The Kids Are Not Alright

President Trump calling on teachers to arm themselves in response to America’s mass shooting epidemic doesn’t just put more students’ lives at risk — it also weaponizes what should be safe, nonthreatening environments for children and turns them into war zones. I hope students in high schools and colleges across the United States — the front line in mass shootings — are taking note. I hope they will galvanize knowing that legislators who are parents (or in the case of the current White House and its administration, grandfathers) feel no remorse in selling them out to gun manufacturers. That’s how little their lives are worth to them: a few days of handwringing and ritualized fatuities about thoughts and prayers, but not enough to reject NRA propaganda, or ban AR15s, or make weapons sales even slightly more restrictive. The kids are not alright, because they are being hunted down in places that should offer them comfort and acceptance, and the very people tasked with protecting them are condemning them to more violence and atrocity.

To be clear on this point: mass shootings in America are not a people problem. They are a gun problem. Americans, according to a study by University of Alabama professor Alan Lankford and profiled in the New York Times, own 42 percent of the world’s guns. The same article points out that the only country with a higher rate of mass shootings was Yemen, which has been entangled in a brutal civil war for the past three years. Mass shootings happen in the United States with more frequency and lethality than in any other developed nation in the world. And the biggest, most consistent variable in that equation? The ease and availability of guns, especially powerful weapons that can be efficiently automated to murder dozens of civilians in a matter of seconds.

Why would any person anywhere in the world who is not part of an actively deployed police service or armed force need that kind of fire power? For one reason: to kill. Not for sport shooting, not for fun, not for hunting pheasants in backwater creeks, but to have a weapon at the ready that can shred not just one human being, but entire classrooms with the twitch of a finger. So easy. Too easy. And that’s why the guns are the essential problem. To prevent the chronically aggrieved, the homicidal, the terrorist sympathizers, the domestic abusers, the mentally unwell and the sociopathic from acting on their angriest, most deranged and violent fantasies, legislators owe it to those in the crosshairs to make it harder to commit mass murder. Rigorous background checks. A ban on online and gun show sales. An end to AR15s, bump stocks and other semi-automatic weaponry. Gun registries, so that those amassing enough firepower to shoot out a concert in Vegas can no longer conceal their intentions over months if not years. These are not difficult measures to implement, if human lives are valued more than campaign contributions by the very people elected to serve, without irony, the people. Florida Senator, Marco Rubio has reportedly received more than $3 million from the NRA — and he’s telling Florida’s Parkland shooting survivors demanding a curb on gun sales that they “don’t understand” the gun lobby? It seems they understand all too well.

It is disingenuous to ask why events like these happen and what more can be done about them. The evidence is clear and incontrovertible: every developed nation that has imposed stricter gun control in the wake of mass shootings saw a precipitous decline in mass shootings and other gun related deaths. In Australia mass shootings dropped by 93% percent after a successful government gun ‘buy-back’ program following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which saw 35 people slaughtered. In the United Kingdom, after strict gun control measures were introduced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre of 15 kindergartners, there has not been another mass shooting in the 22 years since. Gun homicides have dropped to one third of their former levels. In Canada, a country with looser gun laws than the UK but tighter controls relative to the United States, gun related homicides are 8 times less per capita than the country’s southern neighbours.

When early evidence began to emerge in the 1950s of a correlation between smoking and lung cancer, tobacco manufacturers hid for decades behind the long latency period and many other possible explanations that seemingly made some people more vulnerable: gender, stress, occupational and environmental exposures, booze, family history, infection, and so on. In the process, millions more developed smoking-related cancers. If a two-pack-a-day hard living coal miner developed lung cancer, so the logic went, it could just as easily be the coal mine, not the cigarettes. As long as tobacco manufacturers could point fingers in a myriad of competing directions, tighter restrictions were averted and sales remained steady. Doctors, the supposed guardians of health, even prescribed them. Plausible deniability was the tobacco industry’s convenient public relations strategy, until the strength of the evidence was irrefutable.

There is only one thing that Newtown (26 dead), Orlando (49 dead), Vegas (58 dead), and Parkland (17 dead) have in common: semi-automatic weapons. The shooters all spanned different ages and backgrounds. Not all had a history of mental health issues. Their motivations were, on the whole, considerably different. What correlates in this violent equation is the guns, not the people.

President Trump and others contemptuously claiming that guns are the answer to America’s gun problem may as well be saying that cigarettes can cure lung cancer: their statements fly in the face of all rational evidence to the contrary. Worse still, they are betraying generations of young Americans who are being forced to learn and grow up in increasingly militarized environments. Are they made safer by encouraging teachers to take up arms and shoot students perceived to be a threat? Is that how educators nurture trusting, caring, emotionally stable adults?

As young people from across the country descend on Washington DC and state legislatures, their voices deserve to be amplified, and there are a number of ways to achieve this. Many teachers’ pension funds have holdings in the world’s arms manufacturers, including the Florida and New York Teachers Pension Funds which both have investments in Sturm Ruger, manufacturer of the AR15. Divesting from weapons is one way for teachers to demonstrate that they stand in solidarity with their students. Political candidates who openly advocate for gun control need financial and volunteer support. And those who resist gun control measures should be actively and consistently opposed, until NRA endorsements and contributions are seen as politically toxic. It’s not enough to say nothing can be done, when other countries have already done it and proven that it works. The Second Amendment asserts the right to bear arms. It does not assert that those rights are unlimited. Parkland’s students understand this. Hopefully the adults elected to protect them will too.

Dr. Samantha Nutt is the Founder of War Child USA and Bestselling Author of ‘Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid’

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.