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I had my Twelve piece ready to go early this week. I had it done by Tuesday noon, photos and all, which is unusual for me. That afternoon I did a collaborator call, ran some errands, and got some exercise.

And then, the horrific news about a school shooting in Uvalde.

More of the same: “There have been 27 school shootings this year. There have been 119 school shootings since 2018, when Education Week began tracking such incidents. The highest number of shootings, 34, occurred last year. There were 10 shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.

I am working at home today (Wednesday) – or trying too. I survey my social media landscape, check and recheck the news. Pace in my living room. Having a forum here and not minimally acknowledging this monstrous evil by submitting that finished piece as if nothing of note had happened seems wrong. But what to say?

The 2012 killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School (20 6-7 year olds, 6 adult staff) affected me deeply and I brooded for days. Surely, I thought, this was a crime that so shocked the conscience that the warring over gun regulations could stop to begin experimenting with solutions designed to prevent it from ever happening again. Seems sadly naive now.

With the killings in Uvalde (currently reported to be 19 fourth-graders and 2 teachers), I cycle through my touchstones. My wife is standing in her own third grade classroom right now as I write this. I’m a dad with memory of all the anxieties that entails. I have dear friends who have small children. I work in the world of conservation where hunting, and therefore gun ownership, are common. I have my own guns, locked in a safe, in a corner of a closet.

There have been 23 mass shootings in the US since Sandy Hook and with each one, my brain’s regions for empathy and outrage grow incrementally numb. It’s likely some sort of self-preservation mechanism, but it’s not right. None of this is right.

I’m looking at the photos of the Uvalde victims as they emerge. Dead kids. Beautiful people all. I see our common humanity. I see anguished families. My pastor would tell me I am seeing the face of Christ. We can’t let this fade into abstraction. Feed that anger. Feel that despair. Distill it into resolve. And then take it to the polls with you.

Our gun violence is uniquely a United States problem associated with high levels of gun ownership and easy access. This despite being near average in violent crime generally for 14 industrialized countries, all or nearly all of whom allow civilian gun ownership (data from 2018). Those countries offer insights in how to fight this scourge – if only we had a functional democracy that wasn’t awash in gun industry cash.

Connecticut’s Senator Blumenthal gave a sober speech in the Senate this morning calling senators to search their consciences and return to work on “common sense” measures already on the table for policy approaches that honor the second amendment . The consequences of not doing so, he said, was (horrifically) “more of the same.” The Senate should act on the Bipartisan Background Check Act (H.R. 8) recently passed in the House as a start.

That’s where I’m at. For the love of God, do something! Experiment. And as a gun owner, I put my interests in the balance. I don’t want to contemplate dead kids. I don’t want more of the same.

One may be a freer person as a gun-owner under lax gun regulation, but we are not a freer people when we are being killed in racist gun violence at the grocery and when children and teachers are practicing active shooter drills to avoid being shot in their schools. And when parents send their children off to school and choke back the worry that they may never see them again.

A year ago, a mass shooting at another grocery in Boulder Colorado (10 dead) caused one of our Twelve writers to fear for her brother’s safety to the point that she felt it in the pit of her stomach and that it made her hands shake. Her post was legitimately pointed and rooted in the deep worry she felt for her brother and a toxic culture of gun violence. She ended provocatively, saying: “You cannot carry a gun and also a cross.” It generated 51 comments – which is a lot for this blog.

I disagreed, and several in the comments disagreed respectfully. Others, though, entered the comments wearing belligerent arguments on their sleeves. One openly taunted her. I wish I had the words at the time to stand with her despite disagreeing, and it’s bothered me since.

Gun violence in this country is horrific and it’s entrenched in our poisoned politics and a culture that privileges (certain) rights over responsibility. If we can’t set aside our idolatries to walk with one another through grief and lament and fear and anger as we grope for solutions, what are we even doing here?

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

20 Comments

  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    Thank you. We have the indeed made access to guns an idol. Can we acknowledge this and move forward to make changes?

