By Christopher Gunty
In a memorial service in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama pledged to do all in his power to end the kind of violence that struck the small town Dec. 14 when a gunman killed first his mother at her home and then 26 students and adults at a school before taking his own life.
Reflecting on whether we, as a nation and as a society are doing all we can to prevent such tragedies, the president said that if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are not.
“We’re not doing enough,” he said, “and we will have to change.”
President Obama named towns that had experienced gun violence – Newtown; Aurora, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz.; Oak Creek, Wis.; Columbine, Colo.; and Blacksburg, Va. He did not mention places such as Baltimore or Chicago, where the murder rate is higher than last year. The mass slayings gain news coverage, and rightly so, but those murdered one by one deserve attention as well. The loss of one life diminishes us all.
We cannot prevent every incident of violence and pain in our lives, but we can reduce the opportunities for violence. What will it take?
First, we have to put all the cards on the table. We need to look at the easy availability of all types of guns, but especially guns that carry magazines of more than 10 rounds, and automatic weapons that can provide a burst of firepower simply by holding the trigger. No “law-abiding citizen” needs that much firepower for protection of his home, or for hunting or target shooting.
Second, we have to provide better access to mental health programs. It’s far easier to get a gun than to get help for depression or other mental illnesses. After the fact, we often hear these gunmen were odd, or unbalanced or in need of help. We have to do a better job of picking up the warning signs and then getting people the help they need.
Third, we have to stop listening to the political influence of the National Rifle Association, the National Sport Shooting Foundation and others. The NSSF is uncharacteristically quiet now, with a short statement on its website expressing sympathy: “Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this horrible tragedy in our community. Out of respect for the families, the community and the ongoing police investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment or participate in media requests at this time.” But you can bet that once the debate begins in earnest on this topic, the gun rights organizations will be politicking against tighter controls.
The issue is incredibly complex and there are no easy answers. It includes access to guns and the types of guns available; poverty; mental health issues; the pervasive violence in movies, TV and video games; and the unwillingness of politicians to stand up to the gun lobbies. As the president said, “We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”
This is not the only thing on the president’s desk. The fiscal cliff looms large and many other issues need his attention. But the president could take on this issue for his second term. He could leave a lasting legacy if he can throw the full weight of the presidency behind this issue. But as he told the people of Newtown, they are not alone. We all must comfort them in their sorrow, and then work toward substantive change on gun violence.
Christopher Gunty is associate publisher/editor of the Catholic Review.