Editorial 12/19/12

School shooting debate must go beyond guns
Dec. 19, 2012 @ 12:02 PM

The emotional pummeling resulting from Friday’s horrific events in Newtown, Conn., still lingers. As experts try in futility to explain and understand, far more questions are generated than answered. We’re not much closer to comprehending the “whys” of Newtown than we are the “whys” of Columbine or Aurora.

Many stories written in reaction to those unimaginable events have been accompanied by grisly timelines recounting other mass shootings around the world. Too often, the datelines for those stories have been small communities or suburbs in our own country. Evil and murder occur everywhere, of course; on the same day as the Sandy Hook attack, 23 children were stabbed at a school in China, a country which has very strict gun laws. Thankfully, all the children there survived their respective wounds. But as Newtown begins to bury the too many who died too tragically, too soon, we’re again painfully reminded of the uneasy fact that too often the large-scale massacres involving guns occur in our United States.

Why? And what can we do in response?

An attack in Scotland in 1996, hauntingly similar to the one in Newtown — this one in Dunblane, where 16 children, ages 5 and 6, and their teacher were gunned down — motivated citizens in that country to demand new gun legislation. New laws banning most handguns passed, according to a story in Tuesday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. Not long after, that legislation was toughened and ultimately all handguns were banned.

The result? The number of violent crimes involving handguns actually increased.

Over time, though, those numbers dropped, and the laws there are credited with significantly decreasing the number of fatalities involving guns. But gun fatalities in the U.S. have decreased as well in the last generation — without major changes in gun legislation. What’s changed since then is the world’s attitude toward guns, or at least our nation’s. We live in a far different place now than we did in 1996. Acceptable, accessible violence — on television, in video games, in music — is much more prevalent. We talk about teaching peaceable co-existence, but what our society really instructs our children about killing is very different.

In addition, in the case of Newtown, the alleged mental illness of the shooter complicates the question exponentially.

Debates over gun legislation ebb and flow with the emotion of the subject, but Newtown’s events could undoubtedly spur more constructive debate and push lawmakers over the hump of politics, which fosters rhetoric instead of dialogue. The fact is, our current gun laws, written in part by those who think the 2nd Amendment is outdated (but also shaped by an enormously powerful gun lobby) are too full of loopholes and inconsistencies. On this topic, even ardent supporters of guns rights agree. They also agree that while this is about guns, it’s about much more — including the mental illnesses that are increasingly driving the increase in mass shootings.

In the hours and days since Adam Lanza’s shooting spree came to a close when he aimed his gun at himself, more than 400 Americans have died from gunshots in acts of violence, including suicides. We wonder: how many of those pulling triggers were afflicted with mental illness?

That question has to be a part of the coming debate.