The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 12, 2013

Proactive vs. reactive: Gun control from view of school shooting survivor

By John Zaktansky
The Daily Item

— Gunfire in a crowded school cafeteria caused high school freshman Brent Paucke to duck for cover under a table.

As he gathered his thoughts and surveyed the environment, he was quick to recognize the 14-year-old behind the trigger. It was a transfer student who rode his bus.

Two thoughts ran through his mind during that fateful experience right up until he emerged from under the table and defused the situation.

“I was trying to figure out a way to disarm her,” Paucke said. “And, I remember thinking that people should be made to respect guns and not think of them as a status.”

That shooting occurred more than 10 years ago at what was then called Bishop Neumann High School, located just north of our Valley in Williamsport.

Speaking via a Facebook chat session on Saturday evening, Paucke, who is currently serving in the Navy and stationed in Italy, agreed that the Sandy Hook massacre was a real tragedy.

“Sandy Hook is horrible regardless of the reason, motive, whatever it may be. There are no words to even explain that situation,” he said.

What he doesn’t agree with is the immediate call for widespread gun control.

“I think the wrong things are happening,” he said. “Instead of taking power away, I believe we should empower — teach children firearm safety and make them more familiar. We should consider arming our teachers and our society in a responsible way.”

An interesting take from someone who had been at the traumatic center of a school shooting himself.

“I mean I think it should be a process to get a gun, but I think they should have mandatory eductional trainings on firearms teaching people how to fire, make safe decisions and become marksmen,” Paucke said.

How many people pushing for widespread firearm control are familiar with guns? How many are petrified by the mere mention of the terms “assault rifle” or “semi-automatic?”

Those questions and the media firestorm that has followed the Sandy Hook shooting has led me to the following random thoughts.

As we learn in school, to work with fractions, it is important to first find the least common denominator. Apples need to be compared to apples, not oranges.

The least common denominator among school shootings can be passed off at a quick glance as guns ... but there is more here.

What about mental health? In every school shooting, mental health has been a very common theme. Sandy Hook, Columbine, Bishop Neumann. All involved perpetrators who were social outcasts, who fell between the cracks and, when looking at their pasts more closely, offered some red flags that something was just not right.

Take the magnification level up a few degrees. The Oklahoma City bombings, the Unabomber, deadly arsons, etc. In these cases, we lose the gun element, but the mental health thread never goes away.

How can we as a society better identify those who are struggling before vicious acts are initiated? How can we be more proactive in finding and helping those people who are capable of such acts — or, at the least, hindering their plans before it is too late?

We can put a Bandaid over a cut, but if it isn’t properly washed out, the infection remains. It festers, and eventually, it manifests itself in other ugly ways.

Gun control feels like a Bandaid for an injury that runs much deeper. Again, this ties into mental health. It touches on graphic, violent media such as video games and movies where kids can become desensitized to the reality of what a gun can do in real life — and how the ripple effect of one bad decision can hurt so many people in so many ways.

There is no guarantee that widescale gun control would have changed the outcome of Sandy Hook, Columbine or other tragic shootings.

Drugs are illegal, but even in our local region, if you are at the right place at the right time, you can likely score some marijuana or other more potent drug. People who are capable of such heinous acts as Sandy Hook will find ways to secure the weapons they need — regardless of the hurdles that a few new regulations may bring. They don’t exactly feel they have much to lose, anyway.

And even if guns were totally unavailable, there are other ways to create mass carnage. Bombs can be created with fertlizer and other fairly common ingredients. Cars can be driven into buildings. Poison can be dumped into a water supply. Again, in each of these cases, those who would use any of those tactics are likely struggling with some major mental health issues.

Weird stat that I just can’t get out of my head: in 2012, 37 people were killed in school shootings. Thirty-eight were killed by dog attacks — mostly by pitbulls and rottweilers. I know the analogy is a stretch, but does this mean we need to consider removing the teeth from all dog breeds as a precaution? Or wiping out pitbulls? Or removing dogs as a whole from our society? Of course not.

We educate our children to be cautious around strange dogs, especially those who are more prone to being violent. We report odd behavior from the neighborhood pitbull to its owner and we keep our distance. In a nutshell, we proactively do what we can to keep our families safe.

We have a choice — be proactive or reactive.

Which will our lawmakers choose over the next few weeks?

Email comments to jzaktansky@dailyitem.com