Ending the Violence

What can we really do to stop shootings in our schools and other public places? I'd like to share two ideas -- connected across the years -- as we come up to the anniversary of a mass killing that affected my life and my community.

The first idea came to my attention not in the United States of America but in Central America.

It was March 1999, and I had taken a part-time reporter job at The Columbine Community Courier, a weekly paper in Littleton, Colorado. However, before working for the paper on a regular basis, I went off with my family on a long-planned mission trip to Honduras. There we worked on a few projects then did some sightseeing.

In Copan we stopped into a Catholic Church during mass. The church was packed, and we found out why that was so before long. The priest came to speak and he was absolutely furious with his flock. A woman in our party, who was a Spanish speaker, translated for us: Some of the young men of Copan had come into the town square the night before, during a festival, shot it up, and killed a few people.

The priest yelled a question at the congregation, "Why are you people not watching your sons?"

That moment stuck with me as we came back to Colorado, and I wrote the story of our trip for publication. Then, I proceeded to cover small stories in the community, such as the dedication of a new playground at an elementary school.

A week or so later, I was driving home from a dentist appointment when I passed Columbine High School. Just south of the school, I saw two young men, dressed in black dusters, walking toward Columbine. They looked into each other's faces then strode up the sidewalk with smiles and knowing looks. Little did I know I was watching two of the sons in my community who were about to become murderers. I remember feeling the presence of evil, and I prayed briefly, but I did not know what else to do. (Since that time, I have learned that many other people in the community had similar experiences.)

On April 20, 1999, the two young men I saw murdered 12 students and one teacher then killed themselves at Columbine High School.

I covered the tragedy and its aftermath for the immediate community for about one year. Of course, it was a time of grief and trauma, and we all had to go through that and through the process of healing. In the midst of it, I believe there was a window of time where we could really learn and pass along what could be done to stop such a thing from happening in another community down the line.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media and the politicians came in and hyped the gun issue, just as they've done after every one of the tragedies that has followed Columbine. We all got focused on changing the laws that control guns. Family members of victims went to Washington, DC, and were displayed by our president, just as family members of new victims are being displayed by a president now. We had a Million Mom March in Denver. We debated closing the gun show loophole. Laws were changed.

We also focused on fixing Columbine High School and on building a memorial for those we lost. Some of us focused on blaming one person after another for the loss, and trying to make them pay; that went on for months and months.

Our focus on these things did not help other communities avoid similar tragedies.

So what should we tell other communities now?

First: Watch your sons.

Really, think about who is shooting in our schools; think about who it is that is killing innocents in Chicago; think about who it is that walked into a theater in Aurora and murdered people.

How do we watch our sons more carefully? By getting them more of what they need in their community, so that they are connected in their daily lives with more than one adult. The Search Institute of Minnesota has created a program called the 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents, which people in Columbine discovered after the tragedy there. Through it many people touch our son's lives and watch them as they grow up.

But, it's not enough to watch our sons, we must then get them help when they need it -- and the help must be effective.

To that point, the second idea I want to tell you about came together for me when I was watching television, years after my family's trip to Honduras.

I was doing some chores with news on in the background. I heard the anchor review who the shooters were in the latest mass killings in our country and what their mental states were, Then in an interview, I heard Dr. Keith Ablow, a forensic psychiatrist, say, "What all this gun legislation, restricting firearms or increasing background checks, fails to address is the real problem, which is untreated mental illness, and a mental health care system that is completely severed from anything like an ability to deliver outpatient services on an as-needed basis, sometimes involuntarily. So, we've allowed our mental health care system to become decrepit; people are falling through gaping holes in the system. It really has nothing to do with guns, as we just saw in the mass stabbing in Texas and as we should have learned in 1927 when 38 children were killed with homemade explosives at a school. This whole debate should be filibustered right off the Senate floor; people shouldn't show up for this debate because it's just a sideshow." (See the entire interview and read Dr. Ablow's article here.

So, the second idea comes from another credible source: Fix the mental health system and create an effective pathway by which people in a community can report a person who seems mentally ill and dangerous.

Young people proved this can work after Columbine. Adolescents started watching each other and reporting other adolescents who showed signs of being troubled and/or dangerous and some killings were stopped. This was because they heard that it was good to watch and to tell and a pathway was created for them to do so that was effective.

And finally, this thought: we must pray for our sons.

So, these are two ideas for stopping future mass killings. Let's get our attention off the gun debate, ignore the politicians, and take them up for the sake of other communities across our nation.