Life, liberty, and the pursuit of answers to complicated questions

June 29, 2022
This Independence Day, for personal reasons, will prove interesting. More than any other period in my lifetime, I’m concerned about my rights as a United States citizen. Moreover, I’m equally concerned for the safety of our children and other potential victims of the next mass shooting. The plague of angry, disoriented males with guns continues.

I was a high school dropout, lost in the haze of peer rejection, bullies, and unprepared teachers and guidance counselors, having resigned myself of a failing school system in my senior year. Young people can be cruel; I got that firsthand. But I never had the impulse to kill a bunch of them in revenge, though I was indeed in a bad place. It could have gone either way with respect to my depression. Perhaps nothing more than God’s grace kept me from causing widespread damage. Somehow, I returned for my GED. To “show” them I wasn’t the dreg they thought, I earned an associate degree two years later. Ironically, I decided to major in criminal justice. I then received my bachelor’s degree within the typical four-year time period, never once imagining that I would someday go to seminary.

During the first five years following graduation, I served in both community corrections and law enforcement. Few people are in court more than a probation officer. During that period, I would sit in court for hours and watch certain judges circumvent the law in rather contemptible fashion. Enforcing the existing laws as I thought they should be enforced, based on legal precedent, seemed to go completely against their nature. Later, as a police officer, I continued to witness this. Since those days, I have viewed lack of enforcement as one of the many branches on the tree of societal regression. Admittedly, the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, as with some others, indicates that enforcement of existing laws is not always the issue (though at times it is, and access to sealed juvenile records can sometimes make the difference).

Emotions soar after a mass shooting. Instead of calmly considering what type of legislation might actually curtail future incidents, our representatives relent to the pressure of a highly charged, media-influenced public and create laws lacking long-term impact. “Gun control” in a land of millions of free-floating, irretrievable guns makes little sense. Behavioral modification and parental oversight, on the other hand, has larger implications and more potential for reversals in the very behavior that leads to these horrible events. As time has passed, we have entertained stricter gun laws due to failures in responsibility for self, responsibility for family, and responsibility for public welfare.

A powerful reexamination of heart and soul is what led our forebears to create the United States of America. I am not proposing simplistic answers to complicated issues like mass shootings, but we must start somewhere. May we have the courage to faithfully reexamine the difficult things in order to move toward that more perfect union.

We possess a Bill of Rights, embedded in the first ten amendments to our Constitution. Regarding personal defense, the second amendment is explicit, yet it has no clause stating that it makes sense for civilians to stock up on large-capacity weapons, weapons of mass destruction, bump stocks, body armor, and decades’ worth of ammunition. The right to self-defense is inherently human, but it strains credulity to think that being better armed than the nearest drug cartel is going to make one a better citizen. The original colonies broke away from British rule to “form a more perfect union.” Well, the union is far from perfect, but after 246 years, it somehow still works, to the degree that we have a semblance of freedom that differs from that of almost any other country on earth. But we have enormous problems on our hands, and mass killings are one of them.

I would suggest Matthew 7:12, what we have come to call the “Golden Rule,” as a starting point for right relationships. When Jesus summarizes the law, he is giving people something practical to work with. Imagine what might happen if we followed it more often. The paraphrased dictum, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” regarding this portion of Christ’s teaching is too often converted in the minds of some to “Do unto others before they do unto you.” Where did this attitude come from? In recent years, it seems to have become all too common, especially among those in power. Faulty parenting, lack of strong male role models (concerning when mass shooters are almost exclusively men), gaming, social media, the news media, the church, and the destruction of families in general have all played a role. And the courts still fail to enforce laws that should be enforced.

I submit that lack of community awareness is a huge factor in mass shootings. With our virtual, high-tech world being what it is, our “community” is larger than ever. Like other mass murderers in recent times, Salvador Ramos, the Uvalde shooter, left his electronic signature full of threats all over the place. When these things are reported, they need to be taken seriously. As community members, we must do better. Online threats about killing fellow human beings are not amusing and no longer just talk. When it is put “out there,” it must be answered with the serious attitude that it deserves. That means reporting it, period. And it means investigating it, period. People are hesitant to report potentially dangerous persons for fear of some sort of reprisal and are sometimes bullied into inaction. But that’s part of what Independence Day is all about—standing for life and liberty.

Proactive reporting of threatening behavior is part of the solution. Serious investigation of that reporting is paramount. We cannot fix it if we don’t know what’s broken. Scapegoating mental illness is not the answer, nor is scapegoating the police, nor inanimate objects such as firearms. These are matters of the human heart. No progress will be made until we examine our hearts and help those who are troubled to examine theirs.

Our forebears understood this. A powerful reexamination of heart and soul is what led them to create the United States of America in the first place. I am not proposing simplistic answers to complicated issues. But we must start somewhere, and I’m afraid our tendency to repeatedly start with the wrong things is what keeps getting us into trouble.

May we have the courage to faithfully reexamine the difficult things in order to move toward that more perfect union.

Rev. Bryan D. Jackson is an American Baptist minister and a member of the Cherokee Community of Puget Sound and the Mt. Hood Cherokees, both satellite communities of the Cherokee Nation. He lives on Vashon Island, Washington and is the author of Chattahoochee Rain: A Cherokee novella.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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