Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Hysteria surrounding violence is misdirected, ineffective

By Hannah Sparks

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Being a pretty reserved and rational person, I have always found that knee-jerk reactions and hysteria are among the worst ways to deal with any problem. While it’s important to trust your gut in certain situations, oftentimes the panicky resolutions of a frightened or angry hive-mind can range from simply incorrect to unethical to dangerous. About a month ago, I wrote about the motivations behind mass violence. Now I want to explore the reasoning behind how the rest of us attempt to deal with that violence.

As people try to move on following events like the Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., shootings, they feel confused. They want to know why someone would indiscriminately kill crowds of people or why someone would want to hurt children.

They look for conclusions, but being frightened, heartbroken and outraged, they don’t always come to the correct ones.

Recently, Jonah Stone, a 5-year-old boy from Hopkinton, was given a half-day in-school suspension for bringing a small toy gun to school. Believing that the school’s administration overreacted, the boy’s mother successfully appealed the suspension, which was a victory for common sense.

Children have always played games like “Cops and Robbers” or “Cowboys and Indians,” which are, at their core, “violent.” Fistfights break out on the playground, sometimes sending kids home with bloody noses and black eyes.

These acts seem to be a pretty natural way for children to express aggression. However, nowadays this kind of roughhousing, rather than being seen as an inevitable part of the socialization process, has been pathologized, marked as deviant and highly concerning.

“Zero tolerance” policies, adopted in light of school violence, paint in broad strokes, punishing young students for harmless actions, like making finger-pistol gestures while playing or packing a butter knife with their lunch.

Children, of course, should not be encouraged to engage in aggressive behavior, but society should not overreact to the behavior either, unless there is cause for legitimate concern.

A 5-year-old simply does not understand violence in the same way his parents and teachers do, because young children are often sheltered and remain largely ignorant of violent atrocities.

Jonah Stone had to ask his mother what had “happened in Connecticut” after the principal brought up the Newtown shooting during a meeting with the boy, his mother and a police officer. The boy’s mother had kept the information from him not only because she did not want to scare him, but also because he may have been too young to have understood.

Regardless of the current hypersensitive climate surrounding weapons, the boy probably should not have brought the toy gun into school.

However, to give a 5-year-old child a suspension, marring his school record forever because of a truly innocent mistake is ineffective and counterproductive to solving the issues that actually matter.

Who should we be more afraid of, the 5-year-old boy with a toy gun, or the violent individual who has access to real weapons and both the capacity and twisted motivation to use them? While it’s unclear exactly how to prevent acts of mass violence, the answer to this question is clear.

Sometimes we arrive at incorrect conclusions, but other times, we come to no conclusion at all.

Congress, for instance. As children in schools across America are being disciplined for reasons beyond their scope of knowledge, our oh-so venerable elected officials are mired in indecision regarding new gun control legislation that may actually fix the problems helicopter parents and teachers are attempting to fix in their own misguided ways.

The main body of the legislation, which will soon come to a vote in the Senate, is the expansion of background checks on those purchasing guns, an uncontroversial concept that 73 percent of Americans favor, according to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll.

This should be a non-issue, but somehow, due to the sway of powerful pro-gun lobbies like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and paranoid arguments regarding the violation of outdated Constitutional liberties, Congress has managed to turn it into a circus.

The fact that Congress is ineffective is hardly news. However, the timidity surrounding even the most uncontroversial, commonsense proposed changes to gun control legislation, when juxtaposed against the misplaced hyper-vigilance exemplified in that 5-year-old boy’s story, shows ambiguity and hypocrisy in the national gun control discussion.

The harmless play of children is minutely scrutinized, while many of the gun laws currently on the books treat deadly weapons with blasé nonchalance.

The solution to gun violence can’t be found in the principal’s office. Nor is it right to give up and adopt the anarchic belief that since violence is an inevitable facet of human nature, all attempts to curb it are futile, and we should stop trying altogether.

The answer also is not to fight fire with fire, as groups like the NRA advised, asking that every person arm themselves to the teeth, should they ever encounter an AK-47-wielding murderer or some similarly horrific situation.

The cynicism inherent to these views is depressing, and the resilient human race can certainly do better than that. All it takes is a little rationality.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]


13 Responses to “Hysteria surrounding violence is misdirected, ineffective”

  1. Steve on April 2nd, 2013 7:42 am

    The problem with any legislation I have seen that deals with changes to current procedure is that NOTHING is done that would require mentally unstable individuals to be added to the CURRENT “deny list”. Once you go there, there are HIPPA and privacy considerations and God knows we can’t step on that path.

    The changes proposed thus-far would not only require transfers between individuals to complete a 4473 and a background check but also begin a national registry of owners and what they own. This registry would also apply to FFL sales. Knowing who owns what is a key to confiscation. Requiring participation would lead to citizens who are normally law-abiding becoming felons.

