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Guns, restorative justice and violence prevention

Jan 31, 2011

by Lisa Rea

After reading It's time to inject sanity into the gun debate by LA TIMES columnist Steve Lopez and pondering the violent events in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th I wondered about restorative justice and gun violence. Some might think there is little or no connection between gun violence and restorative justice but I think they 're wrong. The principles of restorative justice which focus on making things right with crime victims AFTER crimes are committed and embracing offender accountability also must address the need for violence prevention in the front end of the system.  To think that those of us who work for restorative justice around the U.S. and globally do not care about preventing violence is wrongheaded.  There is a place for a discussion on crime prevention especially when gun violence appears to be on the increase in the U.S.  Whether you question that statement or not it is clear that gun ownership is on the rise in the U.S. 

According to the online news site (1.12.11), "In the days since the tragedy, gun sales have increased dramatically. According to figures obtained from the FBI by Bloomberg, some 263 handguns were sold in Arizona the day after the killings, a rise of 60% on a year ago. Handgun sales were up 65% to 395 in Ohio and nationally increased by about 5% to 7,906."

I have thought recently that gun ownership is becoming a symbol in the U.S. of political correctness. Two things reminded me of this since the shooting of Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and the 19 others injured, six fatally, in Tucson.  Since the Tucson shootings a high school student arrives at a Los Angeles area school with a loaded semi-automatic in his backpack. The gun goes off, accidentally we are told, injuring two students, one student took a bullet to her head. But since this incident the public discussion appears to be focused on whether the student was at fault at all after the gun goes off.  I heard one local talk radio pundit refer to this incident and excuse the student because "after all the student was either afraid of gangs or other threats of violence at school".  Thus, the loaded gun. 

I heard another talk show host on a San Francisco radio station introduce this school yard incident saying that she has nothing against guns. In fact, the host says, " I love guns! I enjoy shooting guns!" She then goes on to take calls to discuss what to do with this problem of increased gun violence.   The talk show host asked her audience to consider whether the problem was due to an increased threat of violence in our schools or the presence of guns in our schools?  My response is that there's something wrong with this picture.

Restorative justice is far more than a response to crime after the fact. Those of us who embrace restorative justice principles and have advocated for it for many years (for me that's 19 years) we see restorative justice as being a rational response to crime that is just, balanced and sane. It 's not just about healing victims of crime, although I care deeply about this benefit, but it is acknowledging that violence can be prevented. 

Some might think this is pie-in-the-sky thinking;  I don't. I've seen restorative justice processes work. I've seen inmates in state prisons affected by restorative justice processes especially when they come to see the direct effect of their actions on real people (their victims).  I've seen victims come to terms with their pain and acknowledge the ways they can heal even after the worst possible violence.  How can these principles come together in ways that reduce violence in our society and reduce gun violence?

I think the vision that restorative justice provides reminds us that whether we think of it very often or not we all want to live in a society where our communities are safe.  For those of us who live in communities that are often not safe places to live this is a daily fact, a daily challenge. And sometimes much worse than that. For most of us, however, I would guess that it is not something we think about every day. 

I'm thinking of the community I live in. We have new evidence of gang activity. Not a lot but just enough of a presence seen by the increased presence of gang graffiti to make one concerned. Does that make me nervous? Yes. It also reminds me that communities can be pro-active in their responses to crime or the threat of crime before it becomes a problem. Many in the restorative justice field talk about being part of the solution. If we are members of the communities we live in we have to "own" the crime problem.  It might seem like a cliché but I don't think so.  It's true. If I am concerned about that threat of violence through increased gang activity then I need to step up and get involved.

Guns and the increased acceptance of gun violence seems irresponsible. Can we not have a civil and level-headed conversation about guns and gun violence without political attacks and put downs?  I have a friend who is a victim of gun violence. He survived. He also is a gun owner himself and a strong advocate for gun rights.  After the tragedy of the Tucson shootings, he mentioned in a open forum setting that he was concerned that "the left" would soon use this as an opportunity to push gun control and criticize certain radio talk show stars on the political right. But the comments he made were more than that. It was as if those of us concerned about gun violence had no say in our communities. Increased violence, he seemed to say, was not his fault or my fault or society's fault (or the gunman's fault) but instead just a fact.  

I was surprised and disappointed by his comment given he was a crime victim and survivor of such gun violence himself.  Is there ever a time when we can talk about violence prevention? Is there ever a time where we can have a public dialogue on crime and public safety using our rational minds? I think we can have that conversation and should. And I do think the balanced response to crime comes by introducing the great value of restorative justice. We will never live, on this earth, in a violence- free society but we can also decide not to tolerate increased violence passively.  

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Brian Steels
Brian Steels says:
Feb 01, 2011 01:45 PM

Restorative Practices can and perhaps should play a leading role in this discussion on the violence of guns. There are views that have polarised for too long, and this in turn is causing a fracture throughout the communities where such discussions are taking place. It is more than gun ownership, it is about how we best keep everyone safer. Not just those with a gun in their hand. <br />Restorative Justice conferencing can provide a community with the ability to look into how best resolve what is likely to cause gun violence before it occurs. It will never stop every act, but it can open the door to how we make secure our schools, shopping centres, playgrounds and places of worship. RJ can bring into focus the possibilities of respect, dignity and personal integrity occurring more often. <br />It can raise the issues without bullying, violating another's self and putting people's ideas down. <br />RJ is able to create the space where we can all say that we are hurting, we are a part of the problem and we want to move towards having a hand in finding and agreeing on solutions. <br />RJ offers to the community a way in which we can all take responsibility to the mess that we are in. It also offers a space where each one's voice is respected, and that fears can be spoken of. It can lead to transformed lives, as well as notions of fairness and justice being explored by all of those committed to dialogue.

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Feb 01, 2011 06:47 PM

Thanks for your comments, Brian. I agree with many of your points. It is about safety, as you say. It seems, too, that as a society we need to have civil discussions about guns and the mentally ill and others considered dangerous individuals. Should they have the same gun rights as all others? Here in the U.S., as you know, for many it is a cherished right. Are there no reasonable restrictions? I think there should be. <br /> <br />You are certainly right about the need to resolve our conflicts in a civil manner and restorative justice can play a role here. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />

Brian Steels
Brian Steels says:
Feb 01, 2011 01:46 PM

Yes there is a place for community conferencing in local communities and specific groups whereby all parties can take responsibility, try to resolve the issues and be a part of the solution rather than the problem. We all need to be able to speak openly without fear as we attempt to bring the voice of fairness and justice to the fore. I'm so pleased Lisa that there are those of us who dare say that what is happening will continue to happen unless there is personal transformation. The gun bearers need to be able to have their say, as we do, about a way forward without fear or threats to our personal safety.

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