Let the discussion begin
The school shooting incident in Connecticut on Friday should prompt a serious discussion of gun violence.
In the aftermath of the shooting massacre at a school in Connecticut last Friday, we are once again left trying to make sense of a senseless event.
It is hard to find words to describe the horror of the incident at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown. It is hard to accept that a human being could be capable of the kind of violence that would take the lives of 20 schoolchildren 6 or 7 years old, and six of their teachers. But 20-year-old Adam Lanza did commit those murders at the school after killing his mother in her home, then took his own life.
Newtown is left with unimaginable grief as funerals for the victims are conducted this week, and the country is left searching for answers for how to stanch the gun violence that has become all too pervasive — not only in such highly publicized random incidents, but also regularly in inner cities throughout the country.
President Obama was eloquent as he spoke at a vigil for the victims of the shooting in Newtown on Sunday night.
"Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? ... If we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. And we will have to change."
He said he would use "whatever power this office holds" to engage with law enforcement, mental health professionals, parents and educators in an effort to prevent more tragedies like Newtown.
But what can he — and we — do to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future?
"We need to sit down and have a quiet and calm conversation on the Second Amendment," Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin said on Fox News Sunday.
We agree — a conversation that's free of the posturing and arguing hard-line positions that have marked the debate over guns in the past and that will allow us to search for constructive ways to address a serious public safety issue. A conversation that will include all viewpoints in the gun debate since no one, not the staunchest gun-rights advocate or the most ardent gun-control supporter, wants to see a repeat of what happened Friday.
It is the function of government to reconcile competing interests and to balance rights, and the conversation should begin in Congress.
Here's what that conversation should focus on:
— The lack of data on gun ownership, crime and other related gun issues. If we're going to try to get answers about limiting gun violence, we're going to need research-based information on such factors as the effectiveness of firearms violence prevention programs, how and how often guns are used for self-defense, how many guns disappear illegally into the black market and other issues.
— Assault-style weapons such as the Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle used by Adam Lanza and in the Beltway sniping incidents in 2002. Gun foes focus on them because they have been used in such high-profile incidents, but some are popular with gun owners for self-defense reasons. California Sen. Diane Feinstein and others have promised to introduce a bill to reinstate a federal ban on assault-type weapons that expired in 2004, and Gov. Pat Quinn has pushed for such a ban in Illinois. But again, a lack of information hampers the discussion because we don't have data about what the effect of the expiration of the ban in 2004 has been.
— Limits on sales of high-capacity magazines. Is a 30-round magazine on a semiautomatic rifle really necessary?
— Mental health services. In almost every mass killing incident, the shooters have been alienated, disaffected, mentally ill young men who have somehow managed to slip through the cracks.
Undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues are a problem in this community and elsewhere and need to be addressed.
— The effectiveness of gun education and safety programs.
The country is awash in guns of all types — an estimated 310 million in a country of 314 million people, according to the Congressional Research Service in 2009. But the vast majority of them are legally owned by law-abiding citizens (many of them own more than one), and that ownership is protected by the Second Amendment. At the same time, and probably contrary to public perception, the rate of gun violence has decreased markedly in recent years. In 2011, the rate of firearm homicides was 3.2 per 100,000 people, a sharp drop from 6.3 in 1993.
But there's no denying that gun violence is a scourge of inner cities, and the fact that the rate of gun violence is decreasing is of scant comfort to grieving parents and relatives of victims in Newtown or Aurora or other mass shootings.
President Obama said that no set of laws can protect people from senseless violence. He's right. But in our nation of laws, it's not too much to expect government to work to reduce such violence for the common good.