How many more times?
Forgive us if by the time you are reading this you are feeling fully sated with commentary about the latest mass shooting tragedy, this one from of a small community college in Oregon. It follows others in South Carolina last June, in California last year and the Washington Navy Yard in 2013. And then there are the ones like the Newtown, Conn. elementary school tragedy and the movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., in 2012. And others before then.
What do these events have in common? One certainly is that after each of them, a torrent of political hand-wringing gushed forth from all sides; some of it critical about our nation's lax approach to gun control, others arguing that the surest defense against a psychotic individual bent on mass murder is a law abiding private citizen armed with a weapon. We have read plenty of that from all sides since the most recent tragic outrage.
Readers may recall that after the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. nearly three years ago, we suggested that the time had now come — indeed, it had come well before then — for the nation's gun laws to be sharply tightened and a reality check be taken by those who saw in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution a blanket freedom for all save those with a criminal record or a history of mental illness to own and possess firearms. And of course as we know now, absolutely nothing happened at the federal level, as lawmakers tapped danced their way between pious expressions of needing "do something" to prevent another outrage like that, while making sure they didn't offend the National Rifle Association to the point where campaign donations might be jeopardized by being too serious about it. After all, if we got too strict about limiting access to firearms, then only criminals or mentally ill people would have guns, or other nonsense to that effect.
Our basic position on this issue has not changed; if anything, it's hardened each time someone acts out some bizarre or twisted revenge fantasy. What's truly disturbing is what seems to be an escalting frequency of them, to the point where we really are becoming numb to them, as President Obama said following the latest atrocity. It's worth recalling that mass public shootings of the kind we saw last week in Oregon and in the other places are a relatively recent phenomenon. In hindsight, not until 1966, when a deranged gunman shot 16 people from a tower at the University of Texas, was a turning point of sorts reached. Prior to then, these sorts of events were relatively rare. In the nearly 50 years since, their annual frequency has marched upward, especially over the last decade or so. Why is that? How have our society and cultural norms changed to make such behavior possible?
That's the first question worth considering. However, it suggests that the notion that it's OK to coast along with the deference to the NRA and other organizations for whom the right to "keep and bear arms" is sacred, needs a re-evalution.
The second question is what is it that gun advocates fear so much about tightening the nation's gun control laws? As we noted three years ago after Sandy Hook, the Second Amendment, which can be read to have been meant to apply to federal militias like the National Guard, as opposed to private gun ownership, was enacted in 1791. A lot has changed since then. Most people don't go out and hunt for their daily meals. We're not settling trackless, unmarked wilderness anymore (for the most part), where indigenous natives or wild animals might imperil someone's daily existence. Some folks do find having weapons to ward off predators who would threaten cattle stocks or other animals being raised for eventual shipment to market essential, and that's understandable. But outside of that, most people use guns for recreational hunting and target shooting. And there's nothing wrong with that, so long as the guns are properly stored and safeguarded, which most responsible, law-abiding citizens do.
But what is wrong is the apparent ease with which a person suffering from some form of mental illness seems to be able to acquire sizable arsenals despite the laws around background checks and other restrictions we have in place. Identifying such people ahead of their "day of reckoning" is hard, and while more mental health programs (requiring more federal dollars spent and more taxes to finance them) would be good, that alone isn't the answer. The problem is that gun restrictions vary from state to state in terms of strictness, and possibly, their enforcement, to say nothing of the loopholes around sales of guns at gun shows. Why was the Oregon shooter an owner of several guns? Why did the shooter in the Charleston, S.C., who shot nine people in a church, have a gun (yes, the prior background paperwork was entered incorrectly, but that's not a reason to argue that the solution is less legislation or feeling what we have on the books suffices)? Why did the shooter at Sandy Hook have access to multiple weapons?
At the heart of the concerns of those who fear more and more stringent gun control laws, we suspect, is a perceived threat to personal freedom and liberty from the big, bad federal government. Are we concerned that if we don't have our own guns we may wake up one day to find ourselves living powerlessly under an authoritarian police state? Are we concerned that without being able to buy guns the federal government will slowly shrink the circle of private freedom? We're fans of limited government too, just like Thomas Jefferson was. But seriously? The warning signs of an encroaching police state will be plainly evident and in any event, small private arsenals aren't going to thrawt that. Free speech and a free press are better defenses.
We need to demand that our politicians finally summon the courage to write laws that will restrict gun ownership to those qualified to be entrusted with them, and make the threshold of ownership a high bar to get over. How many other innocent people must die, and friends and families grive, before the gods of the NRA actually "get it"?
Other countries have strict rules around gun ownership and while there may be the occasional tragedy, the instances of them are much less than here. We could learn something from that. Guns are a part of the nation's heritage, and no one is arguing that legimate uses shouldn't be allowed, but what we have in place isn't working, and the answer is to strengthen and tighten them, not to shrug shoulders and say those who want to get their hands on a gun always will. That can be made harder, and should be.
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