By Emily Leayman
David Wheeler spoke to KU on Tuesday, March 24 about how to address the societal problems that cause shootings like the one that killed his son Ben, in the Dec. 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Opening the night, he said, “It’s not fair to me to come and talk to you and not let you know who he was.”
Wheeler regrets not having as many pictures and videos of Ben, but he shared several with the audience through a slideshow. For Wheeler, speaking at universities and sharing his son’s life has helped him cope with the loss of his son.
“It’s been very therapeutic,” he said. “It’s a large part of why I do this.”
On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, Wheeler got up early to head off to work about 50 miles away from his home. Ben had a cough, and his wife, Francine, doubted if she should send him to school. David Wheeler told her that Ben was fine and he left for school.
At about 9:30 a.m. Francine called her husband. She had heard there was a lockdown at the school. Wheeler then called the town newspaper to find out more and learned there had been a shooting.
He packed up his belongings and left his desk. A desk Wheeler said be wouldn’t see again for three months. He rushed into town to meet his wife and son, Nate, at the firehouse. As he entered town, he remembered the unexpected absence of ambulances rushing by.
“I remember seeing the faces of the first responders,” he said. “Their faces were aghast and ashen and stricken. They knew what we wouldn’t know for another five hours.” But, “I knew there have to be more to it,” he said. “I wanted to know how you could possibly set things up so this wouldn’t happen again.
It’s not uncommon to blame guns or mentally unstable people for events like these, but Wheeler does not believe any one of those is the “main” problem.
According to Wheeler, the way we approach mental health issues needs to be changed. Too often, he said, mental health facilities are the first programs to receive budget cuts.
In addition, deinstitutionalization policies in the 1960s and ‘70s closed big psychiatric hospitals and opened small, community-based centers with less experienced physicians. With the development of new psychiatric drugs, many people were also released into the public that would previously have been in psychiatric hospitals.
In recent years gun culture has been changing. Hunting is decreasing and now the gun industry’s largest selling point is for home protection. Guns have become casual.
The gun that killed his son was an AR-15 assault weapon. The advertisement for it reads: “Consider your man card reissued.”
“They make it seem like you are incomplete without it,” he said. “What kind of society allows manhood to be defined like that?”
Wheeler does not believe that getting rid of guns is realistic. He also does not see the value in teachers having guns to protect students either. However, he does believe our society’s view of guns should change. He compares guns to cigarettes. Cigarettes are not banned, but the number of smokers is down because society’s view on cigarettes has transformed.
“It’s very important to recognize that the majority of gun owners in this country are responsible… people,” Wheeler said.
Although Wheeler admits most gun owners in this country are responsible people, he cites that there are over 600 accidental gun deaths a year. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 prohibits people suing a gun manufacturer for use of its product. According to Wheeler, states are starting to prosecute negligence in these kinds of incidents, but negligence is hard to prove.
He and his wife are advisors to the nonprofit Ben’s Lighthouse – named after their son – which organizes activities to heal the Newtown community.