Friday, December 14, 2012 will be one of the saddest days in the lives of the parents of 20 children, and the families of seven adults, in a Connecticut town. The family of the shooter, the 28th victim, will also have to face public scrutiny as they try to continue to live in the same community as the families of those lost in the violence.
What are the explanations as to why it happened? What could have precipitated such an outburst of violence against many who were so young? What kind of person does such a horrendous act? How does one make sure that it never happens again?
These questions will be subject of law enforcement, counsellors, psychologists, politicians and the parents of those who escaped, for years to come. The answers will never be sufficient to justify the loss, and questions will only serve to aggravate an already emotionally torn society, tired of the grandstanding of public officials and television consultants, whose offices are far away in air-conditioned offices 35 floors above ground.
According to a list compiled by the US National School Safety Centre, there have been school shootings occurring all across the United States dating from July 1764 to December 2012. Between 1992 and 2012, there have been 240 such cases resulting in the deaths of 340 persons, with two thirds of them being children.
During the past two years, this paper has addressed the issue of human tragedy resulting from the occurrence of a natural hazard. At times we have also looked at human tragedy resulting from armed conflict between political groups or from radical religious extremism.
However, the location of these incidents does not isolate Barbados or the rest of Caribbean from the emotional and social impact of such an incident. Neither does it suggest that because of either the size of the population, or the metropolitan development of the country, that it will not happen here.
In fact, some members of the law enforcement and psychology community will say that it is only a matter of time before it does happen here.
Their comments are based on the same social and psychological indicators used to gauge the behaviours of metropolitan societies. Some of these indicators include increasingly aggressive response by the young to criticism.
SFlbDriver behaviour, increasing gang violence and drive-by shootings in close proximity to residences. Bullying in schools and work places, families impacted by local and international economic down turns, mental illnesses hidden by families who do not want the unwarranted and totally unjustified social stigma of having a mentally ill family member.
Can it happen here? Yes it can. Will it happen here? That is the question which is still to be definitively answered by the professionals. There are many opinions drawing varying conclusions, as to whether there are members of the Barbadian society, who will somehow one day “snap”, or go “berserk” and run through a workplace or a school with guns on “rapid fire”.
According to Commissioner of Police of the Royal Barbados Police Force, the force will continue to agitate for strict gun control of weapons in Barbados. The commissioner is a strong advocate of gun control in a small society like Barbados, which when compared to the US, would be described as a small town or county, due to its physical size and population.
The island of Manhattan in New York is approximately 22.96 square miles, but hosts a population of 1,585,873 people. There are some in the society who do not agree with the commissioner; however there is significant worldwide evidence to support the commissioner’s position on gun control.
On April 28, 1996, a gunman opened fire on tourists in the seaside resort of Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia. Thirty people were killed and 23 more suffered gunshot wounds. It was the worst mass murder in Australia’s history. Twelve days later, Australia’s government announced comprehensive gun-control measures.
On March 13, 1996, a gunman walked into the gymnasium of a primary school in the town of Dunblane, Scotland and killed 16 children and their teacher before turning the gun on himself. In Britain, the widespread revulsion over Dunblane’s three-minute rampage led within two years to new laws that effectively banned almost all civilians from owning handguns.
The Dunblane, Scotland shootings were traumatic for a country where the police are not routinely armed and mass shootings is relatively unusual. According to British law enforcement statistics, of the 636 murders in England and Wales in 2010, 60 were shootings. In 2011, firearms were used in 0.3 per cent of all recorded crimes. With international terrorism and suicide bombings still a major focus of law enforcement, gun control remains a high priority.
These numbers can be used as comparative indicators for Barbados, in that the number of violent crimes in which guns were used is still very low when compared with the size of the population. However, Barbadian law enforcement officials will still state that any crime committed using a fire arm is one crime too many.
There is another side to the Connecticut incident, and that is the side of the survivors of the violence and the first responders, who had to manage the response. They had to collect the bodies, confirm their identities and console the families of the victims. The majority of the survivors were children, whose concept of violence of that magnitude is extremely negligible, as many of survivors were aged between six years and 10 years. Their only reference to violence of any kind would have been restricted to the battles between the television cartoon characters of “Wile E. Coyote” and the “Road Runner”.
However, the weapons fire was real, watching bullets hitting and killing their friends and teachers was real. The screams in the corridors were real, heavily armed police officers searching for the shooter was real. Sirens constantly blaring from every direction, and the Press crowding families and the survivors themselves for first hand reports, was real.
These images will live with these children for many years, and only the love and constant reassurance that they are safe will help them to grow and mature out of this event. The rush to constantly rehash the day will only further serve to prolong that trauma.
As responders, while we are trained for such an occurrence, no responder is ever prepared for the results of violence that culminates in the multiple deaths of children. Even one child dying in a traffic accident or a house fire is traumatic for any responder. The loss of life, regardless of the circumstances, will be traumatic for anyone.
What is required is not just achieving an understanding as to why it happened, and who did it, but a realisation that while guns can kill, it is the person behind the gun that makes the decision to pull the trigger. The many factors that contribute to that loss must be balanced against the measures that a society will undertake to ensure, that its reoccurrence will be prevented by all means necessary. Even if the measure includes restricting a person’s right to bear arms.
Barbados must recognise that it does not live alone on this planet, and that the sociological and psychological indicators that contributed to the Connecticut tragedy also exist in this society. We must be prepared to face those indicators and effectively respond to them. Living like an Ostrich is not a wise concept for a society that wants the right to bear arms.