Tahlequah Daily Press

December 19, 2012

Guns, mental health: Time to have a talk


TAHLEQUAH — Millions of Americans are mourning the 27 victims of last Friday’s horrific mass slaying at a Connecticut elementary school. Even as we struggle to make sense of this tragedy, we know it’s an exercise in futility. There’s no way to comprehend what would motivate 20-year-old Adam Lanza to snuff out the lives of 20 innocent children, and the adults who were trying to protect them.

So we must instead ask ourselves a more plausible question: When will we say “enough is enough,” and take steps to prevent this from happening again?

The frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. isn’t declining. It seems that almost every month this year, another monster was opening fire in a public place, taking down several people before, in many cases, cravenly turning his weapon on himself. Over the past 30 years, 62 such scenarios have played out in the U.S., mostly by evildoers with assault weapons and semiautomatic handguns. Three-quarters of those guns were legally purchased, as was the case with Lanza.

The Sandy Hook shooter and the other 61 all have two common characteristics, the first one laced with irony in light of America’s love affair with guns and our recent push to arm every individual as a bulwark of self-preservation: In not one of these cases did an armed bystander step forward to take out the perpetrator. That statistic has been overlooked by a number of pundits and politicians like Oklahoma Rep. Mark McCullough, who is introducing a bill to allow CLEET-certified teachers and principals to carry firearms. It seems that in addition to their myriad other duties, educators will be expected to act as cops. McCullough and his like-minded colleagues seem also to disregard the sensible notion that a friendly policeman or “school resource officer” with years of experience in the field, rather than a mere CLEET certificate, would be a far more effective and calming presence than a teacher more used to brandishing a ruler than a handgun.

Another solution is being held up by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who said if America hadn’t pushed God out of its schools, this tragedy never would have happened. With all due respect to Huckabee and his legions of fans, God never left our schools; the only thing that did was forced public prayer. This begs the question of whether lack of prayer in a shopping mall, workplace, military base and a movie theater is to blame for shootings in those places. And what about the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, where prayer was presumably alive and well?

What, then, is the answer? Perhaps a look at a second trait shared by the 62 shooters offers a clue: All these people had mental problems – and with the right attention, some of them might have been helped.

Right now, the public is clamoring for change, but few with the power to bring it have the moral courage to do so. In some ways, the reticence is understandable. Any hint that gun laws need shoring up is enough to cost a politician his job, a businessman his clientele, and a good neighbor his friends. That’s true even at the local level. The Daily Press has never opined in support of rigid gun control, but we did take to task an author who, in the wake of 9/11, insisted if everyone had a gun on that fateful day, those planes could have been shot out of the sky. When the newspaper pointed out the absurdity of that claim, we were peppered with nearly two dozen phone and email threats from around the country.

Despite that experience, we are compelled to suggest that, at the very least, standards should be toughened for screening gun buyers, and loopholes closed that allow mentally unstable individuals access to guns. And we must also join the ever-growing chorus of Americans who insist that the mental health of our citizens should be a priority.

The second goal will be no easier to achieve than the first one. In Oklahoma over the years, a succession of governors and short-sighted legislators have cut mental health services to the bone. Back in the ‘90s, when the state began closing its mental health facilities, the venerable Sen. Herb Rozell, D-Tahlequah, warned the move would eventually prove tragic. He was right.

A renewed focus on mental health care will do more than ward off nightmares like the one in Connecticut: It will also curtail a countless number of other crimes that have troubled minds at their root. So will better screening of folks who purchase guns.

It’s time to have a national conversation, first about America’s mental health, then about what firearms we should have, and who should have them. Surely we can find a common ground before we lose more of our precious children.