Let’s hope this isn’t the case, but recent history suggests that President Obama is not done with a duty that surely is among the most difficult and heart-wrenching aspects of his job.
When groups of innocent Americans are gunned down in the all-too-familiar pattern we refer to as mass shootings, the president – whether Obama or anyone else – steps forward as a national mourner-in-chief. The scene played out again on Sept. 22, when Obama spoke at ceremonies honoring the 12 men and women slain days earlier by a gunman at the Washington Navy Yard.
While he may have brought a measure of consolation to the victims’ loved ones, struggling to understand how good people simply going about their workday routines in the nation’s capital could meet such a fate, the president could hardly offer any assurance that such an explosion of senseless violence wouldn’t occur again. All he could do was urge Americans not to accept these periodic outbursts of deadly mayhem as inevitable.
It was less than a year ago that Obama had reacted with something close to outrage as he led the memorials to 20 children and six adults killed by a gunman who invaded their elementary school in Connecticut.
The Newtown slayings became the president’s prime exhibit in his argument for stricter gun laws – not as if previous incidents on his watch, such as the movie theater killings in Aurora, Colo., and the shopping mall shootings in Arizona that took six lives and grievously wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, weren’t powerful exhibits as well.
But even that torrent of bloodshed wasn’t enough to convince Congress to support expanded background checks on gun buyers – one measure that could help keep firearms from falling into the hands of the deranged as well as ordinary thugs and crooks. In Washington, Obama noted how political deadlocks over gun laws have bred a sense of resignation.
“Well, I cannot accept that,” the president said. “By now, though, it should be clear that the change we need will not come from Washington, even when tragedy strikes Washington. Change will come the only way it ever has come, and that’s from the American people.”
So what will it take to move past the point where the sacrifice every few months of six or a dozen or a couple dozen of our people to the blood cravings of an armed killer, quite likely a psychopath, isn’t just taken for granted?
Broadly speaking, it will take two things: 1) Public revulsion at wasted lives rising to a level that it overcomes the resistance to more effective gun control laws mounted by both the self-righteous gun-rights absolutists and the selfish firearms manufacturers, and 2) An honest reckoning with our national failures in the arena of mental health.
Gun rights, responsibilities
The ownership and use of firearms is a traditional part of American culture — understandably in a country still not that far removed from the frontier. Guns were used for protection and to hunt the game that fed families. They’ve also reinforced the sense of pugnacious “Don’t tread on me” individualism that, for better or worse, is one of our characteristics and that underlies the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms as a bulwark against oppression.
Most people who own guns today, whether for protection, sport or the fun of collecting, would never think of using them illegally. But the presence of a criminal element among us necessitates rules for gun purchases and handling. Those who resist reasonable rules meant to enhance public safety by more effectively keeping guns out of the hands of lawbreakers may see themselves as defending a principle, but they also elevate their own desires and their own convenience above the well-being of their fellow citizens. That’s uncharitable, to put it mildly.
Of course it’s against the law for someone who’s been convicted of a serious crime to possess a gun. But the United States is awash in such a sea of weapons that enforcing that law when someone is determined to break it is virtually impossible.
Similar restrictions are supposed to apply to people with mental health problems that could make them a threat to themselves or others. Too often, those rules don’t work, because of gaps in record-keeping that allow even people with serious mental illness to pass required background checks. And what about cases such as that of Adam Lanza, the Newtown killer? The young man was known to be a troubled soul. In retrospect, he shouldn’t have been allowed within a mile of a gun. Yet he was able to “borrow” from his mother’s well-stocked home arsenal.
Did she have a right to own those weapons? By all indications it was legal, but it also amounted to a gross abuse of those Second Amendment privileges that groups like the National Rifle Association insist are inviolate – even when it comes to maintaining a private arsenal accessible to someone plainly in the grip of mental illness.
‘They’re after me’
The Washington Navy Yard killer, Aaron Alexis – shot dead by police during his rampage – turns out to have been hearing voices and operating under the delusion that he was being pursued by people targeting him with miocrowaves. In other words, he was exhibiting symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.
Columnist Charles Krauthammer, who was a Harvard-trained psychiatrist before becoming a conservative pundit, wrote that when Alexis told police officers in Rhode Island about what he thought was happening to him, he was signaling the need for acute mental health care that could have included involuntary commitment for his own safety.
Instead, as Krauthammer put it, the cops just advised him to keep away the folks who were chasing him! Alexis then apparently had no trouble in Virginia buying the shotgun he used to launch the Navy Yard massacre.
All in all, the picture is that of firearm regulations and mental health systems both so slipshod and dysfunctional as to be ludicrous, thereby contributing to tragedy. Worse, the pattern repeats itself, as if these are lessons that can’t be learned. The mass killers in Colorado and at that Arizona shopping mall each had mental issues that made them walking time bombs.
Against the current
Gun laws are a blend of federal and state measures. In North Carolina, unfortunately, the political current has been running in favor not of tighter but of looser rules.
The N.C. Council of Churches, seeking more effective ways to limit gun violence and the suffering that goes with it, favors laws that keep gun owners’ rights in perspective. The overriding goal must be to keep firearms away from those who threaten public safety even if it means some further restrictions on everyone, including the law-abiding. Certainly there’s a need for better communication between law enforcement and mental health agencies to flag people who have no business buying a weapon.
Even as North Carolina legislators have moved to ease rules involving, for example, where guns can be carried, they’ve failed to ensure that the state’s mental health system has the wherewithal to care for many residents who would benefit from more aggressive treatment. Available space in the state’s psychiatric hospitals has shrunk while the number of people on the ragged edge of sanity filling up jails or sleeping under bridges seems to be on the rise.
This state in past years has seen episodes in which mentally ill people have turned violent and taken innocent lives. None of those episodes has been on the scale of Newtown, Aurora or Washington, for which we can be grateful. But there is much work to be done here to lengthen the odds that a deranged person with a gun could kill in bunches.
The prospect of horror on that scale does not have to be taken for granted. North Carolina does not want to be the next place where President Obama or one of his successors comes to help memorialize the dead.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate