WASHINGTON – The recent death of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., is truly heartbreaking. And this was just the latest in a stunning list of shooting tragedies. I share the desire to stop this from ever happening again.
Many are focusing on gun control as the solution. There are some good proposals, but some common sense also is needed. For one, background checks should be required for all commercial gun sales, including gun shows and Internet sales. Most states do not require this. But there must be some limits. A father should be able to give a hunting rifle to his son, for example, without the necessity of a background check. We also must recognize that background checks alone will not end these senseless killings. Most of those responsible for the mass shootings in the last 30 years would have passed a background check.
Limiting the availability of certain guns, like so-called assault rifles, also seems reasonable. The Second Amendment’s right to bear arms is not absolute. Already, the average citizen cannot own certain military-style weapons, like tanks and mortars. But we need to remember that the Second Amendment was intended to empower citizens to protect themselves and their property. Someone who believes he needs a gun for protection should be able to buy one that gives him the confidence it will protect him. A single woman may want the assurance her gun fires a lot of bullets as fast as possible so she doesn’t have to worry about being calm enough to take aim as her assailant comes after her.
Reducing the capacity of magazines can be helpful as well. This could at least slow down someone attempting to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But it doesn’t take that much time to change magazines, so I’m not sure this is much of a solution. Once the shooting starts, most people will be running away, not waiting for a few seconds’ break in the shooting in order to tackle the killer. And again, that single woman I mentioned may need more than 10 bullets if she is shaking with fear as she fires. But some reasonable limit makes sense. A hundred bullet magazine hardly seems necessary.
It seems possible that reducing the capacity of magazines has potential in mass shooting incidents if others also have guns, like security guards. If the killer had to change magazines more often, potential victims would have a brief opportunity to raise their heads and fire back. There is the risk that innocent people could be hit by return fire, but still this combination of measures would likely reduce the number of victims.
Ultimately, gun control restrictions will not keep guns out of the hands of criminals. And they will not stop someone intent on shooting people from obtaining guns. They are principally focused on limiting the amount of damage that can be done by someone intent on harming others. That’s worth something, and we should pursue reasonable gun control measures that respect the intent of the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to bear arms. But the most effective place of focus to prevent future mass shootings is with the person wielding the weapon.
President Obama’s focus on mental health issues in his recent executive actions is the better starting point for dealing with the problem of mass shootings. The mental health issue focuses on the person doing the shooting, not the method. After all, it’s the person pulling the trigger that is actually causing the deaths. These killings are clearly being done by very troubled people, oftentimes very young men.
Once we focus on the person doing the shooting, a number of factors become important. For one, there is the influence of popular culture. Television, movies and video games are becoming increasingly violent. Hollywood’s violence culture bears some responsibility for preconditioning the mentally troubled to act out their emotional distress through violence. The video game industry, as well, bears some responsibility for immersing young impressionable minds in violence-laden role-playing games.
Another factor is parents. There is no guarantee, of course, but parents can have a significant impact on their children’s attitudes about violence. For example, they can limit their children’s exposure to violence in their most formative years. They also can monitor their children’s mental health. If they do turn to doctors, they must not blindly trust medication. Most children with mental health challenges benefit greatly from medication. But some mood-altering drugs have been associated with increased thoughts about violence in some children.
Parents can help expose their children to positive, life-affirming experiences. They can involve them in a place of worship that teaches about human value, love, compassion and accountability. They can involve them in community and school activities that contribute to wholesome attitudes toward others. This kind of training can help children deal more constructively with anger when they become adults, as well.
Family members and friends also may suspect that someone is becoming a danger to himself or others. A kind word of concern and offer to help may be just what someone needs to take a different path. A concerned person may be worried about intruding, but if he speaks compassionately, with genuine care in his voice, an expression of concern likely will be well-received. And, even if the concern is rebuffed, he will at least know he tried to help.
The health care community can also do more. Health professionals must be empowered to intervene when they see signs of trouble in a patient. Currently, it is very difficult to have someone committed to a mental health institution against his or her will before an act of violence has been committed. Caution is understandable, but it appears that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of the troubled individual. Insurance companies as well need to step up. Many do not provide the level of help that often is needed. A counselor is no substitute for a psychiatrist at times, yet too many insurance plans do not provide adequate coverage for the level of mental health care that some need.
These suggested solutions, and others, are all worth discussing. I am deeply grieved for the parents, families, and friends who have lost loved ones to these senseless shootings. I am even more deeply grieved for those whose lives of promise were taken from them. We must all dedicate ourselves and call on God for the wisdom and guidance we need to help prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Barrett Duke is vice president for public policy and research of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.)