Last Friday, on the other side of the planet from Newtown, Conn., an unhinged man terrorized an elementary school with a weapon.
All told, 20 students were wounded in a siege at a school in Guangshan County in central China. None was killed, though. The deranged individual, fulfilling some unfathomable personal agenda or settling some demented score, was using a knife.
As we know all too well by now, that was not the case on the same day at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In the hours since the savage shooting spree that left 20 first-graders and a handful of teachers and administrators dead at the school, it’s been noted again and again that America has a deep affinity for guns, that it’s part of our independent, don’t-tread-on-me ethos.
But despite our attachment to guns – it’s been estimated that upwards of half of all U.S. households have at least one – we have responded to past outrages and calamities with sensible legislation to control firearms. The National Firearms Act in 1934 took aim at machine guns and short-barreled shotguns that were commonly used in organized crime; the Gun Control Act of 1968, which regulated interstate commerce in guns, became law in the wake of the killings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; and the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, instituting background checks, finally became effective almost 13 years after White House press secretary James Brady was wounded in an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
A moment for action has clearly come again. President Obama and members of Congress should get behind an effort to renew the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, and outlaw the sale of high-capacity magazines that hold dozens of bullets.
Maybe it’s the image of elementary school students and their teachers being mercilessly killed with military-grade weaponry or the sheer, grim accumulation of mass killings, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Aurora – we know about all these incidents in shorthand now – that has, perhaps, led to a tipping point in the gun control debate.
Figures on Capitol Hill who have mostly been mum on gun control or actively hostile toward the idea have started to say a rethink is in order. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who has long paraded his pro-gun bona fides and has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, told the Washington Post Monday “everything has to be on the table.”
Would a renewed ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines stop all mass shootings? Assuredly not. But it would be a start. We also should take a hard look at how mental illness is treated and improve access to doctors and support. Above all, we should ensure the mentally ill can’t get their hands on lethal hardware as readily as they can now.
Some of the solutions offered by the “cold dead hands” crowd that resists any call for reasonable gun control are, frankly, absurd. Hiring armed guards for schools that are already chock-full of video cameras and security checkpoints would make them more like prison camps than the centers of learning and community activity they should be. Even more batty is the notion that all teachers should themselves be armed. It’s tough to imagine a teacher, or any other civilian, would be able to respond effectively to a copiously armed, seriously demented gunman who has the element of surprise on his side.
In his address at a memorial service for Sandy Hook victims Sunday night, President Obama said it well: “No single law or set of laws can eliminate evil from the world … but that can’t be an excuse for inaction.”