If you ever have the chance, you should visit Newtown, Connecticut, a “picture-postcard place in New England, especially in the fall.” Or so urges Sperling’s Best Places to Raise Your Family, which included the town among its 100 best spots to have kids, ranking it among the top ten where you could “keep your door unlocked.” The guide book for families looking for the ideal hometown also notes that Newtown is among its top ten of its 100 picks in terms of having a high percentage of households—44—that have an annual household income above $100,000 per year.
No one could predict the tragedy that would befall this bucolic suburb of Danbury. The senseless murder of 20 six- and seven-year-old children and seven adults at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School has nothing to do with the fact that the town is scenic or expensive, but it is worth noting that a number of the horrendous shooting sprees that have taken place since the nation-altering Columbine disaster in 1999 were in places that rank high in our currently popular measures of desirability and safety—and are priced accordingly.
While not as wealthy as Newtown, Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people were killed at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in July, was also ranked by Forbes as one of the ten safest cities in 2009. Tinley Park, Illinois, the Chicago suburb where a gunman mowed down six women in a Lane Bryant store a few years back, was rated the very best place to raise kids in 2010 by Bloomberg Businessweek. And this year, Businessweek's pick for the top place in the U.S. to raise kids is Blacksburg, Virginia, which is also home to Virginia Tech, the site of the deadliest school shooting in American history. Before it became synonymous with the massacre of school children, even Columbine was the kind of place that you might expect to crop up on one of these “best places to live” lists—an upscale suburb that is seemingly sheltered from the worst of the cities.
The appeal of such settings is obvious. Even if they haven’t seen its picture-perfect Congregational church or landmarked general store, parents across the country instinctively understand the pull of a place like Newtown. Street crime is rare. Local schools are better than most, as in most relatively well-off cities and towns. Property taxes increase along with property values, yielding wealthier localities and more to spend on public education. Who wouldn’t want their children to get a good education and be able to safely roam the streets?
With all the gun violence in our country, the impulse to cordon ourselves off from it—or perhaps just flee to higher ground—is understandable. This hope that our kids will somehow be okay if we can afford a tony suburb is what drives property values.
But clearly even natural beauty, relative homogeneity, and small size aren’t enough to keep communities safe. Without gun control, mental illness and automatic weapons will inevitably combine to create tragedies, even in our country’s safest-seeming cities and towns.
While we mourn Friday's tragedy, we should also be reconsidering how we think about the safety of families throughout the country. As with many other problems, the American approach to keeping children out of harm’s way has thus far often centered on individual families. We buy better security systems, move to gated communities, even sometimes arm ourselves. And we idolize places like Newtown—or at least Newtown as it seemed before the shooting.
For many, the immediate response to such shocks (which are unfortunately common enough for us to develop routines around them) is to increase this laser-like focus on our own. But while we’re locking our doors and keeping our own loved ones out of danger, as we now must, we also need to be thinking bigger.
Community-wide gun laws, which the people of Newtown had been struggling over, are a start. But, even more important are broad, nationwide policies—a federal ban on assault weapons, for instance—that would keep everyone’s streets and schools safe.
If there’s any sense to be made of the horror that happened in Connecticut (an open question, I admit), it may be that none of us is safe until we’re all safe. Seeing children die in one of our nation’s most idyllic-seeming, sought-after—and theoretically safe—spots serves as a stark reminder of all of our vulnerability.
Protecting ourselves and our children from gun violence is something that can't be done in isolation from one another. We can’t buy our way to safety, apparently, but will have to get there together as a nation. Until then, nowhere in America will be the best place to raise children.