In My Words: Holding our fire — A few ideas to cut down on risky encounters with guns

This column by Professor of English Rosemary Haskell distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate was published in the Greensboro News & Record, the Greenville Daily Reflector and the Rocky Mount Telegram.

By Rosemary Haskell

People in this country just keep on dying from gunfire. What can we do?

Professor of English Rosemary Haskell

I suggest a few tactics that might nibble away at the total of the present butcher’s bill of murder, manslaughter, suicide, and accident. To switch metaphors, we should be siphoning off guns from society, bit by bit. Let’s open a few safety valves to release the deadly pressure: by limiting the occasions where guns are now routinely involved, by publicizing the need for better gun-safety tactics, and by taking heart from pandemic evidence that we can act together for the common good.

Here are some possibilities.

* Explore and adapt the recent argument by Jordan Blair Woods in the Washington Post in favor of handing over most traffic stops to unarmed public officials who are not the police.

Let’s reconfigure the role of the traffic warden, or parking official, to include responsibility for issuing citations for minor traffic violations. Perhaps the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper hymn to “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid” could be our soundtrack.

Like Rita, these traffic managers would be armed only with a “little white book” — updated to electronic times — so that their traffic stops would be more neutral. They could also assist motorists in distress. Race relations might improve. And if things turned seriously ugly in any encounter, the motorist, passenger or traffic manager could dial 911.

When we’re stopped for running a red-light, or for expired registration, or for unsafe load, or when we’re broken down on the side of the interstate highway, perhaps we will soon meet Lovely Rita instead of an armed police officer.

* Remove armed police from schools.

Cosily-named school resource officers (SROs), these gun-carrying police have no place around children. SROs signal that life must be lived with an armed guard. I don’t want American children to consume that lesson with their school lunches.

Evidence about the officers’ efficacy in the acid-test of shootings at schools is not convincing, while recent surveys show that students — particularly those who are racial minorities— as well as teachers and parents have very mixed feelings about whether SROs improve school safety.

Instead, put public money into providing more teachers, more counsellors and school nurses, and more building managers.

* Hive off many, or even most, of the current load of 911 of calls about “he or she’s acting funny” away from the police.

As many have argued, such people in distress often do not require an armed response. Figuring out which calls are which will require highly-trained call center personnel, as well as larger numbers of psychiatric social workers, EMTs and other trained responders, in order to give the mad, the desperate, the drunk and the high the help they need.

A new “psychiatric or disturbed person emergency” number might improve this triage: let the caller decide what help might be needed, before the police get involved. You can always call 911 later, if necessary.

* Raise awareness about personal and collective responsibility for gun safety.

We need smart and periodically-reformulated public relations campaigns about gun safety, spread over months and years. Perhaps run by the Surgeon General, they could adopt the public health approach: people are dying! What can we do to save them?

Consider the success of those old public health campaigns, against smoking, drunk-driving, alcohol use during pregnancy, and in favor of seat belts in cars, child-safety seats, and helmets for bike riders. Individual action, peer pressure, some legislation, and hard evidence could combine to fuel huge improvements in health and safety.

Similar messaging could reduce the “child finds gun in Mom’s purse” types of accidents, and, by encouraging us to keep firearms securely, might limit the occasions when transient fits of anger, despair, or madness (see above) end in a hail of bullets. The police would surely also welcome the lowered risk.

* Use the pandemic shifts in our collective behavior as inspirational models for large-scale change in our gun-related attitudes and actions.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that millions of people, in this country and the world, can turn on a dime. Think back to March and April 2020. We switched in days to remote school and, often, to remote work; to almost no air travel; and, a few months later, to mask-wearing.

We should be proud of our ability to adapt swiftly and trust it in other contexts. Removing guns from schools and from some common public situations, such as traffic stops and psychiatric emergencies, are pivots we could make fairly quickly.

These actions might offer at least some relief from the pain and loss the nation experiences daily. What do we have to lose?

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.