Mass Shootings vs Bridge Accidents: Which Get Action?

L. Gregory Lawton, MD


December 14, 2017

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, twenty first graders, traveling on a school bus for a field trip on Interstate 680 in Omaha, Nebraska, died when their bus ________________.

Consider the sentence. Twenty students are dead. They died on a bus. Why? How?

Allow the thought to be completed.

...experienced an electrical malfunction and crashed into a concrete bridge support.

"How old was the bus? When was it last inspected? By whom? How was this missed? Who manufactures the bus and the electrical components? Are other buses affected? Should there be an investigation or recall?"

...fell from an overpass that had apparently collapsed due to aging steel supports.

"How old was the overpass? When was it last inspected? By whom? Who manufactures the supports? Are other supports on other bridges affected? Should there be an investigation or recall?"

...had just pulled into a rest stop. One of the chaperones sitting near the front of the bus pulled out an assault rifle. In the confined space, he allegedly shot and killed many of the children and teachers on the bus, including the driver, before turning the gun on himself.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with..."

In America, how you die determines what the death means. A death from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is tragic. "The life of an athlete and a scholar has been cut short and we must do more research so that we can prevent this from happening again."

A death from an overdose is heartbreaking. "He was a caring kid, a good kid, a kind kid, and we must put more resources into fighting this opioid epidemic."

A death from a gun is a death from a gun. "Our thoughts and prayers are with..."

On December 14, 2012, 5 years ago, twenty 6- and 7-year-olds were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. When I first heard about this event, I was seeing patients, but I pecked out a blog post asking the rhetorical question of what we, as a nation, would do if mass shootings were actually bridge accidents.

As a pediatrician, I watch and listen to the news with an eye and ear to what will affect children.

Since that day, the day we thought might, just might, be a turning point in that uniquely American phenomenon known as mass shootings, nothing has turned.

The Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The country music concert in Las Vegas. The church in Charleston. The holiday party in San Bernardino.

My theory on why nothing has changed is that it's not because the solutions are too difficult or too impractical. My theory is that we have become too tribal, and there is no issue that is more tribal than guns. When it comes to guns, nothing matters more than tribe. Are you a Second Amendment person or not? There are no facts that can sway you. There are no social studies from other democracies that can alter your thinking. There are no arguments that can persuade you. There is no possibility for a thoughtful, meaningful conversation. There are only tribes.

Tribes are about identity and shared beliefs. Members of a tribe view the world through their interpretative prism, with fawning attention on chosen informational sources and caustic derision at peddlers of alternative news sources. Narrow eyes and ears feed narrow hearts, engender narrow minds, and result in narrow opinions. Your tribe is wrong. My tribe is right. The conversation is over, and it never really started.

As a pediatrician, I watch and listen to the news with an eye and ear to what will affect children. What will a tax policy mean for children? How will the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) funding debate play out? What effect will climate change or coal consumption or net neutrality or education funding have on children? How do our children view members of the media, the arts, and politicians who have engaged in sexual misconduct?

The tribal polarization that has consumed our country has trickled down to children. Children die every day from cancer. They die in motor vehicle accidents. They die from overdoses of drugs and alcohol. These deaths spark actions and inspire causes and prompt research and garner results. But if your child dies because of a gun, there are only thoughts and prayers.

The Sandy Hook shooting occurred 5 years ago today. Twenty children were gunned down. The tribal response sentiment was uttered then. It will be uttered today, in its unchanged, undeveloped, unevolved form. "Thoughts and prayers..."

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