    Because of the convoluted hoops proposed legislation would carry, this no-brainer would suddenly make criminals out of tens of thousands who were not criminals before the federal government required registration of their means of self-defense. Simple things would cause you to be in violation: no longer would Johnny Jr. be allowed to borrow his dad’s .22 rimfire or 20-gauge pump to go out on a rabbit hunt with his uncles.

    You do know what a 4473 is right? No? Since I know existing federal laws, let’s work this the other way around. Suggest a law change and I’ll tell you why it would be ineffective and how it would negatively effect law abiding citizens.

    We don’t need additional feel-good laws.


  2. David Hunt 1990 on April 2nd, 2013 7:55 am



    Background checks can be used as registration lists. And registration lists have been used to guide confiscations throughout history… even here in the US.

    I. Do. Not. Trust. Government. PERIOD. Government is made of people, and until human nature changes – and it never will – absolute power over the population NEVER ends well.

    My great uncle Chaim, his wife Flore, and son Francis, found that out when their neighbors – you know, the same people who make up “the government” – betrayed them and sent them to a little vacation spot. Called Auschwitz.


  3. N. on April 2nd, 2013 4:31 pm

    interesting how so many in the anti-gun control crowd (of which i count myself a member, btw) have developed such a sudden tendency to gesture to psychiatry, as though the notion of mental health/illness was somehow anymore scientifically settled and politically unproblematic than violence in general. The social conditions of violence obviously extend far beyond the mere presence of absence of a weapon of a certain kind. It seems like there are people like me and David who pretty much oppose control across the board, and there are people who want selective controls to keep guns out of the hands of the ‘wrong’ people.
    Few would dispute, I think, that there are legitimate reasons for almost anyone to (want to) own a gun. In MA, you have to be licensed through your local police department, even to own a hunting weapon, and the criteria the police use are generally not open to public scrutiny. What is a ‘background check’? Who should be disqualified – someone with a criminal record? What if it’s only a nonviolent misdemeanor or two? What if it’s from many years ago, maybe before they were 18? Someone with a ‘history of mental illness’ – who gets to decide what that is? Three psychiatrists can see the same person and come up with 3 different diagnoses, and it’s anyway clear that many, many people have some form of depression, anxiety, OCD, or other common mental health issues. What about people who have criticized the government or other social institutions or groups, people with ‘crazy’ politics or other ideas, do we ban them too?
    I actually agree that some of the scenarios proposed – e.g. by the NRA, and David here – are unreasonably paranoid, but I want to ask people to double-check their reasoning when they start talking about “obvious” measures, who or what is “obviously” crazy, and so on.


  4. David Hunt 1990 on April 2nd, 2013 5:57 pm


    “Unreasonably paranoid?”

    When New York enacted registration of long guns, politicians swore up and down the lists would never be used for confiscation. Some years later, they did exactly that.

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.


  5. N. on April 3rd, 2013 1:23 am

    Fair enough; I was mostly thinking of the Holocaust comparison.


  6. David Hunt 1990 on April 3rd, 2013 6:34 am


    “That could never happen here.” Tell it to the Japanese in WWII, who – by the grace of G-d and our turning the tide – escaped a lot of nastiness. No, it would not have been factory death camps a la the Nazis… but it wouldn’t have been pretty.

    And if you went to pre-WW I Europe and said that within 30-40 years something like the Shoah would happen, the Weimar Republic would have been low on the list of countries identified. It was one of the most open, cosmopolitan places in Europe.

    But now? The Occupy Movement is / was rife with anti-Semitism. Jews are verbally and physically harassed on college campuses. I wear a yarmulke; I’ve been verbally taunted (until I reached around behind to the small of my back… here in “Live free or die!” New Hampshire that’s not a good thing to see someone do. You know. 😉

    The most important lesson of The Shoah is that it CAN HAPPEN. And has, throughout history. Until human nature changes, and it never will, when times are bad people will turn on their neighbors who are “different”.


  7. Sam on April 3rd, 2013 1:28 pm

    An incisive panorama of the gun control debate. Good piece. The only problem I have is your characterization of the congressional gun control gridlock as a problem with Washington. A big problem with public opinion polls is that they don’t show levels of intensity. Intensity matters. While 73% of Americans might decide over their morning paper that universal background checks is a reasonable idea, they aren’t likely to devote any great amount of time, energy, money, or thought to the matter. Compare that with the sizeable minority that believes that any effort towards increasing gun control is just the first step down a road that ends in a government dictatorship. I won’t argue the merits of their motivations, but their level of devotion and passion is tremendous, and more than makes up for their lack of public support. While normal voters might look at a candidate from all angles, and weigh their stance on gun control after considering a number of other factors, the hardcore pro-gun faction view gun control as a litmus test for candidates. Any attempt, no matter how small, to increase gun control measures is a non-starter. Republicans and a handful of red state democrats in the Senate are basing their positions on expediency. If they stand for gun control, they aren’t likely to capture too many independents on that issue alone (remember, gun control is one small factor among many), but are guaranteed to lose the 3-5 percent of voters who hold gun control over everything else.


