Let me start with a couple of caveats.
First, I am not a particular gun enthusiast. I was taught to shoot as a boy by my father, and we had numerous firearms in the house at all times. I served as a combat arms officer in the Army and learned to operate a wide range of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. I spent twenty years in the CIA and for many years carried a weapon on my hip or my ankle every waking moment. I own several weapons, and I shoot often enough to maintain proficiency.
Still, guns are nothing but tools to me, and tools I hope not to use.
Second, I am not opposed to reasonable measures to control the sale and licensing of firearms. I think the reality of our modern society is such that we need to accept such restrictions, and I do not see any inherent conflict between such controls and the right to bear arms. I know that the gunfight at the OK corral in Tombstone was precipitated by Wyatt Earp's insistence on enforcing a ban on the carrying of firearms in Tombstone, Arizona. We have understood the necessity to manage the power of guns for a long time.
Having said all that, the demands being made for an assault weapons ban in the wake of the horrific Newtown, Connecticut shooting strike me as completely disingenuous. They may make people feel that they are doing something. They may provide an outlet for grief and anger. They have virtually nothing to do with what has just happened, and such a ban will not stop the epidemic of mass shootings plaguing our nation.
What happened at Newtown was unspeakable. I have been around death and conflict most of my adult life. Still the horror of the senseless shooting of helpless children was such that I found it almost impossible to bear to watch the news coverage of the event. The cause of this tragedy, however, was not a semi-automatic rifle, and a ban on the sale of such weapons would not have prevented it.
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Adam Lanza shot twenty-six unarmed men, women and children. He happened to do so with a Bushmaster rifle
, the civilian version of an M-16. He could just have easily have done so with the handguns he was carrying, neither one of which would have been banned had the sale of assault weapons been illegal. He could also have done so with a pump action shotgun or a hunting rifle, both of which can be purchased in virtually any Wal-Mart or sporting goods store in the country.
Nor would other measures commonly trotted out at times like this have prevented this massacre. All the mental health checks, background investigations and waiting periods in the world would not have stopped this madman from killing his mother and stealing the weapons she had purchased.
Here is the raw, unfiltered truth. The fixation on blaming the existence of certain types of firearms for tragedies such as this is an excuse. It is a device we use to fix blame, to assign a cause and, most importantly, to relieve ourselves of responsibility. We are not to blame. These murders are not our fault. They are caused by the "gun lobby". They are caused by the NRA. If only these people would see reason, and a law could be passed, all would be well.
The mass murders, which are sweeping are nation are not the product of the existence of firearms in our society. We have had guns in this nation since its inception. In most homes in rural and small town America, in fact, there have always been a number of weapons, used for self-defense, for shooting competitions and for hunting. Yet, only within recent decades have we begun to suffer shootings such as that in Newtown.
It is not the existence of firearms that has lead to this. It is something else. It is our refusal to deal with the problem of the mentally ill among us.
Until a few decades ago we had in this nation a robust mental health system, which allowed for the involuntary commitment of individuals in society who were judged to be a danger to themselves and others. This system was not always pretty, and it was not always fair, but it was a response to the obvious need to prevent the insane from harming themselves and their fellow citizens.
Beginning in the 1960's, we tore that system down. We saw that it was flawed. We saw that it was subject to abuse. We saw that it could be manipulated in such a way as to lock away individuals who posed no true danger to anyone. We reacted, justifiably enough, by eliminating the existing, antiquated and often abused, procedures.
And, then, we did the unthinkable. We substituted nothing of consequence in the place of the old system. Where before there had been a flawed system, there was now a void. We turned loose literally hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. We promised them community care that was never provided. We made it virtually impossible to commit someone to a psychiatric institution against their will until they had already committed an act of violence. We left the mentally ill to fend for themselves.
Photographed by Lee Jeffries: Obviously I don't photograph every homeless person I see, I have to recognize something in the subject. I can't explain it. It's something I fee - an emotion they're giving me. | Photo: Lee Jeffries |
When I went to law school in the 1980's there was an old man with matted hair in a filthy overcoat who stood across the street from the school all day everyday. He held the leg bone of a cow in one hand and shook it as he shouted incomprehensibly at thin air. He was there on the hottest day. He was there when it snowed, and the temperature fell below freezing.
As young, arrogant students, sure we were smarter than everyone else, we made jokes. We said the old man was a former law student driven mad by endless briefing of old English common law cases. We said he was a new professor. We walked by.
The old man isn't there anymore. I assume he's dead. I also assume he died alone in an alley or an abandoned home, from exposure, or alcohol poisoning or disease. I wonder now how any society that calls itself civilized would consider that a better outcome than forcing an obviously sick individual to accept treatment.
The mentally ill have not gone away just because we stopped dealing with them. They are many of the homeless living on our streets. They are the horribly troubled young men like Adam Lanza slowly disintegrating right in front of us. They are the coworkers, crushed by pressures on the job and at home, who retreat from society and plunge into the abyss of madness.
It is time to face our responsibilities.
The fact that it is difficult to confront the issue of mental illness does not alleviate us of the obligation to do so. The fact that errors will sometimes be made and that we will have to be vigilant in policing a system of involuntary commitment does not mean we are not compelled to ensure that a robust system is in existence. Allowing madmen to walk among us, avoiding addressing their behavior until such time as they have committed mass murder. reacting only when another tragedy has occurred; these are not options.
We have suffered another horrible event. We need to do what is required to prevent another. The first step in that process begins with an honest assessment of where responsibility lies, and that process begins with a very simple step. It begins with all of us taking a look in the mirror.