A year ago I was Skyping frequently with my friend Yuki in Japan preceding her long-planned extended visit to the US. On one of those calls she said, "I am so scared. My friends tell me: 'You have to be so careful in visiting the US. Everyone has guns and you could get shot.'"
I was so saddened that my friend and her compatriots had the perception that America was a gun-toting trigger-happy nation, especially since Yuki's mission here was to share the events of 1945 in her home town of Hiroshima and spread a message of nonviolence. But how could I blame them?
So as I found myself assuring her that here in rural Nebraska most gun owners are hunters, I felt a twinge of guilt, because I knew that many people here also own handguns and more. After all, just four years earlier 13 people had been shot in an Omaha shopping mall, resulting in nine deaths.
The shooter in the Von Maur store at Omaha's Westroads Malls on December 5, 2007 was Robert A. Hawkins, a teenager on medication for a history of psychiatric disorders carrying a semi-automatic rifle he had stolen from his stepfather.
Mother Jones magazine did an excellent analysis of mass murders over the last 30 years which reveals several commonalities:
- the shooters are typically young (average age 35) white males
- the shooters typically have treated or untreated mental health problems
- the weapons are typically semi-automatic
- the weapons are typically obtained legally
These factors bring us directly to the intersection of mental health and gun availability issues. They also force us into a discussion about how best to balance the constitutional rights of individuals against the need for societal safety.
And doing all that inevitably leads to a close examination of the Second Amendment.
Plenty of constitutional scholars have weighed in on the topic of what the framers had in mind when the Second Amendment was drafted. Here's a good analysis.
It seems to me that no other Bill of Rights guarantee has been so unconstrained as the Second Amendment. Freedom of speech has been one of the most examined of these rights. But while my freedom of speech allows me to say what I want in public, it does not allow me to yell "Fire" in a crowded location. Why? Because public safety trumps personal rights, as it should. Reasonable restrictions just make sense.
In a country dominated by an uber-powerful gun lobby that literally owns the national governing body, this isn't going to be easy. And when that governing body is so stubbornly enamored of divisiveness as divine, significant action will only take place if we address the roots of the problem and put literally every possibility on the table. This includes re-examining and redefining the Second Amendment.
Clearly, what our nation's leaders need to do now is to entertain radical reform of all the systems that allow gun violence of all kinds to continue to happen. Mental health systems, from reporting and treatment to HIPA restrictions, need to be re-examined. Arms ownership systems, including laws governing purchasing, carrying, storing, loading, and using, need to be overhauled. And at that intersection, what the Violence Policy Center calls "the unique facilitating role of guns in murder-suicide" needs to be addressed.
Our culture needs to change, too. We successfully made smoking and not wearing seat belts social pariahs, so why not reform America's casual attitude toward gun safety as well? We prioritized reforming those practices because doing so saved lives. We should make good use of these excellent and recent models of desirable social change.
The first step is obvious and inevitable. Renewing the ban on assault rifles is so widely supported that even Ruppert Murdoch and many NRA members have publically endorsed it. All "gun enthusiasts" (that euphemism for those with a fascination for instruments of death) should welcome such a measure, because it protects them, too.
In coming months look for a congressional kumbaya moment when the assault weapons ban is officially re-instated, giving Americans a sense that our government can and will work together when faced head-on with the horrifying carnage at Sandyhook. But it will not be enough.
There needs to be a serious re-examination of the Second Amendment with respect to what it meant when drafted and what it means now. Hunters and private citizens (those potential members of "a well-armed militia") need to take a hard look at their responsibilities and willingness to make reasonable accommodations for societal safety in light of what is available in modern personal weaponry. Surely the constitutional framers did not intend for individual citizens to be allowed to own semi-automatic rifles in a nation that now adequately arms its military.
Please don't misunderstand me. I am a member of the ACLU; I believe in civil rights. I believe in privacy and security and personal freedoms. The Bill of Rights hangs over my kitchen table for a reason. But I don't believe my personal rights trump my society's right to safety. And if all my personal freedoms combine to make a lethal cocktail for others, I am more than happy to subject them and all the systems that support them to radical and reasonable reform.
Meaningful change to save lives requires radical reformation of all the systems involved in the Newtown, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Virginia Tech, and Columbine and all the other tragedies, because any action heretofore has obviously been anemic. Radical reformation of all contributing factors is the only essential and moral thing to do, because those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, and all those before them, deserve nothing less.
Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 9:07 AM PT: Note to readers: I changed all blocked quotes in this diary to bold at the request of a reader who pointed out that since the comments in blocked quotes are my own words, they should not appear in blocked quotes. Good catch.