  8. Mike on April 3rd, 2013 5:04 pm

    Sam brings up a good point, the pro civil rights/2nd amendment side is able to rally much harder. We have 1000+ members at our rallies in Boston, the anti-gun side which is much more numerous in Massachusetts can’t even manage 200.



  9. N. on April 3rd, 2013 6:46 pm

    David, I get a better idea of your point now. There are some Tea Partying, right-wing Christian types who like to compare themselves, *as gun owners*, to Holocaust victims, which is totally asinine, but also not what you’re saying, just what came to mind first for me.


  10. N. on April 4th, 2013 2:45 am

    Also I’m not sure where/how you base your assertion that Occupy was “rife with anti-Semitism”? There certainly are people who fairly freely mix anti-Semitism with their anti-capitalism and/or anti-Zionism, or naively hold parallel positions (eg. blaming it all on “the bankers”…) but like it or not, there are lots of Jews on the Left too. Meanwhile I’m sure not all of the right-wing pro-gun types are friends of our tribe either.


  11. David Hunt 1990 on April 4th, 2013 7:34 am


    First, as to the Tea Party, explain why there are so many minority speakers at such events? Tokenism, or an application of MLK Jr’s motto of judging by character, not race?

    As to racism, certainly on every part of the spectrum there are morons. But let me give you an example. A few years ago I was in “deepest darkest” Texas. A town you can barely find on a map, it’s so small… because it’s where our domestic R&D plant is.

    Aside from a few looks at the guy wearing the yarmulke, I got NOTHING. No shoves, no harrassment… and one comment, from a child when I was at a restaurant (asking his mommy “Mommy, why does that man have that funny hat?” Mom: “That’s how he shows his respect for G-d, now shut up before he hears you.”). The ONLY anti-Semitism that I’ve ever experienced has been here in New England (e.g., the aforementioned incident where, seeing me reach behind my back, they am-scrayed).

    Might I suggest reading for a week or two? Go there and search for “anti-semitism” and “the left”/”liberals”. The amount of examples should shock you.


  12. Sam on April 4th, 2013 1:34 pm

    I think you would be surprised how strong support for Jews/Israel is on the right. Obama’s foreign policy, which is about as hawkish as anyone in the Republican party, has put the right in a tough spot. It’s hard to demarcate differences between the foreign policy stances of the two parties. So the right takes whatever point it can get and runs with it re: Israel. Obama’s less than stelar relationship with Bibi is well known, but in reality it’s really not anything remarkable. In order to draw a bigger contrast with Obama, republicans have increasingly supported Israel to an almost fanatical degree.
    But this is Washington politics and posturing. What about small town southern christians? As it turns out, these are some of Israel’s biggest supporters, and the more religious, the better. Christian Zionism is a belief among evangelicals that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the establishment of the state of Israel reflects biblical prophecy, and portends the second coming of Christ. They fiercely champion and defend Israel.


  13. Dr. Ed Cutting on April 10th, 2013 4:20 pm

    Support for Israel is stronger amongst conservative Christians than it is amongst most Jews — political commentators in ISRAEL know that. Caroline Glick had an interesting point – something like 94% of the Americans in Israel voted for Romney — what does that tell you when Ed Koch said that he endorsed Obama because American Jews were going to vote for Obama anyway, and he hoped that his support might delay Obama’s stabbing Israel in the back.
    One problem with background checks is that a father can’t give his gun to his son (or daughter) — he has to sell it to a dealer and then pay the dealer’s markup (twice what he got) for the son to buy it back. If he can afford it.
    And if you want to go the mental health route, what about mental health background checks prior to an abortion? What’s wrong with making a woman prove that she is rational and sane and aware of the consequences of having an abortion? People freak out with a requirement that she be shown the ultrasound — I somehow suspect this would be considered a tad more excessive.
    But the real outrage was the 5-year-old suspended for biting a Danish into the shape of a gun and maybe or maybe not pointing it at someone. As his father said “it was a pastry.”
    And I will say this, what if the perp had instead driven a stolen gasoline or propane tanker into the school? Far more children would have died, and those who survived would have had serious and lifetime-disfiguring burns. Anyone remember what happened in Oklahoma City — and that didn’t involve guns.
    Might we perhaps be better off inquiring as to what it was that made the perp so very much want to murder the principal and psychologist of his own elementary school? What might they have done? My experience is that the crazier someone is, the more predictable and understandable they become — if you accept their insanity to be their reality. So stepping away from the horror of murdering innocent 5-year-olds, ask why THAT school, and why THOSE two women were shot first.
    I don’t know what the reason is, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t one. And the little girl who survived the classroom massacre by realizing her only option was to pretend to already be dead — she reports the perp as being “angry” and “very mad” — and that usually is about *something* in particular.


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