In the aftermath of the worst mass shooting of school children in U.S. history, Connecticut and the nation are embarking on an arduous journey every American hopes will lead us to a better place. Never before in my memory has an incident of deadly violence shaken this nation to its core and forced us to confront the lethal realities of mental health and access to weapons of easy slaughter.
Before the victims of the Newtown massacre were even identified, there were emotional calls on social media for an outright ban on ownership of firearms by anyone other than police or the military. Sorry folks. You’d need a constitutional amendment to accomplish that feat. I think the Second Amendment is pretty clear on that subject:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Some have interpreted the militia clause to mean that only the authorities should be armed, which raises the question of whether you think the clause is proscriptive or descriptive. Note that the first words following the clause are “the right of the people,” not “the right of the militia.” When the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, the people were the militia. And just try mustering the necessary votes for a Second Amendment repeal (2/3 majorities in both houses of Congress and ratification by 40 states). In a word, it will never happen.
On the other hand, the courts have consistently ruled — and I think rightly so — that reasonable gun control measures are fair game. So I have no problem with banning military-style attack weapons, armor-piercing bullets, and oversized ammunition clips. But I wouldn’t want it to lull us into a false sense of security.
Banning semi-automatic rifles and pistols of the sort used so mercilessly at Sandy Hook Elementary will save some lives. There are, however, an estimated 300 million firearms already in circulation. Bushmasters and AK-47s would no doubt continue to be manufactured in other countries. And a lot of foreign-made guns would surely find their way into the U.S. black market in the same way heroin and cocaine currently do. To paraphrase an old saying, where there’s a demand, there’s a way.
We could also tinker around the edges. Sen. Beth Bye and Rep. Bob Godfrey have proposed, among other measures, a 50-percent tax on ammunition. But if you’re really determined to get ammo without paying a confiscatory tax, it would probably be worth it to travel beyond Connecticut’s borders to a neighboring state with a lower ammo sales tax. What, then, would be the effect of such a tax beyond adding a few dollars to the state treasury?
So what kinds of solutions are offered by the National Rifle Association? The nation’s largest gun lobby, perhaps best known for its clever rhetorical branding (“Guns don’t kill; people do”), has sidestepped the issue of gun control and instead blamed Hollywood and violent video game producers. Perhaps the NRA should consider a rebranding: “Guns don’t kill; the media do.”
However, unlike a lot of my friends on the left, I don’t think the NRA’s proposal to put an armed guard in every school is completely off the wall. Now I wouldn’t want to see a $10-an-hour security guard roaming the halls with a pistol. But a police officer specially trained in disarming tactics could very well serve as a deterrent to the Adam Lanzas of this world. After all, so many of these mass killers choose soft targets such as schools, movie theaters, and places of worship. Besides, guess who first proposed making federal money available for armed guards in schools? Hint: it was a Democrat who happened to be president in 1998.
While it’s true that Columbine High School, scene of the worst school-child shooting before Sandy Hook, had a sheriff’s deputy stationed inside the school who was unable to prevent the attack, the Columbine assault was atypical. Instead of a lone gunman, there were two attackers armed not only with multiple firearms, but with almost 100 pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails.
Even if a police officer in every school might limit or prevent such attacks, where would we get the money to pay them? No, I think our resources are best spent on mental health. Forty years ago we made the humane decision to close most of our mental hospitals, give the patients medications, and shift them to residential settings. The problem was that people didn’t want halfway houses in their neighborhoods. So, too often the violently mentally ill simply languish until, if their desperate caretakers are lucky, they get nabbed and become part of the criminal justice system.
Perhaps we could ramp up our old mental hospitals. Or establish a network of halfway houses in sparsely populated areas. How to pay for it, you ask? Let’s start with releasing the non-violent substance abusers clogging up the criminal justice system and taking up space in our prisons. Call it the Newtown Manifesto: replace the feckless war on drugs with the campaign to contain future mass murderers.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.