By ANDREW WILK
It is unlikely that the vast majority of us will ever vaguely understand why a person could believe that driving to a school and shooting 20 children — as recently was the incomprehensible nightmare in Connecticut — is a reasonable idea. There have to be so many short circuits in the basic wiring of that individual's humanity that to even approach that sort of thinking is far beyond the boundaries of our own minds. So we rage. And we pray. And we struggle to scab over the wound in all of our hearts.
And we wonder what we can do to keep such a tragedy from happening again.
Inevitably, each time another group of innocents are massacred, we talk about gun control — and we have yet another opportunity to shout at one another across the political, social and regional divides that have riven our nation for too long.
On one side, we hear the perfectly reasonable argument that erecting barriers to gun and ammunition purchases will make it more difficult for anyone to walk into schools, movie theaters, shopping malls and houses of worship to slaughter and maim those whose only crime is to present a target of opportunity. On the other side we have the equally reasonable argument that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who cannot understand why restrictions should be placed upon them because of the actions of the very few; many times these solid citizens land in the extremist arms of the NRA, regardless of the nuances of their beliefs about gun ownership, simply because they have no one else defending their interests.
The end result is predictable. After much hooting and hollering, our various levels of government will pass laws that make few happy and protect virtually no one.
If we put more restrictions on legal gun ownership and ammunition sales, we will create yet more expensive bureaucracies that will devote scarce resources to the task of closely monitoring the activities of those who are least likely to commit a crime with a gun. If we increase the penalties for gun-related crime, we will add more time in jail onto the sentences of those who are least likely to be deterred by the presence of a new law and give them a little more time behind bars to lift weights and become further estranged from mainstream society.
If we restrict the domestic manufacture of guns and ammunition, many jobs will move to other countries, and those who are willing to import weapons into the United States — by means both legal and illegal — will become stupendously wealthy thanks to dirt-cheap overseas labor and high domestic demand.
And if government officials should seek to confiscate the hundreds of millions of weapons now in the hands of our citizens, I have only one comment to make: good luck with that.
The simple fact of the matter is that for reasons historical, political, and illogical we here in the United States live in a gun culture. I've lived in big cities, small cities, suburbs and rural communities — and I've always been surrounded by guns and gun owners. Forty-nine states permit concealed carry — and due to a recent court ruling, Illinois is on track to make it an even fifty. We can argue, analyze and wring our hands about this, but it won't change anything.
Yes, I know that this is a lifestyle that citizens in many other countries find more than a bit bizarre, but it is our American reality, and I do not believe that any law will change it. We should, as a matter of personal responsibility, store and handle guns safely — just as we would any dangerous object — and be ready to bear the consequences if our lack of responsibility harms others.
Existing laws regarding gun safety and storage tend to mirror a number of others already on the books regarding the need for personal responsibility when dealing with something that may cause harm to others, and those who violate these laws are at high risk of civil penalties in addition to the criminal ones. However, no existing law — nor any being contemplated — gets to the core of what most revolts us, the seemingly endless parade of lone gunmen firing into crowds of people they do not know for reasons equally unknown. Although restrictions on the sale of 30- and 100-round ammunition clips could be of some help, there is no way to prevent someone with the will to do harm from carrying multiple guns or using other highly destructive home-made weapons.
Perhaps we need to consider another approach to this problem, one that is more likely to address the underlying cause of mass murder with guns in our society.
When it comes to the perpetrators of mass shootings, we have to face up to a clear reality: These folks are struggling with severe mental illness, and our nation has pretty much abandoned the mentally ill to their own devices. We are shockingly content to allow the most troubled among us to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, struggle with poverty and homelessness, and serve as a tremendous burden on their overwhelmed families.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 26 percent of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. Although this percentage includes all disorders from the mildest to most disabling, it points to a prevalence that does not come close to matching available resources — as anyone who has ever sought needed treatment that is affordable for themselves, a friend or family member can readily attest. Government at all levels is anxious to hand out tax breaks to those who least need them, build sports palaces for the entertainment of the masses, and squander money on every pork barrel project under the sun, but we only grudgingly help those who are isolated and terrified because their minds have betrayed them.
Although the media rush to cover the most horrifying and obvious tragedies, they miss the millions of small and intensely damaging tragedies that affect the mentally ill and those around them each and every day. As certain as we all are that mental illness and guns do not mix well, it is equally true that mental illness does not mix well with marriage, children, employment, personal hygiene, alcohol, legal and illegal drugs, and every basic daily responsibility to oneself and others. To refuse to help the mentally ill except to provide the most basic (read: cheap) medical care is the scandal of our society, and all the recent mass shootings only serve to illustrate our grotesquely penny-wise and pound-foolish approach to those struggling with illnesses that do not bleed but cause agony to themselves and those around them.
I am sure we will pass some new laws as a result of the schoolhouse horror in Connecticut. Perhaps these new laws will have some small beneficial effect. However, until we muster the resources and the will to help those who are so far removed from any sense of reality that the most heinous actions seem like a perfectly good idea, we will have no safety, our friends and neighbors will have no peace, and a broad swath of those living in our cities, towns and villages will have no respite from the terrors inflicted by their own disintegrating minds.
Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.