“I have one question for our political leaders,” says Roxanna Green, whose 9-year-old daughter Christina was the youngest victim in the Tucson shootings two years ago. “When will you find the courage to stand up to the gun lobby?” she asks, in a commercial for Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “Whose child will have to die next? To every mother: We cannot wait. We have to demand a plan.”
Yes, we do. But to anybody who thinks a plan is the easy part, given the politics, well, think again. Just as we’re not so neatly divided between pro- and anti-gun, we’re not, contrary to what a National Rifle Association statement suggested on Thursday, so easily categorized as either among the “law-abiding gun owners” or else the “criminals and madmen.” Which is why keeping guns out of the hands of the wrong mentally ill people is no simple thing.
Watching the urgent calls to action since the school shootings at Newtown, I’ve wondered if those in my own family who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence felt that same way – and I had no idea, since the whole topic of what happened in Hopkinsville, Ky., on April 3, 1968, had never really been broached.
Two years before, on May 8, 1966, my Uncle Robert’s beautiful wife Linda had died of a heart attack at only 23 – during the christening of their 2-month-old son, my first cousin Bob. Little myself then, I really only remember Linda’s tinkly laugh, that she made a kind of jello we never had at home, and that when the family got together, everyone wanted to sit by her.
I remember, too, where I was standing in our kitchen when the call about her death came in, and that when my mother first saw her grieving brother, what she said was, “Oh, Rob.” How lucky that Linda hadn’t been holding the baby when she collapsed, everyone said at the funeral. Which even as a kid made me think how people say the oddest things.
I don’t recall seeing Linda’s mother Dorothy that day, but she never recovered from the loss, and in April of 1968 she shot her husband Earl, her 11-year-old daughter Gina Gayle and herself.
The part of the story I couldn’t get over was that Gina Gayle had locked herself in the bathroom to get away and was shot through the door. She was just a little older than I was, and though I knew her only slightly, for a long time I couldn’t stop imagining how frightening that would have been, crouching in mortal fear of your own mother – a lovely Christian woman, everyone said, driven mad by her daughter’s death and taken over by the idea that the rest of their family could join Linda in heaven.
Her plan didn’t quite come off; she and her daughter died that day but her husband survived for another four years. And how lucky, I heard family friends say, that my cousin Bob hadn’t been with his Grandmother Dorothy at the time.
My grandmother helped raise Bob until his father remarried, and everyone in my family gave him the extra portion of love that Linda wasn’t there to provide. But funny as it sounds, we never really talked about what had happened, or asked any of the questions that the shootings in Newtown have provoked, about whether she’d been treated for depression, or how she got the gun.
On Thursday, I called my cousin, who’d just brought us some country ham when I was home over Christmas, to ask what he thinks of the debate as someone whose own life has been so altered by gun violence that grabbed no national headlines, but hurt those involved just as much.
Forty-six now, with a son in high school, he’s grown up to look a lot like his mama. He’s a partner on the family farm, and has views on guns that are probably more in-the-middle than most in deep red Trigg County, Ky.: “We’re not going to hold up the folks who are hunters,” he said, but “we need a tighter control of automatic rifles.” Still, the conversation happening now strikes him as “just starting out. A year from now I don’t think we’re going to have any answer” to the more general epidemic of violence, even if, God willing, the sale of some kinds of guns and high-capacity ammunition magazines are tightened.
“It’s going to be awfully tricky,” he said, not just getting a deal, but finding a solution to a double-knotted problem that involves guns and illness.
Maybe that’s the best way to look at it, too – not because we should just give up, but, on the contrary, so we don’t. And meanwhile, let’s stop arguing about whether to address mental health or guns, when they’re inextricably welded together in both mass shootings and less publicized and even more numerous family tragedies.
Dorothy used a handgun, so an assault weapons ban wouldn’t have stopped her. Yet when NRA President Wayne LaPierre says that the only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, would he also say, “Gosh, if only Gina Gayle had been packing”?
The assailant wasn’t a “bad guy,” anyway, but an ill woman. “I don’t think that in 1968 they knew what to do” about depression like his grandmother’s, my cousin said. But even today, there are huge treatment gaps for the seriously mentally ill, very few of whom ever hurt anybody. And as much as I want to see community mental health programs brought back to life, the truth is that the mental-illness side of the problem is, if anything, even more complicated and intractable than the argument over guns.
As Joe Biden’s task force pulls together a proposal to prevent future Newtowns (and Auroras and Tucsons and Virginia Techs and Columbines) I hope we’ll keep in mind the most important thing Biden has said on the subject so far: “We are not going
to get caught up in the notion,” he promised, that “unless we can do everything, we’re not going to do anything.”
We may need to remind ourselves of this from time to time, if as I hope we proceed under no illusions that the answers are obvious, or political courage the only requirement.