I moved to Portland a couple of summers ago, and shortly after settling in, I noticed a repetitive noise coming from a neighbor’s yard.
It sounded like a soft, rhythmic bouncing: Squeeja-squeeja-squeeja-squeeja. It would go on throughout much of the day.
A tall wooden fence separated my backyard from the neighbor’s. I peered through a space in the fence and saw a young boy jumping up and down on a small trampoline. He wasn’t trying any maneuvers. Just bouncing up and down. Over and over. It would continue like that in the months ahead. Even in the dark. Even in the rain.
“What do you know about him?” I asked another neighbor, who is 77 years old and doesn’t mince words.
“He’s got something …,” he said, tapping the side of his head. “What they call autistic.”
This past summer while working in the yard and listening to the rhythm of the boy on the trampoline, I went over to the fence and looked in on him. He was bouncing as usual, but this time he was holding in both hands a large, pastel-colored toy gun with a long barrel. What was going through his head while he held on to that gun and bounced up and down?
I know what was going through mine: In a few more years, he’ll trade that in for the real thing. And then I went back to working in my yard.
I’m not a gun-hater. I own a gun and know that firearms can be useful. I purchased my gun when I was in college. Nobody from the NRA told me to buy it, and I went through a waiting-period and a background check.
I believe in strict gun prohibitions for convicted felons, and that gun-related crimes should be severely punished. (Whatever happened to “use-a-gun-go-to-jail?” Organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Partnership for Safety and Justice and the ACLU continue to wear down voter-approved initiatives calling for truth in sentencing. In Oregon, only about 30 percent of convicted felons even go to prison.)
But back to my neighbor.
He doesn’t look weird or scary – not like the photo of Adam Lanza in the New York Times.
My neighbor is also about 10 years younger than Lanza. There is no law against bouncing up-and-down on a trampoline holding a toy assault-like gun. His mother and father are teachers. His grandmother lives nearby and walks over regularly to visit. The family seems happy and more together than most.
Who am I to go over and knock on their door and say, “Are you sure it’s OK for your boy to have a toy gun? Won’t it give him ideas?”
This is Portland, Ore., which makes a fetish of its presumed weirdness. In Portland, it’s practically a crime to be judgmental, unless you’re being judgmental about something that’s generally agreed upon.
For example, passing judgment on the NRA and blaming it for a man’s decision to murder.
According to police, Lanza – and only Lanza – killed 20 children and six adults. Yet excuses are being made for him. Investigators and journalists are looking for a motive, as if there is any legitimate reason for what he did.
If he can’t be held responsible because of a mental health issue, then let’s discuss whether the mentally ill should have so much freedom in their living arrangements.
It’s appropriate to address gun rights, but a complete discussion must also include the “patient’s rights” movement. It started in the 1960’s and has grown steadily. Mental health advocates and civil rights organizations have pushed for liberating the mentally ill – not controlling them.
We have also spent the past two decades trying to strip police of the right to “profile” suspects because of inherent discrimination, since certain criminals tend to fit predictable descriptions.
After Friday’s shooting, even NPR ventured carefully into whether profiling might be useful since it seems these shooters tend to be young, white, loner males who like guns and video games. Instead of “profile,” the term used by NPR’s expert was “threat assessment.”
But what then, after we’ve picked out guys who fit the profile/threat assessment? What do we do with them? They have rights – though not necessarily gun rights. (There are laws about the mentally ill possessing firearms.)
It’s hard to keep track: When is it OK to pass judgment, and when is it not? This is typical of the suggestions being offered in response to Lanza’s shooting rampage. It’s from the New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof:
“We can look for inspiration at our own history on auto safety. As with guns, some auto deaths are caused by people who break laws or behave irresponsibly. But we don’t shrug and say, ‘Cars don’t kill people, drunks do.’”
No, what we say about drunk drivers is, “Alcoholism is a disease. This poor person needs treatment.”
Here in Oregon, unless a driver under the influence kills or injures someone, it takes multiple DUIs to get any kind of meaningful punishment, which can be a very effective part of treatment.
It’s like the good people of America want to disarm themselves – intellectually – in the face of criminal behavior. We want to spare judgment of, and plead forgiveness of and mercy from, those who hurt us. We take aim at the wrong targets.
Of course, the boy on the trampoline likes to play with guns. A lot of boys do. If the NRA did not exist, a lot of boys would still like guns and games associated with some type of gun. Even Nicholas Kristof liked playing with guns when he was growing up in Oregon.
So, no, I’m not going to go over and ask my neighbors if the story out of Connecticut has them worried about their own son. I will trust that they love him and know him best and will take appropriate measures and precautions.
If they don’t, and something goes wrong, blame the NRA.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons