Time for a change

By now everyone has read and thought about the sickening tragedy that occurred Friday, Dec. 14, in Newtown, Conn., far more than they wanted to. The facts of the tragedy are awful enough and are by now familiar to everyone not living in a cave deep in the woods. Coming right on the eve of Christmas and the holiday season makes them even more poignant, if that were possible. The question now - or very soon, before this tragedy too, like so many before, becomes processed into another replay of a resigned sense of inevitability that we just have to somehow accept that sick people will get their hands on weapons and go off and do evil things - is what will we do about it.

It shouldn't be acceptable that a deranged gunman can show up at a shopping mall in Tucson, Ariz., and shoot at a member of Congress and in the course of that, kill several innocent bystanders. It shouldn't be acceptable that someone with military-style assault weapons can walk into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and kill several people who were there for an evening's entertainment. And it clearly can't be acceptable that someone can shoot their way into a school building and kill 26 children and educators. Horrifying as that was it could have been even worse - far more worse - had the school's staff not been trained on how to react to this type of unexpected event. Otherwise, the carnage could have been much higher, mindboggling as that may seem.

All around the country in the wake of this, parents, educators and organizations of all kinds are asking the same question: what's to stop the same thing from happening right here, in our town?

The answer, at the moment it seems, on one level at least, is - sadly - not much. Yes it is certainly true that deranged or mentally ill people may not get the help they need in time, or warning signs may be missed, and then something happens to set them off. But relatively easy access to military-style assault weapons and the ammunition they fire is another component, and one, it seems we could actually do something about. The mental health issues that drive some people to extreme acts of violence may have complex, hard to understand and mitigate roots, but making it harder than it is for weapons designed for military use to be as accessible as they apparently are is within our grasp. As tortured as the debate over gun control has been in this nation for a long, long time, perhaps now is the time to finally get it through our collective heads that these types of weapons have no place in a 21st century civil society. Let's look at that part first, because it's not an easy sell.

Here in Vermont, where guns are so much a part of local culture and yet the instances of homicides or shooting rampages are relatively low, the point is often made that whether a state has relaxed gun laws (like Vermont) or tough gun laws, as were in place in Connecticut, evil or deranged people will still get their hands on weapons, and the focus should be on the individuals inclined towards violence, not access to guns. In short, restrictions on guns aren't effective at preventing such tragedies from happening in the future.

No question, the mental health and social issues play a large role, but we can't wait for the next Adam Lanza or James Eagan Holmes, the shooter in the Aurora movie theater, to have such an easy time getting their hands on rapid-fire assault rifles. We can make that more difficult, and illegal to own them. If one life is saved as a result, it's worth it.

Finding a middle ground between the most hard core, dug in stance of the most ardent members of the politically potent National Rifle Association (NRA), and those who would seek to ban guns entirely - aside from the police and military - might look something like this:

People who enjoy shooting for legitimate sporting purposes like hunting or target shooting should, after careful background checks, be allowed to own them and be obliged to keep them in a secure place when not using them. But those should be limited to single shot rifles or shotguns - pistols and handguns are a separate category and require tighter controls - and certainly the semi-automatic rifles capable of firing dozens of rounds of ammunition rapidly have no place in a true hunter's arsenal. Why ammunition for such weapons is even available to the general public is close to incomprehensible. You don't need that to go hunting. Those military-style assault weapons should be unavailable - no exceptions - to people who don't have any business owning or possessing them; in other words, everyone except the police and military personnel.

The counter-arguments to such a stance are all too familiar: Bad people will always get the guns, like the shooter in Connecticut did, from his mother's collection, for example. The Second Amendment gives ordinary people the right to keep and bear arms. Guns for self-defense purposes are valid and should be allowed.

Rebutting all of these points would take more space than we have to work with here and are complex and emotional for many people, but let's start that dialogue off with these thoughts:

There are a lot of troubled people around the world and within this country who wouldn't necessarily turn to violence for whatever their motivation might be - personal redemption or revenge, for example - and as a society we should consider strengthening those services and organizations set up to help those folks. And as a society, we should perhaps be more aware or sensitive to warning signs that maybe not all is right with someone we know. That's just a starting point. Mental health is a complicated subject, and we don't want someone who's just having a bad day to get hauled into the police station for questioning either, without valid cause. We can't throttle basic freedoms in pursuit of an impossible to achieve state of perfect security. No one can ever be perfectly safe, all of the time, in a free and open society.

The Second Amendment argument should be a little easier. The world has changed since the Bill of Rights was drawn up in the late 18th century. Leaving aside the question of whether the language of the Second Amendment allowing people the right to keep and bear arms applies only to militias like the National Guard, or private individuals as well, most of us don't have to go hunting for our daily meals anymore. We do so for sport and recreation. There's nothing wrong with that, assuming the proper safeguards are in place. But we don't need guns to provide food for the family, or even for self-defense. There may be the very rare occasion when having a weapon handy saves a life, but the overwhelming evidence is that weapons intended for self-defense, whether concealed or not, are more likely to cause more deaths or injuries when in the hands of untrained people. We know there are many people who are passionate about their right to own guns of all kinds. The end result of this need not be eliminating the rights to gun ownership. Properly used, guns have their place, and the overwhelming percentage of gun owners are responsible people who secure their weapons and take owning them seriously.

But it can't be the case that just because an organization like the NRA thinks any restriction on gun ownership means starting down the road to outlawing any and all gun ownership, that any kind of restriction on owning assault weapons is somehow "unconstitutional." That's nonsense. It's time to move beyond that and be serious. We've had this dialogue before and it's time to have it again.

We hope President Obama did have in mind "meaningful action" when he spoke eloquently to the nation shortly after this tragedy, and that he will bring to bear real leadership on this issue. He is free of electoral and political constraints, having won four more years in office last month. He has the freedom to be bold and advocate for the right thing; a balance of legitimate gun ownership with the illegitimate kind. Similarly, it would be nice to hear from our state's Congressional delegation - all of whom are as politically secure as any members of Congress can ever be - and hear them taking leadership positions to advocate for common sense restrictions on the immediate causes of shooting tragedies like this one, as well as the broader social questions they raise.

This whole tragedy is unspeakably sad and like everyone else, our hearts go out to the parents who have lost children, to the families of the slain educators who from all accounts acted heroically to protect the children entrusted to their care, and to the surviving children as well, who have had their childhood innocence taken from them at far too early an age.

Let us hope that this time, unlike after Columbine, unlike Aurora, unlike all the mall shootings, we hear the wake up call. As the President said to the grieving community of Newtown last Sunday, we need to change, and not just talk about it.

We welcome your reactions and counter-arguments. This is a dialogue that should continue until we find the answer.


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