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Sandy Hook lessons provide spur to action

Students in Manchester University’s peace studies major know that finding nonviolent ways to resolve conflict is hard work. Violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School and at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., reminds us that this nation has hard work to do. Do we sufficiently value human life to make changes that might stem these tragedies? Have we learned the lessons of Sandy Hook?

Lesson One: Too many guns designed specifically for killing people are circulating in the United States. When our nation was founded, citizens needed guns for hunting food and for protecting their homes in the absence of organized law enforcement like we have today. With gun ownership protected by the Constitution, citizens are understandably resistant to gun control. But now is the time to ask whether the type of assault weapon used to kill 20 young children and their teachers is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.

Lesson Two: Movies, television and video games based on hunting down people and shooting them desensitize us to the value of human life. Research demonstrates that exposure to TV and movie violence increases aggressive behavior. Playing video games not only increases aggressive thoughts, it also decreases socially acceptable behavior.

These findings are reported in scientific journals in pediatrics, psychology and neuroscience. It is no surprise that it is mostly boys and young men who play these violent video games. It is also no surprise that males were responsible for 60 of the 61 mass killings in recent years.

Forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner wrote: “I point the finger unreservedly at the entertainment industry, which has spawned and cultivated gaming that by design is increasingly real, geared to action as the shooter’s point of view, increasingly dehumanizes victims, and increasingly rewards players by how many they kill.”

Lesson Three: We need more knowledge about mental health and need to commit to dealing with it in our communities. Many individuals with mental illnesses do not have sufficient access to medical care. If we decreased the stigma of mental illness, people who need care would be likelier to seek it. Nearly all problems can be addressed with help from professionals. We need to be more open and compassionate about mental health in our families and neighborhoods and schools.

Lesson Four: Excessive media coverage of mass killings gives the killers the spotlight they seek, and it elevates the national sense of anxiety. As horrific as these events are, they do not warrant the weeklong microscopic, invasive attention that reporters use as they pry small facts from neighbors of victims. And we certainly do not want to reward killers by providing 24/7 media coverage of their despicable acts.

Lesson Five: It will take citizens and legislators to reduce violence in our nation. Citizens need to step up and say “enough” to lawmakers who lack the courage to design sensible legislation in the face of threats by lobbyists. Just as important, we need to change our own behaviors. We need to prohibit our kids from watching violent movies and playing violent video games. We need to stop buying them as gifts. That’s not easy. We need to advocate for gun laws that honor the Constitution but keep guns away from those who should not have them. No one wants more laws, but unless we restrict assault weapons and violent video games, we will need more laws.

Across our political differences, in our own ways, we need to take responsibility to reduce gun violence. This is why I have joined more than 220 other college and university presidents in signing a letter to our nation’s policy leaders, calling for banning guns on campuses, reinstatement of the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons, and elimination of the gun show loophole.

I ask all citizens to make better choices about movies and video games so children do not develop a hunger for violence that may lead to tragedy. At the same time, I ask Congress once again to restrict assault weapons that can kill fast and destroy the lives of precious, defenseless children like the ones who died at Sandy Hook. Let us all learn that tragedy’s lessons.

Jo Young Switzer is president of Manchester University. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.