Acts of violence, including mass shootings — like the horrible one in Las Vegas in 2017 or the workplace shooting in Illinois last month — send politicians and everyday American citizens looking for answers.
My work in law enforcement for 55 years, both at the federal level and as sheriff for one of the country’s most populous counties, gave me plenty of opportunities to see that preventing crime begins first and foremost in changing hearts and minds.
Politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look for simple answers. For example, they think passing more gun control legislation will address the problem, but some of the worst mass shootings have occurred in places with the strictest gun laws.
Pelosi’s home state of California has a universal background check requirement like the one she and her fellow Democrats are currently pushing at the federal level, but it did not prevent the 2015 San Bernardino shooting during which the killers took the lives of 14 people and injured 22 others.
The perpetrators had murder in their hearts and found the means to carry out their designs.
Pathologies like violence and drug addiction wreak such havoc in this country because too many Americans have reacted irresponsibly to the freedom and prosperity they enjoy, which is unparalleled in human history.
One aspect of the age in which we live is people are truly free and have the means to take advantage of that freedom. Before World War II, many people never traveled more than 100 miles from their hometowns.
The young man married his childhood sweetheart. The couple lived in a tiny flat or home that, for the fortunate, offered indoor plumbing and electricity. He worked with his back and his hands and she cooked, cleaned house and reared children. At the end of their lives, they were likely buried in a cemetery within walking distance of their birthplaces.
That was a hard way of life, with no safety nets for those visited by tragedy. No one proposes to turn back the clock to what were not really the good old days — especially those of us who remember some of them.
Even so, the hardships of yesteryear that made the family a survival unit produced values of interdependence, community and responsibility.
Those values started to fade after World War II when the American industrial engine doubled the standard of living in the 1950s — and doubled again in the 1960s.
By the 1970s, free Americans with money in their pockets were shirking personal and social responsibilities in favor of new ethics: if it feels good, do it. Or, “I’m not responsible for anybody except me. Whatever I want, I deserve it, no matter how I get it.”
The generations that planted those attitudes now reap a harvest of worry. The family, the neighborhood, and the community are fragile institutions, which are imperiled when wrong values take hold.
Violent crime is one inevitable result when these institutions falter.
Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that all this worry is fostering the beginnings of change. Mothers mobilize against gangs. Whole neighborhoods organize for crime prevention. More and more parents realize that children cannot rear themselves.
Churches are more actively engaging in their communities and schools are directing more energy toward encouraging personal responsibility.
The people and their institutions will have to do a lot more, though. The crime problem cannot be solved by merely passing new laws or by law enforcement officers alone.
The creation of a safe and truly prosperous society must begin by changing the hearts and minds of Americans. Let us all dedicate ourselves to that cause.
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