Wednesday night, I was at the Colisee Ice Arena in Lewiston in the midst of a line shift (yes, at 72 I am mercifully still playing weekly ice hockey) when the rink manager interrupted our game ordering everyone off the ice. We were told that a short distance away was an active shooter situation and the community was being instructed to shelter in place.
If you’ve ever been around a bunch of aging hockey players, mostly French-Canadian guys, me being the token WASP—a Flyers fan to boot in Bruins territory—I at first thought it some kind of twisted joke, perhaps a Halloween prank. Very quickly we all learned that no, this was the real deal. In the locker room, the question was posed if anyone had a gun. Kind of understandable to question if we had some means of defense, should we need it, other than our hockey sticks. But then came the counter-thought. Have we really gotten to the point of feeling the need to have weapons if for no other reason than for personal protection? For better or worse, no player carried a gun to the rink. Why would they? I wonder if that will change. I hope not.
Anyway, while getting out of my equipment, my cell phone was squawking loudly enough to be heard over the worried voices. It broadcast an emergency warning about sheltering in place. And it got everyone’s attention. Most of the guys were trying to leave the rink ASAP to get home to their families. Me? I live 50 miles away and am not one to drive home without a shower. Last night was no exception. As I stood waiting for the water to warm up, I found myself wondering if the gunman (at the time, we were led to believe there may be two shooters) might seek sanctuary at the public rink. I mean like what better place to expand his shooting spree. It was the shortest shower I ever took.
Eventually, I was walking out to the darkened parking lot, which frankly was a bit unnerving. Not knowing what to expect, I checked the car to make sure no one was holed up inside, which in retrospect may have been far-fetched. My car was locked tighter than Fort Knox. All good. But then, what I experienced for the next hour of my commute back to the Saco area was an unfolding scene usually reserved for the movies. I was met immediately by ambulances passing in the other direction. With them was a slew of police cars coming from all directions. The air played a demonic orchestra of sirens near and far. It was like something right out of Faust. And simultaneously there was an eerie absence of traffic, non-emergency that is, which was odd for this time of the evening. People were obviously following the shelter order.
Once I made it to I-95, my entire 35 mile southerly stretch from Lewiston to Saco was a non-stop kaleidoscope of blue lights, all coming up from Portland and Boston. One would think we had descended into war. I suppose we had. By the time I got home, believe it or not, I could hear helicopters overhead. In Buxton, 50 miles away, our house sits midway between Lewiston and Boston. My wife and I watched from our deck as three separate helicopters made a beeline south to Beantown. I know that because being so close to the Portland Jetport, planes from all over the world are constantly flying overhead, which for years has fascinated me tracking them with my FlightRadar app. Using it last night, I was able to identify the choppers as Boston-Medical aircraft as well as New Hampshire State Police. The whole evening, in fact the past 24 hours, have been nothing short of surreal.
As this drama continues to unfold today, my brain locks on the endless debates about gun laws. Guns don’t kill, they say, people do. Well, of course. But as a psychologist, I find it very unfortunate that this particular shooter is alleged to have a mental illness. I have no doubt as to the veracity of that claim, but what disappoints me about it is the oft-repeated attribution of mental illness as a single, if not exclusive, cause for mass shootings. At face value, you could argue it makes some sense. Certainly, no person in their right mind goes out and shoots up a community. But the truth is, and we all know it, that people with NO known history of emotional problems can and DO indulge heinous acts, even mass shootings. So ascribing these acts simply to “mental illness” obfuscates the multiplicity of other variables that so often enter into the calculus. Which means that to suggest that only people with a known history of mental illness should be prohibited from owning firearms (a prohibition that at present doesn’t even exist) does us as a community, a state, indeed as a nation, a profound disservice.
More often than not, I throw my hands up when learning of a mass shooting, knowing that such events are entirely predictable. And because the US, unlike any other country in the world, has no real gun laws, I find myself perennially stultified in pessimism. But I have to remind myself that things CAN change. Think of the progress made over the years with cigarettes. While cigarettes have not been outright banned, the mentality on smoking has changed dramatically. Only in small adolescent circles is it still considered cool, while just 50 years ago it seemed like everyone smoked. The first college I attended back in 1970 permitted smoking right in the classroom. That, of course, would be unthinkable today.
So here we are. Again. With each mass shooting, we hear the same old arguments about gun control, which conjure the same tired political refrain, “This is not the time to begin a discussion on gun control.”
Which leaves me to ask—if not just for myself but for the shattered community of my adopted city of Lewiston—if not now, then when, pray God, IS the right time?
(Formerly of Wilton, Maine)
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