Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gun control, mental illness, and fear

The brutal murder of twenty children and their teachers, whose names are listed above, in Newtown, CT, has occupied the media for several days already. Syria, Egypt and other stories were largely ignored by the media. Everyone has been  talking about this event, especially what can be done to prevent further killings.

In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, three words or phrases were repeated over and over again: gun control, mental illness, and fear. Each of them is important for understanding why this tragedy happened and, most important, how it can be averted in the future.

I want to examine each of them in the light of Newtown. This horrific event has the potential to be a game changer. Guns and mental illness are once more being blamed for this tragedy, whether justifiably or not, but now both are being reexamined, and actions may be taken to deal with them.

In addition, I will discuss very briefly the underlying fear of being attacked, the way these children were at school where were supposed to be safe, is a reality for many Americans who feel a need to arm themselves for self-protection.

First and foremost, gun control has become part of the discussion more than it ever was before. In previous tragedies the NRA came out immediately with their standard response: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." But this time it did not issue such a statement.

After a self-imposed media blackout for four days that left many wondering how it would respond, the NRA finally stated that its members were "shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders."

It added that the NRA would be "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."  Such an offer seemed to indicate a change in tone from the previous responses. 

But this was contradicted in the statement that the NRA made on Friday when it argued that schools should have armed guards. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," explains Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA.

A better sign of change is evident the decision by Cerberus Capital to sell Freedom Group, its collection of gun companies, including Bushmaster, the firm that made one of the weapons used in the massacre.

There is no indication that gun manufacturers will disappear, however; and gun sales surged immediately after the shooting. As long as there are profits to be made, there will always be investors who want to participate in what is a booming, albeit questionable, industry.

Yet today gun control is being discussed everywhere in the US, from water-coolers to the White House. People now expect action, not words, and thus President Obama has called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring background checks before any firearm sales, although he has left out the details.

Whether the President will be able to achieve even that much is a matter of debate. The GOP has already declared its opposition. As well, recent rulings from US courts suggest that the constitutionality of any such proposals will be questioned not only by the NRA but also by the courts themselves.

Whenever such shootings take place, the issue of mental health is immediately brought up. This too is an oft repeated phrase. The shooters, it is claimed, must been mentally ill in order to have perpetrated their heinous deeds. The NRA has made this claim for many years. But is mental illness the only culprit?

The perpetrators typically are young males with varying degrees of mental derangement. Some of them have a long history of involvement with the mental health system, and many have been identified as being "odd" by educators. They also have this in common: an access to guns, including assault-type semi automatic weapons with large ammunition clips.

The deadly blend of guns and alleged mental illness: mass shooters 
(clockwise from top) Adam Lanza, James Holmes and Jared Loughner

Mental health deserves to be made an issue, but not for this reason alone. Mental illness is often stigmatized and thus largely ignored today. Often we only hear about the mentally ill when something catastrophic happens, and then we blame them, although not guns or the sick society that produced them.

Society needs to stop criminalizing the mentally ill, and to learn more about what they are struggling with. The majority of mentally ill patients are not dangerous, according to mental health professionals. What they need is appropriate treatment, medication, and support services. Unfortunately, that is too often lacking.

In the case of Adam Lanza, mental illness may not even have been the problem. Apparently, he suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, which is a mild form of autism. Asperger’s and autism are not forms of mental illness but are neurodevelopmental disorders or disabilities.

Autistic kids have problems with communication and social interaction, and those with Asperger’s tend to be kind of quirky and are obsessed with single subjects. They are highly functional, but there is no evidence for them being violent.

Fear is the third word that is heard repeatedly. Immediately after the shootings, gun purchases increased. People were afraid that they might not be able to buy guns and ammunition.

The NRA is responsible, at least in part, for the attitude of fear that pervades the US. It has encouraged that fear by claiming that the government is going to confiscate all guns, even though there is not a single shred of evidence for this. With 300 million guns already in circulation in the US, such a confiscation is impossible.

During the last election, Wayne LaPierre stoked this specific fear when he wrote: "With four more years of Obama, your firearms freedoms are gone. And we'll spend the rest of our lives mourning the freedoms we've lost... Every freedom we cherish as Americans is endangered by Obama. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But there is another greater fear. Americans are so afraid of terrorist attacks in public that they feel the need to arm themselves. I find it sad that the US has become a society where people are afraid of being killed in such situations. People should not have to arm themselves as self-protection.

The more the weapons industry saturates its market, the more dangerous American communities become --driving even those who dislike guns to contemplate owning one as an attempt at self-defense.

I prefer to live in a society where such fears are absent. There is a serious malaise in the American psyche that needs to be cured. How it arose is something I am not qualified to answer, although the NRA has, no doubt, contributed to this collective sickness.

But Canada and other countries that have stricter gun laws, should not feel complacent. What happened in the US can happen everywhere. The fear that led to such shootings can spread to every country.

Today many Americans are wondering whether, if they can’t beat the marketing clout of the gun-makers, they can identify the sickness in their society that produces so many mass murderers. How did it arise?

In response to the latest gun massacre in the United States, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg warned, "we don’t need people carrying guns in public places. It doesn’t add to anybody’s safety. Quite the contrary, it makes us have a much more dangerous society."

I admit that I don't know what the cure for this fear is. However, I do know that I don't want to see the US landscape dotted with tiny fortresses where people can feel safe because they have armed themselves to the teeth. People should not have to carry guns everywhere they go, including church.

As President Obama said when he introduced some of the measures that he intends to take, this is a complex issue, but action is necessary. Such a tragedy must never be allowed to happen again.

One thing that should be done is curtail the influence of the NRA. It cannot be outlawed, since the First Amendment would never allow that; but it can be marginalized if enough people resist giving in to the fear that the NRA has encouraged.

People of faith need to do something other than succumb to this malaise by building their own little fortresses. Ultimately, they must put their trust in God to protect them. The power of prayer is the greatest power they have. They have access to the God who made the universe and sustains it.

That includes each and every person, whether in the US or elsewhere. God alone can protect them. Guns cannot do it, in spite of claims by the NRA to the contrary. Guns are idols, and thus cannot be trusted.

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