The Columbine High School massacre occurred in 1999 in Columbine, Colorado. Two senior students shot 12 students and one teacher to death. They also injured 21 other students directly, and three people were injured while attempting to escape. It was the deadliest attack on an American high school and stunned the nation. Unfortunately, it was only the first step on a trail of blood and tears leading to the mass execution at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.The slaughter of innocents at Columbine and Newtown provoked nearly identical debates about gun control laws, the availability of firearms in the United States, gun violence involving disturbed youths, the role of violent media and video games, and the mental health of the murderers.Post Columbine we mandated State programs to teach our children about inclusion and mutual respect. We spent fortunes on making schools physically secure. We partially regulated, then deregulated the sale of military-style assault weapons.Columbine and Colorado are long ago and far away; fortunately, mass killings in schools are infrequent. It was easy for citizens and government alike to let the tragic moment slide into history without taking meaningful action, to become complacent.
Newtown has shaken that complacency. Maybe it’s the ages of the murdered children. Maybe it’s that Newtown sounds like Newton and looks like Chester, Sandy Hook has a familiar sound to our ears. This one felt much too close to home.
We want to believe the carnage in our backyard will have a different outcome than the one in Columbine; that we will as a nation find solutions where heretofore we have found only frustration and failure. That is probably too much to hope for. The best time for meaningful action is immediately after a tragedy. Time and events move on. Every day that passes dims the horrible images and makes it less likely that action will be taken. We wind up with memorials instead of solutions.
We need to stop selectively reading the Bill of Rights to support personal or political ideologies. Most of us would protect the First Amendment right to free speech but would deny someone the right to cry “fire” in a crowded theater. Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure have oft been suspended for questionable reasons. If the Second Amendment right to own weapons results in the periodic slaughter of our children, it needs to be similarly hedged. Slavish adherence to doctrine for its own sake and decision making by slogans and sound bytes should not be the American way in Washington or on Main Street
The sad fact is that we have two separate communities, one glorifying firearms and reveling in its right to use them the other horrified by the mayhem weapons inflict and mystified by their neighbors’ behavior, each captive to its most extreme members and shouting its messages past the other. They both fuel and reflect our political gridlock. Ideological polarization rarely leads to progress in any arena.
A little less bickering and a lot more common sense are badly needed. Gun adversaries need to accept that the Supreme Court has validated the Second Amendment right to individually bear arms and gun advocates need to appreciate that their absolutism is equated by many of their neighbors with an individual right to commit murder.
After more than a decade of debate we still can’t agree on what motivates a dedicated or irrational killer, or how to stop him. It is probably simplistic to expect a single answer or solution. As we examine imperfect options we should at least try to distinguish between action and distraction.
When NRA zealots suggest we turn our schools into free fire zones they are a distraction. They conjure an image of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, or perhaps the Lone Ranger picking off a “bad guy” as he enters a school. Their “clean kill, no collateral damage” scenario makes a great motion picture, but is disconnected from reality.
On February 4, 1999 Amadou Dialo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea was shot and killed in New York City by four New York City Police Department plain-clothes officers. They fired a combined total of 41 shots at close range, only 19 of which struck Dialo. Trained NYPD officers emptied their guns in seconds because they thought they saw Dialo reach for a weapon. What makes anyone think an armed school guard, teacher, or casual bystander would show greater constraint or accuracy
Maybe police in the schools would help. We had them for a while, but they were the first to go in budget cuts. Maybe arming teachers would help, but it is hard to see how having unsecured or concealed weapons in a classroom would do much more than increase the risk of accidental shootings. Hardened classroom doors might work as well as they do for airplane cockpits, but they are expensive and might not survive the impact of 50 plus high caliber rounds.
- Rational school building security, be it bars, buzzers, or badges is part of the solution. But guards can’t be everywhere and it is only a matter of time before some foreign or home grown fanatic with a grudge and an AK 47 attacks a school bus, field trip, or soccer match.
Mental disorders are cited as a cause of mass murder. We want to believe that anyone capable of such a horrific crime must be deranged by definition, and that if we can diagnose him we can stop him. That belief is somewhere between revisionist logic and total fantasy. We don’t have the mental health professionals or diagnostic tools to even begin the job. We don’t have them because we don’t pay for them. Insurance companies long ago eviscerated mental health coverage to preserve their bottom lines.
I have numerous mental health patients. They are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators, and I would be very hard pressed to identify which if any would take up weapons of war against innocent school children. No amount of surveillance would have picked up Adam Lanza, he was seemingly a non-entity until he turned mass murderer.
- We need to improve access to mental health services, not because it might prevent school shootings, but because it is a national disgrace.
We are told it’s the “media.” You can desensitize a child and train a killer with media, but other cultures have even more violent movies than we do, everyone in the world plays video games, and we are less “wired” than many European countries. However, schools in Japan or Belgium aren’t targeted for mass homicide.
- We need to tone down the mindless violence in movies, on the internet and in video games. It may or may or may not stop the killings but it is dehumanizing, demeaning, and lousy entertainment.
Last year 243 members of the U.S House of Representatives, including Scott Garrett, backed a bill that would require every state and city in the country to permit persons holding a license from any other state to carry concealed handguns…anywhere. President Obama declared his opposition to carrying concealed weapons in the 2008 campaign, but the White House was silent on the issue of gun control until disaster struck Newtown.
This site conceivably violates a provision of the Affordable Care Act that prohibits the collection of data on gun use and ownership during doctor visits.
- Senators and Representatives on the right and left are terrified of the NRA and will avoid confronting it at any cost. The President shed tears over Newtown. Perhaps if he had spent as much time acting on his campaign promises to curb firearms as he did making them the massacre might have been averted. Government cannot credibly be part of the problem and pretend to be part of the solution.
Had we begun to reign in personal weapons after Columbine would Newtown have happened? We can never know. Simply banning gun ownership violates the law and would be a Herculean task with enormous unintended consequences. However, limiting access to military-style assault weapons should be achievable and seems to make sense. Closing the legal loop hole that allows “collectors” to buy unrestricted firepower at gun shows with no background check deserves to be a priority. Maybe we could have an annual “national turn in your firearms day” to mimic police drug recovery programs. Doctors cannot be barred from discussing hazards to our patients.
In the eyes of many we celebrated the killings in Connecticut with an orgy of gun buying. There was not even a decent moratorium while families in Newtown buried their dead children. Maybe the debate needs to be less about guns and politics and more about social responsibility and morality.
“We the People……”
At our core Americans believe we care about each other. Thomas Jefferson enunciated that belief, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it, and Martin Luther King Jr marshaled it to change the course of society. It is what makes us exceptional. It is a beacon that guides us when the night is darkest, but which is easy to ignore in the light of day. When our leaders rally us to it we can accomplish anything. When they lose sight of it or squander it through ineptitude or cynicism we can achieve nothing.