This is not the column I wanted to write this month. February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and I usually try, in the spirit of that and of Valentine’s Day, to write about what makes for healthy dating and romantic relationships. It is an important message, to be sure, and one I’m passionate about sharing. But this month, not quite two weeks after a mass shooting in State College that killed four people and seriously wounded another, I find that I’m having a hard time focusing on the positive.
It seems so senseless, so random, these murders and suicide. While the full story about what happened that night is still emerging, it seems fairly certain that an argument between two young people who were or had been dating escalated to the point where a bystander felt the need to intervene. One of the key components in the work of violence prevention is bystander intervention. Here at Centre Safe, we spend a great deal of time working with students from middle school to college helping them understand when and how to intervene safely if they see a situation that might lead to violence. We explore and practice strategies to diffuse dangerous situations and keep all involved safe.
But all that good information and sound strategy goes out the window when a gun is involved.
I am not so naïve as to blame violence on guns or gun owners. Certainly, most gun owners I know are responsible and would never use their firearms to harm another person. However, I also know that the potential for lethality and death in violent situations significantly increases when a firearm is present. In fact, when we talk to victims of domestic violence, we always ask if there are firearms in the home. We do this not because owning a gun makes someone more likely to be violent, but because if someone is already violent, a firearm makes it much more likely that a homicide will occur. And the sad truth about our society is that anyone can get a gun — whether they are prone to violence or not.
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An April 2017 study by Everytown for Gun Safety revealed that 54 percent of the mass shootings reviewed included domestic violence, meaning that among those killed were intimate partners or family members. While there is no clear cause and effect relationship, the volatility of domestic violence and the addition of a firearm means that not only family members and intimate partners, but literally the entire community is at risk.
This week, I read Jordan Witmer’s obituary in the paper. Clearly, he was loved by his friends and family, a child of this community who lived among us and served his country. And yet, in the blink of an eye, with a gun he killed three other people he did not know, seriously wounded someone we think he cared about and killed himself. On that Thursday night, lives were ended and families were destroyed because the presence of a gun escalated what might otherwise have been simply an unpleasant encounter into a deadly tragedy for all involved. It makes no sense. We must do better.