Morehouse president: We cannot be silent on gun violence or its causes

FILE — Mourners visit a memorial on May 24, 2022, near the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y., where 10 people were killed in a white supremacist shooting rampage on May 14. The man accused of carrying out a racist massacre that killed 10 Black residents at a Buffalo supermarket was arraigned in an Erie County courtroom on Thursday, June 2, on more than two dozen charges, including murder and domestic terrorism motivated by hate — believed to be the first time that such a law has been leveled against a defendant in New York. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

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FILE — Mourners visit a memorial on May 24, 2022, near the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y., where 10 people were killed in a white supremacist shooting rampage on May 14. The man accused of carrying out a racist massacre that killed 10 Black residents at a Buffalo supermarket was arraigned in an Erie County courtroom on Thursday, June 2, on more than two dozen charges, including murder and domestic terrorism motivated by hate — believed to be the first time that such a law has been leveled against a defendant in New York. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

In a guest column, Morehouse College President David A. Thomas talks about the moral obligation to address America’s gun violence.

A former Harvard University professor, administrator and former dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Thomas became president of the nation’s only historically black college exclusively for men in 2018.

This column is drawn from a blog post by Thomas on Morehouse’s website.

By David A. Thomas

The most glorious and celebratory Morehouse College time between graduation and Reunion Weekend this year was sandwiched by violence, first by the senseless killings in Buffalo, New York, that targeted a Black community on May 14. Ten days later, tragedy struck again in Uvalde, Texas, where little children and their teachers were slaughtered by an intruding shooter.

Both tragedies were perpetrated by young men, close in age to many of our students. These young men were filled with resentment and hatred, but also, I believe, mentally ill. Sadly, in the two weeks after Uvalde, more than 10 additional mass shootings occurred in our nation.

Understanding each incident requires a focus on the shooter and his conscious motivations. The result is that each situation is coded as “different,” because the shooters’ targets are different and the shooters share no common characteristics or connections. Those differences allow many of our politicians to act as if there is no societal pattern worthy of or requiring their action, not to mention a willingness by those politicians to take responsibility as elected leaders.

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Morehouse College President David A. Thomas (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas  (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

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Morehouse College President David A. Thomas (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

I, however, do see a societal pattern. Our nation is increasingly plagued by the collision of two crises that fuel one another. The first is a moral crisis in which violence has become an accepted aspect of our lives. In a recent congressional hearing, the mother of a slain Uvalde child put it most succinctly. She said that we have become a nation that “values our guns more than we value our children.” It is hard to argue against her point. We have a crisis of morality when, to protect possessions like guns, we devalue life. There is no constitutional right to own a military grade, multi-round, automatic rifle. There is no constitutional right for 18-year-olds or anyone else to buy such weapons without a waiting period or background check.

The second crisis is that of mental health, particularly among our youth whose lives have become more stressful and complicated than any modern generation before them. Living every day to serve 2,200 young men on our campus, I am acutely aware of the mental health challenges of Generation Z. Mind you, others of us are not immune to the stresses of this era of rapid technological advancements that allow individuals to create their own virtual reality with reinforcing feedback loops that fuel a detachment from real life, community, and responsibility. We have responded by creating smaller and smaller self-protective communities and subcultures.

Our crisis of morality and our crisis of mental health have become a lethal combination. Each one creates fuels for the other and creates a reality for all of us that makes it naive to ever assume we are in a safe place — not even in grade schools, grocery stores or houses of worship. Over the last decade, our crises of violence and mental health have shown us that no group of people is safe from senseless bloodshed. This is an American problem, not an urban or rural one, nor one defined by income or ethnicity.

Morehouse College, her graduates, and our community have throughout history stood in the gap as leaders to address the challenges of the day, whether they be related to civil rights, health care, or global peace. So, what do we do in this moment?

We all must choose in each of our spheres of influence to be part of the solution. What mattered in the Civil Rights Movement was not that any one person marched or one lawyer sued for rights guaranteed by the Constitution. What mattered was that a critical mass of people each chose from where they sat to stand and act.

My own stance starts with being attentive to the mental health of those in our community. I am supporting a series of policy initiatives without regard for the current vote count in Congress or the state Legislature. These include:

  • expansion of mental health services in communities and schools;
  • mental health coverage mandates in medical insurance policies;
  • mandatory background checks, including mental health, for weapons purchasers;
  • a minimum three-day waiting period to take possession of a purchased weapon;
  • a ban on the sale of military grade rifles and automatic weapons such as the AR-15;
  • making 21 the required age for legal purchase of a weapon;
  • and increasing penalties on those who sell guns in violation of our laws.

While the likelihood that any of these may be enacted soon seems remote, I have a North Star to guide my vote, my activism, and my donations. I am not suggesting that my commitments are the only morally correct ones available. I do believe, however, that none of us who embrace the Morehouse values and commitments to nonviolence and ethical leadership can be neutral.

Let me end by saying that, first and foremost, we must not let our fears lead our actions or paralyze us from action. We must resist the urge to demonize others. Calling our leaders to account for their ethical and moral obligations is not served by demonization of those with whom we disagree. Pulling away into self-protective cocoons of sameness will not make us safe, but it will increase our fears of one another and make those most in need of help even more isolated.

The idea that more guns and teachers prepared to shoot it out with deranged perpetrators is a fantasy driven by fear and belief that as a society we have done all we can do. Do we now believe that it is every adult and child for themselves? We must not surrender to our fears in this moment.