstances. Please understand that decisions in every circumstance involve choices. The answer is not in eliminating choices, it is in teaching that some choices are better than others. Teach people to make the right choices.
If you Google “What can be done about gun violence?” you will return over 78,000,000 results in less than one second. One of the top 10 results on the first page is an article on the businessinsider.com website titled, “How to stop shootings in America: 10 proposed strategies to stop gun violence and how likely are they to work?” The column was written in August of last year by Ellen Cranley.
The article began with the intriguing statistic that the U.S. makes up less than 5% of the world’s population but has 31% of the world’s mass shooters. Cranley goes on to list banning assault weapons, structuring better background checks, banning high-capacity ammunition magazines, and committing more funding to research. They all seemed like good ideas, but I don’t know how likely they would be to work. It appears most have not been working to this point.
From the Catbird Seat, not once did the article talk about teaching that life is valued and that killing someone is a bad choice. You don’t legislate morality; you teach it.
— Tom May is a freelance writer and educator, and a columnist for the News and Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.