Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shooting Blanks

It's been more than a week since the school shootings in Connecticut, and, until now, I have remained mostly silent on the matter.

I saw enough of the initial coverage to know what had happened, and I've kept up with developments via articles online and in newspapers — so I feel pretty well versed in the basics of the case. I'm sure there are things I don't know, but I guess I know as much as anyone who is roughly 1,400 miles removed from the scene of the crime.

Anyway, if I am channel surfing and I land on a channel that is giving its attention to the shootings, I move on to something else. Doesn't matter who it is — CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or one of the channels my mother liked to call "free world" channels (ABC, CBS, NBC).

It isn't that I don't care. I do care. Very much. Too much, probably.

But I've seen all this before. Virginia Tech. Columbine. Gabrielle Giffords. The theater in Aurora.

It was happening long before that, too. Between the time I enrolled in first grade and the time that I got my bachelor's degree, two presidents were fired upon (one was wounded), two presidential candidates were shot at (one died, one was paralyzed), a civil rights leader was killed, the pope was wounded and a former member of one of the most popular bands in history was killed.

And those were just the best–known victims of violent crime. The number of ordinary Americans — as the ones who died in Connecticut last week were — who were at least wounded by gunfire in that time must be in six digits.

Not much is said when the ordinary Americans are attacked — and that may be the most frustrating thing about all of this, that people are shot every day, but it takes something like a mass shooting or an attack on a prominent person to spark society's outrage.

When that does happen, the same things are said — and usually by the same people (or by people speaking for them or by people who have replaced them in high–profile positions) — and the same suggestions are made.

And, in the end, little or nothing gets done.

Why not?

Well, that is a complicated question.

Let's start with the typical knee–jerk response to ban automatic weapons. On the surface, that makes sense, and I supported that proposal when it was made during the Clinton presidency in the 1990s.

Problem was, it didn't work, mainly because most automatic weapons can be modified to meet legal requirements. Neither do proposals to tighten gun control laws. You see, unless we are prepared to ban private ownership of all guns and repeal the Second Amendment, guns will continue to be owned by law–abiding citizens, the vast majority of whom will never fire their guns at another human being.

The mother of the Connecticut shooter was, by all accounts, a law–abiding citizen. It was her guns, purchased legally, that were used to kill not only her but more than two dozen teachers and students at an elementary school.

That is an horrific crime, understandably repugnant to most of us. And there is an equally understandable desire to do something.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to press for tighter gun control. And it would make sense to propose it — except the gunman did not purchase the guns.

Stricter gun control laws might create more hoops for people like the gunman's mother to jump through to acquire a gun, and that might be emotionally satisfying, but it will never prevent a mentally disturbed friend or relative from taking guns that were legally purchased by someone else and using them the way Adam Lanza did.

Here's another fly in the ointment. I keep hearing all this talk about automatic weapons, which is irrelevant if you really want to talk about laws that can prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.

The weapons Lanza used were not automatic weapons. They were semi–automatic weapons. I have never owned a gun, but even I know there is a considerable difference between automatic weapons, which are capable of spraying bullets with a single squeeze of the trigger, and semi–automatic weapons, which fire one bullet every time the trigger is pulled.

Most privately owned weapons are semi–automatics — so calls to ban automatic weapons are pointless. That will do nothing about the kind of weapons that were used in Newtown, Conn.

As usual, there have been those who have indicted video games and violent movies and TV programs. Lanza reportedly played a lot of video games, and there is a case to be made, as there has been for a long time, that the entertainment industry, with its ready embrace of violence, bears a certain amount of responsibility for this kind of thing.

But there is no one–size–fits–all solution to the general problem of violence and the specific problem of guns.

This is mostly an exercise in primal group grief. I think there are some people (although they will never admit it, I'm sure) who simply live for the times when they can mourn loudly and openly on their favorite soapbox.

I'm sure they are sincere about their grief — so was I when I was younger and something shocking happened — but I can't help feeling that many are lashing out at something they can't understand.

At the same time, gun rights advocates are put on the defensive. I have known many gun owners in my life, and I'm sure that most of them would never even think of shooting at a bunch of first–graders — nor would most think of shooting at a bunch of theater patrons at a midnight movie — but they are made to feel as guilty as if they had pulled the trigger themselves.

So they feel compelled to make ludicrous counterproposals, like suggesting armed guards in every school — a good old–fashioned concentration camp atmosphere, I suppose, to go along with the traditional instruction in the three R's.

Or the suggestion is made that God needs to be returned to the classroom — as if this sort of thing didn't happen when schoolchildren recited the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of every school day and all we need to do to stop this is to start reciting the Lord's Prayer again.

These are variations on familiar themes, and they point to some unpleasant (and usually ignored) truths that, nevertheless, must be acknowledged.

The central truth is that there is evil — or whatever you choose to call it — in the world. How else can one explain an adult man walking into an elementary school and deliberately shooting at small children?

Because the very thought is so appalling, people assume that the weapons that were used must have been automatic weapons. That, at least, would explain why the victims suffered multiple gunshot wounds. In that scenario, the gunman pulled the trigger once and several bullets were fired at the target.

But the weapons were semi–automatic, and that means that the assailant had to fire at each victim several times on purpose. The medical examiner has confirmed that each victim was shot at least three times.

That is evil. There is no other word for it.

Another truth that needs to be acknowledged is the fact that mental health issues often go untreated in our society, and that needs to change. Inevitably, it seems, mental illness figures prominently in mass shootings.

From what I have read, Lanza was identified as an at–risk youth fairly early on. He came from a reasonably affluent family that was able to provide him with treatment that many families probably could not, and the educators in his life apparently made many efforts to help as well.

Those efforts, however, clearly — and tragically — failed.

There are no easy answers.

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