Opinion: Our violent national pastimes


Published: 01-15-2023 7:00 AM

Millie LaFontaine lives in Concord.

Like so many people, I’ve been following with bated breath the story of the young football player who suffered a cardiac arrest on the field after a seemingly routine tackle in a high-stakes game.

The public has been galvanized by the news of this freakish accident. Even in a sport as violent as football, injuries like this are vanishingly rare. Seconds without intervention can spell the difference between life and death, a good recovery and profound disability. As I write this, I am encouraged that this young man received exactly what he needed when he needed it.

Just days later, another freakish accident occurred, this time in a first-grade classroom, as a six-year-old shot and wounded his teacher during a seemingly routine lesson. This heroic teacher was able to shepherd her students to safety before she sought attention for her own injuries. Both of these events have grabbed our attention. However, after a momentary pause as we wonder how things that shouldn’t happen do, we move on.

But are unanticipated consequences all completely unanticipated? We are well aware that football is a violent game, and injuries are incredibly commonplace. You only need to watch the banner at the bottom of your screen during a game to see the legions of players who are sidelined, many for the season, and some permanently, by injuries that we tolerate as just part of the game.

And football has lots of rules aimed at reducing the risk of injury. Those rules have been tweaked and modified over the years and may result in a somewhat safer game. But the fact remains that Americans seem to prefer this sport to be as unfettered as possible. They relish the tension created by its high stakes.

For me, these two events have gotten me to think more and more about America’s love affair with violent pastimes in general. And the elephant in the room is the violent pastime that begins and ends with the “right” to possess and use a gun.

When asked, Americans who own one say guns are essential for personal protection, great for recreation, and crucial for maintaining the level of rugged individualism they might aspire to. Are we standing guard in our homes or flocking to shooting ranges with the same fervor that we are massing in football stadiums? Are we that expert at being the good guy with the gun that we can routinely stop the bad guy with one? Judging by the vehement defense of gun ownership by so many of us, it would seem so, even if that’s unlikely.

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But the cost in terms of human suffering and lives lost places this deadly love affair with guns a quantum leap beyond the human cost of the violence of football. Four in ten U.S. adults say they live in a household with a gun, including 30% who say they personally own one, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2021, yet we have enough guns for every man, woman and child to have access to one. Why are we so surprised that a child could bring one to school? If there are enough guns available the unthinkable will happen.

It seems to me that we have evolved a culture that has been blinkered by an 18th-century amendment, and we cling to the threadbare idea that muskets of that era and guns and assault rifles of the current era are interchangeable. Fewer than half of us actually believe that. Most of us want more rules.

Yet our high court has reinforced the notion that the Second Amendment takes precedence over the common good. Our gun lobbies have poured enormous amounts of money and influence into keeping rules regarding gun possession and gun safety to a minimum. Our legislators see what they believe is the will of their people, and stop short of passing meaningful deterrents.

We humans have a lot easier time reacting with grief or empathy to a brief, isolated, dramatic accident occurring out of the blue on the football field or in the classroom than we do responding meaningfully to larger catastrophes occurring in schools, places of worship, and shopping malls that have been occurring, day in and day out, for years.

There are still more measures that might make football safer. To me, there are also a few key measures that might turn the tide of gun violence. There’s the obvious one of having fewer guns, which works elsewhere in the world, but Americans seem unwilling to accept this.

But there are a few other ones. We need to have more concern for victims, as we do for a promising young football player and a courageous young teacher. We need to be willing to learn and speak out about the public health aspect of gun violence. We need to support the common good over personal freedom. We need to be willing to accept better rules. And we need to exercise our civic duty and vote for better rule-makers.