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    Thank you Tim. This helps to give me words as I seek to comfort my congregation and as we seek to get into action that brings about change. I pray never again!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you Tim. A Godsend that it was your turn to write. It’s numbing that we are now further away from the possibility of any possible corrective response then we were ten years ago after Sandy Hook. Now, if our system does essentially nothing in response, if it shows itself incapable of responding, if it continues to find it impossible to make any change, then the American system that we (in general) enjoy cannot be fixed incrementally or through corrective policies but must undergo total revolution, root and branch. How can we uphold a system of culture, government, and economc life that reveals itself to be so violent at its core.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Daniel,
      I hate to say it, but our country was founded on the myth of redemptive violence. The core of the US’s culture, government, and economic life has always been violence. The church has blessed this vision of life with horrific visions/interpretations of atonement in the cross, white supremacist and patriarchal visions/interpretations of Scripture. We have more guns than any other country-just about 1 per person. We have the largest military by far. We spend more on police than any other country spends on their military save the other top two spenders. We fly jets over open air stadiums before sporting events. We have more death by suicide with guns, mass shootings, etc, and to be clear not more mental health issues, not more video game players, not more crime in general. We just have less gun safety in a myriad of ways. We must repent of it, maybe starting with the church, proclaim a new vision, and do the hard work of starting all over again. Unfortunately, nothing in our system over my short years as a citizen reveals we have any interest in doing this.

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    Well said.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Well Tim, I’m going really radical now, getting to the roots of our societal malaise:
    1) Husbands loving and being faithful to their wives. Wives being loving and loyal to their husbands
    2) Parents raising their children responsibly, teaching them “the way they should go,” not driving them to “rage” (Eph. 6:4)
    3) Children honoring their parents (so society will not be hopelessly broken).

    Why don’t more “progressives” really get to the roots of our societal dilemma, by finding tried and true and fresh ways of influencing marriage and family life?

    • David E Timmer says:

      I’m all for everything you suggest here, John. But is family health really the most relevant variable here? Are we to assume that all of the countries that have lower rates of gun violence than we do (virtually every developed nation, and it’s not even close) are our superiors in family harmony? Careful statistical studies using international data have shown repeatedly and conclusively that there IS a powerful correlation associated with gun violence. Guess what – it’s the guns! The quantity and availability of guns is more powerfully correlated with gun violence than any other factor – and again, it’s not even close.

      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/world/americas/mass-shootings-us-international.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR38D742w1fGkI_lKER-XK8XVNnq7maPl786AIm7R7KM88aOc0emsBLqsNA

    • Daniel Miller says:

      Have you ever met parents who seemed to do every thing they could to be good and even Godly parents and yet somehow some of their children went “astray.” And by the way, have you ever checked the divorce statistics for evangelical Protestants? “The Pew Research Center found Protestant individuals (anyone who identified themselves as non-Catholic, but Christian) included 74% of all Christians, and had a divorce rate of approximately 51 percent out of a sampling of 4,752 individuals. However, these were broken down by Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, and Historically Black Protestant. Of this 74%, the highest number of divorces among this group were the Evangelical Protestants at 28 percent. The Historically Black Protestants had a divorce rate of only 9 percent according to the study.” Progressives aren’t the problem.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      John,
      World population review (https://worldpopulationreview.com/) has data by country on divorce rates and gun deaths per 100K people. I am assuming that divorce rates can index the family disfunction you brought up. There are 63 countries with data for both. The relationship between gun deaths and divorces is distorted by South/Central American countries which have very high rates of gun deaths and very low rates of divorce. I spent some time this morning fitting that relationship to see how the US compares to the rest of the world (I tried to upload a figure here, but I don’t think the software allows it). Depending on whether you use the full dataset (63 counties) or the dataset with South/Central American countries removed (50 countries), various models explain roughly 30% of the variation. But the models that seem to fit best in the region of the data set where the U.S. falls, the U.S. is a clear outlier with a gun death rate (12.21) that is 4-6 times the expected value given our divorce rate (2.7). As I note above, our per capita rate of violent crime is just below the average of 15 other industrialized counties. Its our rate of murder with guns that is far higher than our peers. Without looking it up, I’d expect other countries have the same levels of family disfunction, mental illness, exposure to violent movie/video games as we do. The difference is guns.

