There used to be a small gravestone on Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts (my family’s hometown) marking the final resting place of F.W. Jackson, who died on March 23, 1799 aged one year and seven days. The inscription read,
Heaven knows what man he might have been,
But we know he died a most rare boy.
That couplet captures the saddest aspect of the mass shooting at Newtown, Connecticut on December 14 that claimed the lives of 20 children and seven adults: all the things that might have been, the lives that will not be lived. The little souls lost that day will never marry, or have their own children, or comfort their parents in old age. Their loved ones can never fully recover what has been lost.
I will be traveling to Plymouth during the holiday season to be with my mother, who family members tell me is rapidly approaching the end of her own life. However, I will not feel the despair that parents in Newtown are feeling in this holiday season, because my mother is 94; she has outlived almost all of her contemporaries, and outperformed most of them. If she dies today — the anniversary of my father’s death — she will still be one of the lucky ones, who led a long life full of happy moments and major achievements.
The same cannot be said of her father, who killed himself at a much earlier age with a gun. That probably explains why there are no guns in my mother’s house, even though my own father — a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association — collected them up to the day he died. Which brings me back to Newtown, and the shadow it casts over a holiday season that is supposed to be about joy.
We cannot organize our society on the basis of what we fear the craziest or most desperate person among us might do in any given situation. America’s success is grounded, in large measure, in the willingness of its citizens to take risks. My mother took such a risk during World War Two when she joined the Army, and if she hadn’t she never would have met my father. We have to accept that risk is an inevitable part of life, and cannot be avoided if we wish to accomplish anything worth doing.
However, there is a difference between prudent, necessary risks, and risks that do not need to be taken. It is prudent and necessary to let people own weapons that might be used to protect their homes and families. It is not prudent or necessary to allow anyone to own an assault weapon or magazine capable of holding over a dozen bullets. In a population as big and diverse as ours, easy access to semi-automatic weapons is an invitation to continuous tragedy.
Individual homeowners can decide whether they need a handgun or rifle to defend themselves; but we as a society ought to recognize that nobody really needs a Bushmaster for their safety. Removing those guns from our midst will reduce — not eliminate, but reduce — the likelihood of further mass killings, and make it more likely that our children can lead the kind of productive, rewarding life that my mother has.