The following is the Dec. 19, 2012, Editorial for the Santa Cruz Sentinel:
Controlling guns of mass destruction is much the topic — nationally and in this space — after the horrifying slaughter of 20 small children and six adults Friday in Newtown, Conn.
Much of the reaction to the school shooting has been the familiar handwringing and posturing over access to high-powered guns, along with a violence-obsessed culture and media, and the breakdown in families. Here’s three instances, however, where it’s not just rhetoric:
1. President Obama, who spoke movingly Sunday evening in Newtown, vowing “we can’t tolerate this any more,” is being faulted for doing nothing about gun control in his four years in office. Tuesday, however, the president indicated he supports Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s effort to reinstate a federal assault-weapons ban allowed to lapse in 2004. While that’s hardly a bold stand, it’s a start. We also find encouraging that gun-rights supporters holding elected office have, post-Newtown, appeared more open to discussions on strengthened curbs. Of course, this resolve in the past has quickly faded in the face of NRA pressure, sure to come.
2. A reinstated assault weapons ban needs to also focus on the kind of high-capacity ammunition magazines now used in so many semiautomatic firearms. Obama reportedly supports a ban on these ammunition clips. While it’s unclear whether the Bushmaster .223 caliber semiautomatic rifle (pictured above) used by the killer in Newtown, and also in the July killings at the Aurora, Col. movie theater, would have been outlawed under the expired federal ban, the weapon’s high-capacity magazines would have been. Similar magazines were found in two handguns also found at the Newtown school, allegedly carried there by shooter Adam Lanza.
3. One of the common denominators marking many of the mass shooters is that they are young men with significant mental health issues. Clearly, we need to do a better job of improving access to mental health care to people most in need — and then following up. Sadly, mental health care has been decimated in rounds of government cost cutting over the past 30 years, which just happens to coincide with the rise in mass killings.
Federal gun laws also need to be both strengthened as they relate to the mentally ill. Current law mostly prohibits gun possession or acquisition by a person who has involuntarily been institutionalized; judged by a court to be a danger to others or themselves; found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or because they are too mentally ill to be tried; or declared unable to manage their own affairs.
It’s true many people recover from mental illnesses and should not bear the stigma for the remainder of their lives. But the obvious loophole — exploited by many of the recent mass killers, who usually do their evil acts in so-called “gun-free zones” such as schools, shopping malls or movie theaters — is that many mentally troubled individuals haven’t been involuntarily committed or judged insane or mentally ill in a court proceeding.
Even worse, despite the 2007 federal law intended to require better reporting by individual states about mentally ill individuals barred from possessing firearms, the reality is compliance has been haphazard.
Whatever changes are coming to gun laws, prohibitions and background checks have to be considerably strengthened — including private sales of firearms — for individuals whose mental health issues make them dangerous to trust with deadly weapons.
Nor should potentially dangerous individuals be living in environments where weapons are accessible. Tragically, Adam Lanza found his arsenal of high-powered weapons at home. They were owned by his mother, who paid with her own life when her son began his murderous rampage.