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Thomas Plante (@ThomasPlante) Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, is a faculty scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. Views are his own
Perhaps there is no greater moral or ethical failure within a civilized society then when influential public-servant leaders choose to ignore, or defensively explain away, evidence-based and proven best practices in public safety. Gun violence, and more specifically, frequent mass murder of schoolchildren and their teachers, as well as other victims, in public spaces such as grocery stores and shopping malls, perpetrated by angry young men are preventable problems. Only the United States allows anyone to purchase powerful and deadly military style weapons, such as the AR-15, used in almost all of these recent mass murders.
We can be easily distracted by conversations about the need for improved mental health assessment and treatment, arming schoolteachers, conducting criminal background checks of gun purchasers, and second amendment rights to “bear arms.” However, the simple fact is that there are more guns in America than humans and that angry young men who are not old enough to purchase a beer or rent a car can easily buy or obtain these weapons of mass destruction. Public health approaches to gun violence have worked in other countries including those who also have experienced mass murders (e.g., Australia, New Zealand).
So, why does the United States drag its feet on evidence-based best practice in public health safety successfully used by other countries? While there are no simple or easy answers to this critically important question, sadly and tragically, our dilemma is ultimately an ethical one. Our current political system is hopelessly corrupt in that basic ethical principles, such as working for the common good rather than one’s own self-interests of power and money while ignoring conflicts of interest, prevent elected leaders from supporting and incorporating policies and laws to minimize gun violence. Lobbying and financial efforts from special interest groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), encourage politicians to placate large donors rather than citizens who they supposedly represent. Citizens are also deceived into supporting these special interests with misleading and deceptive misinformation and threats.
Imagine a society where everyone acted in the same manner as politicians in our donor-driven political system. Imagine if teachers, professors, police officers, doctors, grocery store clerks, first responders, and others operated with a pay to play scheme. As a college professor, perhaps I should grade students not on their academic merits but by the amount of money they, or their parents, place in my prominently displayed tip jar in my classroom. Should I advertise my Venmo or PayPal account on my syllabus to encourage donations?
While we would be appalled by such corruption and conflicts of interest in my example, we readily accept these conflicts in politics. Elected officials are considered public servants with salaries and many perks funded by taxpayer dollars to represent the best interests of the community who voted them in office to serve their interests. Yet, they are beholden to donors and special interest groups who may not even be located within their elected jurisdictions.
Essentially, we have a moral crisis in our culture such that monied interests hold powerful sway over decision makers such as elected officials. Frequent mass murder of young children and their teachers from angry young men with military weapons do not convince these leaders to make the evidence-based public health changes that have proven to work in other countries. Unless we embrace the common good and the moral imperative to protect the most vulnerable within our society, such as schoolchildren, we will continue to have mass killings in the future. Not only do we lose our civil society but we lose our moral one as well.