Sunday, December 23, 2012
Editorial: The broader firearms tragedy
Gun laws and mental health services must change to reduce the annual loss of life.
From the RoundTable blog
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A fickle public and failed political leadership often require a horrible tragedy to prompt action on chronic problems. The debate over gun control and mental health services that rages in the wake of the Newtown shootings is long overdue, not in response to those rare incidents, but because of dozens of individual gun deaths that pass little-noticed every day in America.
The victims' families and the community of Newtown suffered terrible loss. The nation mourns with them.
The nation should mourn, too, the tens of thousands of people who die from firearms yearly. The Centers for Disease Control reports more than 30,000 American deaths by firearms annually. More than half are suicides, and one-third are homicides. Guns now rival vehicles for number of deaths.
Gun rights advocates are correct in one regard. Most changes proposed in the wake of a mass shooting like the one in Newtown probably would not have prevented that particular shooting. A lone, unhinged killer is not easily stopped.
But reasonable changes could go far to reduce the greater death tally. No single law or public service will end gun deaths, but changes are necessary, and together they might do much to address what has become a public health problem. The nation cannot continue on its current course.
Suicide with a gun is devastatingly effective. Denied that method, the suicidal can turn to other means, but most alternatives have much greater chances of survival. When that happens, the person might receive desperately needed help and turn away from an awful path.
Restore the ban on assault rifles that expired a few years ago, ban high-capacity magazines, limit automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and close the gun-show loophole that allows purchasers to avoid background checks. Create a mental health system that can better intervene before tragedy, adequately fund it so people get the help they need, and adopt laws to restrict their access to weapons.
These and other measures all deserve serious consideration before this most-recent tragedy fades into memory and the impetus for action with it.
Serious consideration is the last thing some people want. The gun lobby roars whenever lawmakers whisper that they might support restrictions on firearms.
In the 2012 election cycle, the National Rifle Association spent almost $20 million on congressional races, significantly more than it had spent in any election cycle going back more than a decade, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.
Only sustained, broad pressure from the public can convince lawmakers to turn against so much special-interest spending.
Too often, though, the pantomime goes as it did in Virginia after the Virginia Tech shootings. Lawmakers puff their chests, pass a few tepid laws and change a few policies. Political cowardice leaves obvious shortcomings, such as the gun show loophole, unsolved. Then, a few years later, lawmakers forget. They repeal the one-handgun-per-month law and threaten to reduce funding for mental health services.
The current approach to firearms in America has failed. It is time to try something new.