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Insights & Opinions | December 18, 2012

No simple answers in Newtown


In the upcoming debate about preventing future tragedies, our nation should remember the solution will be as complex as the problem

Frank Kulick, adjusts a display of wooden crosses, and a Jewish Star of David, representing the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, on his front lawn, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In the upcoming debate about preventing future tragedies, our nation should remember the solution will be as complex as the problem

I'm not sure when it's OK to begin writing and dialoguing about what happened last Friday in Newtown, Conn. When will parents and family members ever quit mourning? When will that town get over the horrid images of children--babies--filing out of a school building, holding onto one another, flanked by SWAT officers clad in body armor and wielding automatic weapons? When will a nation shake the sight of our president wiping tears from his eyes as he cobbles together the best words any of us could hope to speak at such a time?

Though I shudder even as I write, at some point we must begin talking about what has gone wrong. Though the full solution will never come until Christ comes again--what a reminder of the need for the Advent we now celebrate--how can we as a society honestly assess this?

As I write, details of the shooting are still murky. Some media outlets have reported that the alleged shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School with four firearms. Some have said three. The New York Times reported that Lanza suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. The Times also reported that the firearms used--including an .223 automatic rifle--were purchased legally by Lanza's mother, the first victim of the day.

As is our nature, we yearn for justice. While we grieve, we seek to see the wicked punished, his arm broken, as the psalmist tells us. But in our honest and well-ordered seeking of justice, we ought to admit that in the early days of this investigation we in the public simply will not have all the facts. There is still so much we do not know. In the first few hours after the shooting, media outlets erroneously reported the shooter as one person, when really it was another. Other details were muddled. Yet within minutes, pundits offered specific calls for action for a problem they didn't fully understand.

Even once we do begin learning more about the crime, though, I hope the public debate that takes place--undoubtedly centered on gun control--acknowledges that shootings like this aren't simple matters of keeping weapons out of everyone's hands. Because of Lanza's Asperger's Syndrome, mental health advocates have already started calling for more money in hospitals. Education activists will call for armed guards at our schools around the clock. But it will be a fatal error to approach the specter of an armed young man, perhaps suffering from a mental disorder, murdering his mother with her own gun, then killing 20 young children and seven adults at a school with the simplicity a primetime TV show takes in telling a story.

The gun control debate, which surely will be the centerpiece of a national discussion, ought to take place. There ought to be room to discuss sensible ways to limit the damage done by man's sinfulness without trampling on the Second Amendment. I hope conservatives will at least engage in honest dialogue.

But I also hope liberals will not simplistically peg the problem on guns. On the same day of the tragedy in Newtown took place, a man walked into a school in China and slashed 22 students there. In a similar incident in that country in 2010, 28 children were injured. Thinking we will solve all our violent crimes by banning a certain type of weapon is naïve. In fact, according to the Department of Justice, violent crimes involving guns have been trending down for almost 20 years.

I hope our country also will take this time to address the other factors that enable and even encourage sinful man to commit such heinous acts. We will never eliminate evil. That's a task God has promised to do. But how can we limit its effects to the best of our ability? This is where questions of our decadent culture come into play. Is the all-pervasive Hollywood culture responsible for a brooding nihilism stewing beneath the surface of everyday interaction? Do movies, music, and video games encourage senseless, dishonorable violence? Does our mental health system treat those with such problems as fully human, or is our tendency to shuffle victims of disorders off into the corners of society or to resort to medication? Is it time to reintroduce the notion of virtue and concrete, non-relative ethics about right and wrong into the fabric of our society?

Reform on these kinds of issues cannot come from government. If these are truly problems that contribute to an increasingly dark and dangerous culture--and I hope few, if any, would questions such--reform must come from within. This is why debates about the makeup of family are so important. The family is the only social institution properly equipped to impart virtue and holistic responsibility to future generations. I fear some in our society who see only through the lens of statist power, won't see that. Nevertheless, to honestly discuss what's happening in our country, we cannot avoid these issues.

As more precise information about the Sandy Hook massacre filters down, the conversation may move to more specific places. But if we think the problems undergirding such terror are simple, we're fooling ourselves and doing injustice to future victims. Though the root of this evil--our own depravity--is quite simple to understand, the broad, cultural manifestations are quite complex.

For now, though, may the peace of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, comfort and protect those in Newtown.

Michael Reneau is communications manager for Summit Ministries, a worldview education ministry based in Manitou Springs, Colo. Follow him on Twitter:@MichaelReneau.