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Guns, restorative justice and violence prevention

January 28, 2011

I have thought recently that gun ownership is becoming a symbol in the U.S. of political correctness. Two things reminded me of this since the shooting of Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and the 19 others injured, six fatally, in Tucson.  Since the Tucson shootings a high school student arrives at a Los Angeles area school with a loaded semi-automatic in his backpack. The gun goes off, accidentally we are told, injuring two students, one student took a bullet to her head. But since this incident the public discussion appears to be focused on whether the student was at fault at all after the gun goes off.  I heard one local talk radio pundit refer to this incident and excuse the student because “after all the student was either afraid of gangs or other threats of violence at school”.  Thus, the loaded gun. 

I heard another talk show host on a San Francisco radio station introduce this school yard incident saying that she has nothing against guns. In fact, the host says, ” I love guns! I enjoy shooting guns!” She then goes on to take calls to discuss what to do with this problem of increased gun violence.   The talk show host asked her audience to consider whether the problem was due to an increased threat of violence in our schools or the presence of guns in our schools?  My response is that there’s something wrong with this picture.

Restorative justice is far more than a response to crime after the fact. Those of us who embrace restorative justice principles and have advocated for it for many years (for me that’s 19 years) we see restorative justice as being a rational response to crime that is just, balanced and sane. It ‘s not just about healing victims of crime, although I care deeply about this benefit, but it is acknowledging that violence can be prevented. 

Some might think this is pie-in-the-sky thinking;  I don’t. I’ve seen restorative justice processes work. I’ve seen inmates in state prisons affected by restorative justice processes especially when they come to see the direct effect of their actions on real people (their victims).  I’ve seen victims come to terms with their pain and acknowledge the ways they can heal even after the worst possible violence.  How can these principles come together in ways that reduce violence in our society and reduce gun violence?

I think the vision that restorative justice provides reminds us that whether we think of it very often or not we all want to live in a society where our communities are safe.  For those of us who live in communities that are often not safe places to live this is a daily fact, a daily challenge. And sometimes much worse than that. For most of us, however, I would guess that it is not something we think about every day. 

I’m thinking of the community I live in. We have new evidence of gang activity. Not a lot but just enough of a presence seen by the increased presence of gang graffiti to make one concerned. Does that make me nervous? Yes. It also reminds me that communities can be pro-active in their responses to crime or the threat of crime before it becomes a problem. Many in the restorative justice field talk about being part of the solution. If we are members of the communities we live in we have to “own” the crime problem.  It might seem like a cliché but I don’t think so.  It’s true. If I am concerned about that threat of violence through increased gang activity then I need to step up and get involved.

Guns and the increased acceptance of gun violence seems irresponsible. Can we not have a civil and level-headed conversation about guns and gun violence without political attacks and put downs?  I have a friend who is a victim of gun violence. He survived. He also is a gun owner himself and a strong advocate for gun rights.  After the tragedy of the Tucson shootings, he mentioned in a open forum setting that he was concerned that “the left” would soon use this as an opportunity to push gun control and criticize certain radio talk show stars on the political right. But the comments he made were more than that. It was as if those of us concerned about gun violence had no say in our communities. Increased violence, he seemed to say, was not his fault or my fault or society’s fault (or the gunman’s fault) but instead just a fact.  

I was surprised and disappointed by his comment given he was a crime victim and survivor of such gun violence himself.  Is there ever a time when we can talk about violence prevention? Is there ever a time where we can have a public dialogue on crime and public safety using our rational minds? I think we can have that conversation and should. And I do think the balanced response to crime comes by introducing the great value of restorative justice. We will never live, on this earth, in a violence- free society but we can also decide not to tolerate increased violence passively.  


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