  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    Thanks, Tim. You join the chorus of the wounded:

    *The Onion headline, repeated after every mass shooting: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

    *Gary Wills, who wrote “Our Moloch” after the Sandy Hook massacre: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2012/12/15/our-moloch/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NYR%2005-26-22%20Kirsch%20Zuckerman%20Bellafante%20Chihaya%20Idrissa&utm_content=NYR%2005-26-22%20Kirsch%20Zuckerman%20Bellafante%20Chihaya%20Idrissa+CID_ef5d7add0295b9a4b74b2b85ecea2ab8&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_term=Our%20Moloch

    *And those who say how much they value life allow the ongoing daily slaughter of suicides who choose a gun as their exit strategy.

    We lack elected officials at every level with the courage to restrict the guns we can buy and to do background checks on the people who want to keep and bear arms.

  • Albert Veldstra says:

    Thank you Tim. It has gotten to the point where the phrases “Let’s have a moment of silence” and “we’re praying for the families” turns my stomach. And yes, I too am a gun owner.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Why do we need to denigrate prayer to take action? I had a book study last night and one of my elders commented, “I’ve always thought of prayer as where we start and were we end, but if we do nothing in between all we have is a bread sandwich.” It seems to me that rather than shouting people down who in their hour of despair need to turn to God in prayer, we should kneel with them, and when we are done ask, “So what did this communion with God in prayer inspire you to do?”

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Friends,
    Don’t get me wrong.
    I’m all for stricter regulations for gun possession and use! We have too many gutless government leaders who refuse to stand up to the NRA and their rabid supporters.
    But, my point is still valid. The Uvalde shooter was driven to the rage whereof Eph. 6:4 speaks.
    Individual, marital and family violence and dysfunction needs to be addressed AS WELL AS the systemic violence of poorly regulated lethal assault weapons.
    It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. Thank you for this discussion.

  • Jane Brown says:

    What a key phrase- a”culture that privileges certain rights over responsibilities-“
    Such a good reminder at heart of remembering our responsibility to honor gift of one another’s lives

  • Karen Obits says:

    Please check the “family values” angle at the door. Family dysfunction (including sexual and emotional violence perpetrated by the male “heads” of upstanding Christian families) wreaks havoc on successive generations of the women and children. When coupled with the church’s long history of patriarchy and our country’s fascination with the strong, independent male – and with guns – makes for a deadly situation that cannot be addressed helpfully with calls for “progressives” to champion the need for stronger family values.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    There are guns and then there are AR-15 assault rifles. You can have a rifle for hunting and others may want a hand gun for “protection” but who on earth needs a machine gun? Also, guns are used more often to commit suicide than to commit murder so I’m not sure who needs that kind of “protection” always in their own home.

  • Pieter van der Leek says:

    Thank you Tim for your post. I would humbly ask a question of you and others who own guns, would it not be a strong and powerful statement to your community, church and children if you got rid of your guns, not sell them but destroy them. One small step towards a saner USA.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Pieter,
      That’s a reasonable question, worthy for introspection for myself and other gun-owners. For my part, I don’t know how useful that would be. For a complicated web of reasons (selfish, legal, historical, practical, professional, and even spiritual), I filter it through the lens of wildlife conservation because, right or wrong, hunting is a driver of that – and it matters for the sort of earth-keeping that I am committed to. Other countries have hunting practices that sit alongside civilian gun ownership without mass shootings. They do so with increased regulation, training, and oversight – and likely with better access to mental health care. That’s where I stand now, but I assure you, I keep returning to your question and the point you make.

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