At eight-years-old, she may have been skeptical about the existence of a famous traveler from the North Pole. Still, she raced to the front door after hearing a knock and, lo and behold, there he was. But, in the fraction of a second it took her to smile, her uncle, Bruce Pardo, dressed as Santa Claus, pointed a gun at her face and fired -- the opening salvo of a hideous rampage that left ten people dead in Covina, California.
Spared breaking news of what has become known as "The Christmas Eve massacre," the following day's front-page story brought a shattering end to my holiday cheer. And while the reality of the tragedy horrified me, I was also unnerved by its haunting familiarity -- given that I had dreamt about the gruesome headline the night before.
Trying to make sense of my nightmare, those closest to me theorized that the nature of my work confronting genocide and other crimes against humanity lends itself to a preoccupation with the dark side of the human condition. Such logic has a ring of truth to it. Yet, I suspect the grisly premonition had more to do with my apprehension over our country's deadly relationship with guns.
Though a violent crime is nearly impossible to stop once it's been set in motion, most Americans support the right to keep a firearm in their residence for the purpose of self-defense. This, despite the fact that they are far more likely to maim or kill an innocent member of their family with it, than to successfully ward off a home intruder. Moreover, because we cannot accurately predict anyone's future mental health status, our system of laws and background checks is powerless to keep firearms out of the hands of people who subsequently experience severe psychiatric distress.
Our allegiance to guns has forced us to participate in a perpetual game of Russian roulette, inevitably resulting in another morbid headline. Which begs the question: Isn't there a better way of protecting ourselves?
In a word, yes.
No one of sound mind engages in extreme violence. It is an act born of desperation. Accordingly, if we wish to substantially improve our collective safety, we must dramatically reduce the chance of anyone reaching such a level of despair.
To that end, we need to ensure that comprehensive physical and mental health coverage, a quality education, and a living wage become the norm for everyone. In addition, we must specifically address the overwhelming needs of the most vulnerable members of our population, including the hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder; juvenile and adult prisoners slated to re-enter the community; and the growing number of at-risk youth.
To be sure, creating a safer and more secure society will require an unprecedented shift in our nation's consciousness and priorities. It will also require us to have the courage to disarm ourselves.
Three weeks after the shootings, I had another terrifying dream, this one placing me at the scene of the murders. In my mind's eye, I can still see a young girl answering the door. And I can still hear her scream.
Miraculously, Bruce Pardo's niece is expected to recover from her physical injuries -- though it is anyone's guess how she'll cope with the emotional trauma of her real-life nightmare. Somewhere down the road, however, she's likely to cross paths with someone extolling the virtues of gun ownership.
I can only imagine what she'll be thinking.
Copyright 2009 John J. Morlino, Jr.
All rights reserved. May be reprinted with written permission from the author.
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