This week I found myself mulling over the connection between counseling, culture and guns. Recently, a situation arose in our local elementary school where fifth grade student threatened to shoot another fifth grader with his gun. The child who issued the threat, aged 10, owned a gun. The gun was a present for his ninth birthday and was happily shown off to friends at his birthday party, much as a tech-savvy adult might show off their newest gadget.
The question that arises for me (beyond that of how should school personnel handle a credible homicidal threat) is how do we reconcile the need to respect local cultures and at the same time promote social justice for all citizens of a community. Where does the legal right to own a gun intersect with the rights of victims? Here, in the Appalachian region where owning a gun can be a rite of passage, a cultural inheritance and means of entertainment, how do I promote social justice while respecting the particulars of this multicultural milieu?
I find that because I have children who attend the local school where the threat took place that I cannot easily separate my personal feelings with my background as a counselor and researcher. As a parent I am deeply concerned about the safety of all the children at that school and as a counselor, I wonder what is going on with the student who owns the gun. Are his needs and problems being addressed? Do his parents supervise and teach him how to handle firearms? If they do, is that only making him more lethal for when he decides he wants to shoot other students or adults? Is he under the care of a qualified mental health professional? Should he be one meds? If he has not been taught gun safety, is that better or worse? What about the judgment involved when parents arm their children? What about the emotional and mental problems of a child who threatens to kill others? Scary combination? Definitely.
I live in an area, like some of you might also, where hunting is a popular sport and many people eat the animals they kill. Deer season often determines whether a family on the edges of poverty will have to spend money to buy meat at the grocery store this winter or be able to use that little bit of extra cash for clothing or heating bills.
Let me just say that I have no problem with hunting, though I prefer not to engage in it myself. I have many male and female friends who hunt each year and enjoy the sport as family time well spent. Most people in Appalachia who own and use guns do so safely and appropriately. The bit that always concerns me is the ones who do not.
With all the school shootings and other murders that have gotten media attention of late, it is clear that although the vast majority of gun owners use them safely and responsibly, some people who should not ever own guns have an easy time getting them. Even fifth graders who may or may not be appropriately cared for and supervised by adults.
It was only in my generation that boys in our area were stopped from carrying pen knives to school. There are no metal detectors in either the elementary, middle or high schools in my village. Kids do not have to use clear backpacks. The colorful backpacks in use by our kids are never checked upon entering the school. There are no police officers stationed in our schools and the busses do not carry adults who serve as bus monitors nor do they have security cameras. For that matter, the schools do not have security cameras either.
As a crisis counselor in nearby urban Appalachian setting I see patients daily who have threatened to kill or harm others with guns. Most of these people have severe and persistent mental illnesses and end up in the ER (again) because of the factors that we all know about associated with the system. But my point here is that they are able to get guns. Just like the ten year old in my kids’ school.
Did any of them start out as a ten year old threatening someone? How many people who have engaged in school shootings or other mass murders using a gun had signs and symptoms that some professional should have caught long ago? Do some kids with problems change and grow out of those issues? Yes, but how do we discern between a kid with problems and one who will go on to more aggressive acts as a teen or adult?
The counselor in me is yelling inside my head right now “least restrictive environment, give kids a chance to mature, give people the benefit of the doubt!” And my mother self says “Not in regards to anyone who is in contact with my children!”
But then again, that’s just my opinion. I may be wrong.
Pam Ebert is a counselor in private practice while completing her doctoral work. She has a special interest in both rural and Appalachian cultures and how they pertain to the world of counseling.