Debates over "gun control" are among the fiercest partisan battles, but some policy makers are finding a surprising consensus about how to stop school shootings. Congressman Dave Brat (R-Va.) is a good example. Rather than rush to score political points, Brat is quietly organizing conferences of experts in his district to discuss a holistic approach.
On March 2, Brat met with about 30 experts from schools, law enforcement and school boards. The session was closed to the media at Brat’s request. “I wanted to ensure we had a thoughtful, productive discussion. I didn’t want anyone to hold back.”
One participant later published a brief report on the meeting. That report prompted a call to Brat’s office, and he somewhat reluctantly agreed to discuss his research. The findings may surprise political activists, but they are familiar to thoughtful policy analysts.
Brat said the consensus forming in his district matches recommendations from national experts. The first priority is to harden the schools. We know how to protect places – we do it all the time for public arenas and commercial properties. Along with increasing physical security, however, there is a critical need to focus on children and youth. Brat described three main recommendations that he said came from his constituents.
“The first was to put at least one professional security person at the front of every school. Second is to introduce a holistic approach to mental health which begins early on in the school system and addresses the known aggressive cases. And the third is to connect the dots concerning those threat cases with local law-enforcement.”
Dave Brat ran on a platform of listening to voters, of staying in touch with people where he lives and works. His outreach on preventing shootings is consistent with that platform. Brat signaled shortly after the Parkland shooting that he would analyze the issue carefully, thoughtfully, without preconceived ideas.
“I will be traveling my district listening to all stakeholders … While I am not supportive of taking anyone’s constitutional rights away, individuals on both sides of this debate are going to have to listen and think through these difficult issues together.”
At his March 2 meeting, Brat said this was consistent with his training as an economist and a seminarian. “I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, where I studied systematic theology. I had planned to teach religion and ethics, but I came to Washington for a political philosophy semester.”
“I studied under Rev. Phil Wogaman, President Clinton’s pastor. Although we belonged to different political parties we were quite close. He taught me that the systematic approach I studied in theology was applicable to economics as well. I followed his counsel and ended up teaching economics and ethics at Randolph Macon College, where I ran the ethics minor program.”
Brat’s analytical skills are already identifying the kernel of a consensus. “It was incredible to hear all of these professionals agree that underneath the violent cases often lies severe family trauma and students without coping abilities. Underlying the mental health status and violence is a lack of love. Everyone agreed: we can provide this love and compassion to the students if we all work together.”
Dr. Adam Sowa, an Alexandria, Virginia-based clinical psychologist specializing in adolescent behavior, expressed a similar sentiment in a recent interview. He says youth at risk of turning to violence “need one-to-one connection. Someone has to care about them. They have to feel that they matter.”
Pam Hooper, a clinical social worker based in Boise Idaho, made a similar comment. “Evil has been with us always. But we can take actions to control it, or to contain it.” The entire community can play a role in that. “We need to ask ourselves, what can I do to make this kid feel important to another human, make him feel like he is a part of something? What creates change is that they feel valued.”
Brat’s seminary training is guiding his approach to this issue more than his background as an economist. “I stand strongly for liberty and constitutional principles. But I learned in Divinity School that there is a time for teaching doctrine and a time for pastoral theology. When people are in the throes of grief, the most important thing we can do is listen, and offer comfort. This is a problem we cannot solve without a holistic approach, and that approach can be developed only by listening.”
We all could start that listening process. It’s time to stop arguing about guns and start focusing on people in need. While the popular kids were cutting school last week, what were the potential future shooters doing? What if all those students had instead spent 17 minutes talking to the kid who eats lunch alone every day? Stop scapegoating the issue, and start listening to the silent cries for help.
Bart Marcois was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration, and was previously a career foreign service officer.