December 19, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: Gun debate needs to focus on public health

 

The mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., has hit home like no other. The angelic faces of little boys and girls haunt Americans who wonder whether more could have been done or should have been done.

The gun control debate has begun anew, but it seems like it could be different this time. Some people are dropping the predictable scripts that followed previous tragedies at Columbine High School, the Aurora, Colo., movie theater and the Tucson, Ariz., event involving former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The United States has endured 62 mass shootings (four people or more) since 1982, and most of them have faded from national consciousness.

A long-running stalemate has prevented Congress from producing much in the way of federal legislation. State and municipal governments have been where the action is, and most of it has revolved around liberalizing gun laws. Plus, various court rulings have overturned local gun control measures on constitutional grounds.

Now some gun-rights proponents are signaling that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. Some members of Congress with strong standing among gun lobbyists are calling for a national conversation about a variety of factors that could play a role in mass shootings.

In the past, the gun lobby has waited out the emotional reactions to mass shootings, and then quietly returned to pressing its agenda. After the Tucson tragedy, Wayne LaPierre, the executive director of the National Rifle Association, turned down an invitation from the president to discuss the issue. The absence of this powerful interest group effectively scuttled any solutions.

“Why should the NRA go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?” LaPierre asked at the time.

But the grotesque crime at Newtown had silenced the NRA up until Tuesday, when it issued somber condolences to the victims and said it would answer questions on Friday. Perhaps the organization senses that this paranoid style will no longer be acceptable. By the same token, the proponents for the mass removal of weapons need to become more circumspect. Big-city solutions might sound good in urban settings, but they don’t connect with the rest of America, where law enforcement and first responders aren’t nearby and hunting and target shooting are cherished pastimes.

Two first-grade classes were obliterated. Why and how it could have happened defies a simple explanation. Many factors have already been suggested: ineffective security measures, easy access to weapons of slaughter, an inadequate mental health system, and possible cultural influences, such as violent movies and video games. For whatever reason (or reasons), such shootings are more likely to occur in America. We need to gather the experts and find out why.

If we change the approach by treating this as a public health issue, rather than a referendum on guns, we’ll have a much better chance to head off these tragedies. The president says now is the time to look for answers. Then we must act, or accept that we have failed the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School and the adults who tried to protect them.


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