Personal Responsibility and Gun Violence

Several decades ago, when I was teaching analytical chemistry, I received a sample of road dust with a request that I determine whether it contained toxic substances. It came from the neighborhood where I had lived during high school.  As one might expect, there was a story behind the sample.

Months earlier the major highway in the region had closed for repairs to a railroad overpass.  The detour added many miles for north-south traffic through the county.  Eventually, regular commuters and long-distance truckers got word of a small local road that bypassed the construction.  It didn’t take long for heavy traffic to destroy the road’s thin layer of asphalt.  The local authorities responded by plowing up what remained of the paved road, returning it temporarily to a gravel surface.  The expectation, I presume, was that the rough surface and the clouds of dust would force traffic back to the official detour.  It didn’t.  And throughout a long, dry and very hot summer, the local residents lived in a haze of road dust.  Those in poor health struggled and families worried about long-term harm to their children.

As one might expect, the dust settling in the houses was rich in chemical composition. It wasn’t difficult to trace the organic compounds to the pulverized asphalt and road oils. These were mixed with a strong dose of the inorganic compound that had been sprayed in a futile attempt to settle the dust. I decided to return to my old neighborhood to personally explain the results of my analysis.

The community meeting called to discuss the issue went as expected. Local TV reporters showed up with cameras. Voices were raised and people yelled at the county official who had the courage to show up.  There was talk of petitions and protests. All of it was justified after weeks of frustrating inattention.  About the time things reached a fevered pitch, two farmers joined the meeting, standing quietly at the back of the room. They had been cultivating fields under the hot sun all day and it showed.  After about five minutes the two farmers whispered to each other, shrugged their shoulders, and walked out of the room.  I could scarcely contain my anger. There was a community problem, children were at danger, and these two neighbors didn’t seem to care.

As it turned out, I was much too quick in my condemning judgment.  Soon I heard the roar of diesel farm tractors on the road. Behind those tractors, which were large enough to cover both lanes, were large tanks of water and a fine mist of water being applied to the gravel road. The water settled the dust and the slow-moving, wide tractors, which appeared regularly in the coming days, made the narrow road a very inconvenient if not impossible detour. Soon word was out and through-traffic returned to the officially sanctioned route.

While some of us demanded action, others took action. The experience reminded me that on some days we can win an argument and on other days we can solve a problem.  But rarely can we do both at the same time.

I applied this life lesson in my response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  My in-box was filled with notes endorsing a letter by a colleague demanding that President Obama take immediate action to limit the availability of assault weapons.  Almost lost among the endorsements for this strong note was a second letter that urged college presidents to mobilize their campuses to find solutions to the many and complex issues that contribute to gun violence.  Signatories of the first letter demanded action by the President of the United States.  Signatories of the second letter pledged personal action.  Both are good letters.  I am glad that so many of my colleagues are offering their support.  I am sure that President Obama will read carefully the request from so many of my good colleagues who are urging him to action.  Personally, I have opted for the second letter that pledges personal responsibility for engaging the Monmouth College community in finding ways to make our children safer.

The letter I signed was drafted by President Lee Pelton of Emerson College.  In it he wrote:  “Our nation looks to colleges and universities to solve its most pressing problems and these are issues on which we stand ready to provide a way forward.  We, therefore, pledge to do that which we do best in our communities:  engage thought leaders, faculty, students, staff, trustees and friends in meaningful debate and dialogue, which in turn, might lead to positive action.”  This pledge has been transmitted to President Obama.  As important as it is that he knows we plan to take action, it is even more important that all members of the Monmouth community know that I have pledged our action.

Like the residents of Newtown, Connecticut, we live in a small town that seems isolated from the day-to-day impact of gun violence.  Yet we have once again been reminded that none of us, wherever we live, can or should ignore the potential for unexpected and devastating impact.  We must also not forget that many of our students are spending their Christmas break in areas where homicide is a regular—if not daily—concern.   There have been more than 500 homicides in Chicago this year, the majority of which involved firearms and, in far too many cases, children as victims.  As a national liberal arts college we should contribute to the resolution of gun violence because it is an issue of vital, national concern.  As a community that cares deeply for all who study here, we have a special responsibility to address this issue that is close to home for students we love.

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