Since Columbine in 1999, Americans have been inundated with debates over gun rights, the Second Amendment and relevant reform and legislation. The moment you rattle off any city and/or institution, we can recall a heinous act of armed violence that occurred there, with so many mass shootings happening on a daily basis that we cannot simply know or recall them all.
With every mass shooting event, public rage and calls for gun reform are accompanied by the typical, cliché statements from our leadership and politicians, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones in this difficult time.” At the same time, our political parties use media as a battlefield to discuss opposing views as to what causes such horrific violence and what remedies are appropriate to cure it.
On top of all of that is what Dr. Paul Slovic calls a “psychic numbing” of Americans, of a people no longer able to feel compassion for lives lost, because there are simply so many with no end in sight. He also refers to this as a “compassion collapse.” Even with the recent spate of shootings and killings around Atlanta involving young kids and teens, it eventually just becomes another conversation that’s part of the larger zeitgeist around gun policy debate.
Without a doubt, compassion is severely lacking in every instance of gun violence. We allow gun violence to persist despite countless lives unnecessarily lost and many more lives at risk every single day. “Compassion collapse” is also present in the gun violence debate itself, with political parties warring about how to move forward on each side and with polarizing public arguments, debates, indifference, anger and terror, which paralyzes our ability to create real change.
Finding commonality on this issue has been difficult, but it is truly not impossible. But even before we arrive at massive shifts in gun legislation and desperately needed gun reform, we need compassion to shift our very own culture, a culture where persons revere firearms as a human right and imperative to their right to exist. We owe it to this side of the population to hear out their reasoning and to listen to their feelings; while also creating a safe, authentic space to present the reality that we are humans who share space, who share communities, who share lives and who share the moral obligation to protect one another.
In the process of protecting each other, gun supporters and reformers alike will come to the conclusion that something drastic in our communities and in our legislation must be done.
Compassion for our neighbors and fellow humans is the missing key to changing the future of our country as we know it. Many Americans can no longer prioritize the value of inanimate objects over human lives. Regardless of the history and culture behind gun ownership, nothing can be placed above human life. We may find it hard to hold empathy for the millions of our community members that we don’t know, and may never know. We also may find it hard to care about what could potentially happen to someone in the state over or on the other side of the country.
This manner of thinking is no longer tolerable in a world where one visit to a grocery store can end in mass destruction. Most importantly, this manner of thinking is no longer tolerable in a society where gun violence can just as likely impact a gun owner as much as it may impact someone without firearms.
Before legislation reaches the steps of Congress, social reform has to reach our doorsteps and our communities. We cannot allow ourselves to fall victim to compassion collapse and instead must take every step we can to reverse this collapse while actively working to include members on the other side of the debate in the conversation. Our survival is contingent on us working on this problem derived from our common humanity as we create a safe and stable future for all.
Leanne Rubenstein is co-director of Compassionate Atlanta, a grassroots community-building nonprofit raising awareness about the benefits of compassionate action. She is also a founding advisory board member for the Fulton County District Attorney’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee.
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