In the week that followed the horrific mass shooting of 20 young children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school, national discussions about gun control and mental health have all but eclipsed talk of the impending “fiscal cliff.”
Unlike the projected economic crisis the country could face if Congress doesn’t agree to a new tax and spending plan before Jan. 1, there are no easy answers to keeping guns out of the hands of Americans who would use them to harm innocent people. Although gun control and mental health are mutually exclusive issues, they intersect in cases of a deadly rampage like this one, which captured our collective consciousness in a way we haven’t seen since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. We all agree that only a person with a damaged psyche can deliberately stalk and murder innocent, and in this case, helpless, humans.
There have been other mass murders since Sept. 11 – most notably shooting sprees at Virginia Tech in 2007 and at a Colorado movie theater this past summer – but the one in Connecticut eclipsed them all because of the number of children killed.
This latest massacre has renewed an old debate over the availability of assault-style weapons – capable of firing a couple dozen rounds in seconds and large-capacity clips that allow shooters to keep up the slaughter without having to pause to reload. A decade-long ban on some of those weapons enacted during the Clinton administration was allowed to sunset under then President George W. Bush, but it’s questionable if that ban would have kept the Connecticut shooter from getting his hands on the guns he used, or similar weapons.
What is new is a focus on mental health. It’s an uncomfortable subject, even though far more Americans deal with some form of depression or personality disorder at some point in their lives than most people realize. It was encouraging to hear S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley talk about it last week when she proudly pointed out that her proposed budget includes nearly $20 million for the state’s cash-strapped mental health agencies and related programs.
She’s not alone among our public officials. Congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-Indian Land) talked about the need to look at mental health solutions as a way to head off future attacks. But, sadly, Mulvaney and others also emphasized what they see as a lack of “personal responsibility” as one reason why these armed attacks occur.
That’s absurdly simplistic at best and at worst, confusing. Do they mean that someone gripped by mental illness should look themselves in the mirror and reason themselves out of the killing they have in mind, or, if they haven’t killed themselves or committed suicide by cop, own up to their crimes and plead guilty at the arraignment?
Complicating the discussion even more was the National Rifle Association’s astonishing statement Friday calling for armed police at every school in the nation as a deterrent to these crimes. While that does bear some logic, it’s highly unpractical at a time when funding for schools has been steadily declining and more cuts may be on the way if no federal budget plan is reached by the end of the month.
Thankfully, there seems to be a rising tide of public will to find common sense solutions. Most opinion polls show a majority of Americans don’t want outright bans on assault weapons, but do favor the idea of new laws to help keep them out of the hands of those who don’t intend to use them legally.
Like a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, the approach to finding ways to identify and treat the mentally ill – and keeping firearms out of the hands of cold-blooded killers –needs to be balanced. That begins by allowing all voices to be heard in a frank and respectful discussion. To do that, we all have to check our ideology at the door and be willing to accept the fact that no matter what any of us believes, none of us knows it all.
If we can achieve that, maybe there’s hope after all.