The Wrong Question

Questions are some of the most powerful tools we have. The way you ask a question, or what question you ask, has the power to shape what comes next. Questions can control a conversation: closing down certain possibilities, opening up others.

I ask my young daughter: “What did you do at school today?” She looks at me blank and can’t tell me. I ask her: “Did you work on letters or cutting with scissors?” Next thing I know I am getting a torrent of information from her about the many ways she spent her time (none of which may have had anything to do letters or scissors).

But consider this very different example. You’re wearing a sweater. I look at you, and I say, “Is that great T-shirt you’re wearing green or blue?” My question confuses you, maybe makes you go silent. Or, if you try to “just answer the question,” you have been coerced into participating in a conversation that is essentially nonsense.

The only rational response in this case would be to refuse the question. To look back at me and say “huh?”

This response at least calls out the flawed assumption on which my question depends.

We desperately need a different question in the whole gun conversation. Actually, let’s put it more honestly: we desperately need an intervention in the insane reality that we live in a nation that lets school kids get blown away by their peers over and over and over.

That we live in a nation that allows conversations and discourse about Constitutional rights—written for a completely different time and place, for a completely different set of issues, by men who also, incidentally, enslaved other men, women and children (not exactly our moral exemplars, not sure why we should listen to them on guns)—get in the way of sane interventions.

But beyond the constitutional argument, the issue of what we ask about school shootings more generally really struck me this week right after I heard reports on the school shooting in Seattle. The first news story, from a source I respect, began like this “No report yet on why a popular Seattle teenager, opened fire . . .”

In other words: “why’d he do it?”

This is the wrong question! Among many other problems with it, it can only lead us into nonsensical conversations that are going to do nothing to stop these horrors.

An entire Washington Post article today focused on this “why” question. It’s overall framing, too, was the motive of the young person, the state of his mind, his reasoning. Throughout the article the question of similarities and differences between Seattle’s shooting and others—an attempt to find “patterns”—was the emphasis.

But there is only one thing consistent thing in all of these shootings–consistent enough we know we could start there.

They all involve guns.

So here’s the right question: “Where’d he get the gun(s)?”

Granted, there is a place in all of this for serious query into the issue of mental illness and what it might have to do with gun violence in this nation. Yes. That’s a question that opens up possibilities that might be one piece of moving forward with effective structural responses to these repetitive horrors.

But, that’s rarely what these “why’d he do it?” frames are trying to explore.

And, the reality is that even if we could answer that question in individual cases that answer doesn’t get us very far in terms of a fix.

Troubled, angry, lonely, whatever-they-may be teenagers who struggle in ways large and small exist. They always will. Troubled, angry, lonely, whatever-they-may be teenagers who struggle, but don’t have access to guns, don’t kill other people. They also are much less likely to kill themselves.

Where’d he get the damn gun? Why did a young person have access to a gun? Who bought it? Who sold it? Who manufactured it?

And I’m not now talking about the individual shooter in Seattle this week. I’m talking about a change in what we think is important to ask—despite how difficult and maddening the “gun” conversation in this country is. Deciding to relentlessly focus on what we can be most sure of: in every school shooting there’s a gun.

So, to those of you who, like me, are so tired and sad and angered by this insanity, can we try to start asking that question first every single time? Push our media outlets to start doing the same? Stop fixating on the shooters state of mind, biography, whatever else and just ask this: Where’d he get the gun?

Maybe over time that question would shift the public discussion and hone the attention in better directions.

Where’d he get the gun?

Let’s refuse to take our eyes off the ball.

Where’d he get the gun?

“Why’d he do it?” is as a coercive and off base as “is your T-shirt green or blue?” when you’re wearing a sweater.

And so, in response to “why’d he do it?,” may the volume and intensity of our voices increase with a loud “Huh?!?”

We only want to know one thing: “Where’d he get damn the gun?”

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