Written by Phil Guarnieri Friday, 04 January 2013 00:00
“I’ve striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.” These musings were written by the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was intensely interested in the praxeological art of mining the deepest depths of the human psyche. But who could make sense of the madness that occurred at Newtown Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School, which was nestled comfortably in the heart of a sleepy little village in Connecticut. Whatever energumen preyed upon the tormented mind of young Adam Lanza, once the dam broke a cataract of venom extinguished the lives of 20 children and six adults before, turning the weapon upon himself.
Amid the ruins lay a shattered community, a grieving nation and endless unanswered questions. The spate of mass shootings in this country had been troubling enough, but now our children are targets. While I’ve long been an advocate of laws against assault type weapons (having written about it in these pages) I’m not prepared to say that stricter gun laws would have averted the carnage at Newtown. I do maintain, with the NRA, that armed guards at the Newtown Elementary School would have probably thwarted Adam Lanza’s evil designs. The media was in high dudgeon, as it usually is over the rhetorical expostulations of the NRA, but theirs was an emotional rather than an intellectual objection. All of America was overwrought with emotion over the greatest domestic tragedy since 9-11.
David Kopel, who co-authored the textbook Firearms Law and the Second Amendment conclusively showed that the number of shootings thwarted by an armed citizenry is not insignificant. The problem with the NRA’s solution, however, is not that such a perimeter of defense would not have worked in preventing the Newtown massacre, but that there are too many soft targets for such a measure to serve as a practical solution. Nor can we attribute the massacre to the fact that America has become more homicidal. The paradox is that the U.S. homicide rate has been reduced as mass shootings have increased: Homicide rates by guns are half of what they were in 1980.
Alan Lankford of the University of Alabama analyzed data from the NYPD on what was termed “active shooters” for malefactors who attempted to randomly shoot those in confined spaces. This accentuates a more ominous scenario of gun violence. There were 18 shootings involving 2 casualties in the 1980s, 54 in the 1990s and 87 in the 2000s. Where there were more than 5 or more victims there were 6 such incidents in 1980s but 19 in the 2000s. But these mass shootings do not have proximate cause in gun laws becoming more lax. Automatic weapons have been available for decades as have gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds. Indeed, guns are the most heavily regulated consumer item. For aesthetic reasons alone we need to re-examine our gun laws: Connecticut, for example, has one of the strictest gun laws of any state, but the firearms used in the Newtown murders were legal.
But we also need to look beyond the deadly hardware to the psychological dimension involved in these mass shootings. The tradition of guns in this country goes back to the earliest pioneer days and the Second Amendment, giving the citizenry the right to bear arms. The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, however, is a recent phenomenon and one that has been sorely neglected. As Mark Twain said about the weather, everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it. One of the great ironies is that while government has become over-bloated in every nook and cranny in modern society, care for the mentally impaired has dramatically declined. Whether it has been Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora or Tucson, many of these mass shootings were the action of an individual visibly in need of psychological care and intervention.
E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist who specializes in care for the criminally insane, informs us that there are approximately 3.5 million Americans who suffer from a serious mental disorder. Approximately 10 percent of this population will behave criminally and 1 percent will be a danger to public safety. We are as blinded to the implications of untreated mental illness as Adam Lanza’s parents were to having automatic weapons in reach of a son who was seriously disturbed. Connecticut, for instance, doesn’t have an assistant outpatient treatment program. Admittedly, it’s very difficult to commit someone against their will or compel them to get help since the petition and the judicial process is so taxing. The way the laws are written, these individuals, thanks to the efforts of the ACLU, have to do something criminally before the authorities can intercede. For all the strong criticism that has been heaped upon the NRA, the ACLU remains unscathed for the impediments they have created in protecting the rights of the mentally ill. It’s a classic case of good intentions driving down the wrong side of the road. It’s not possible for a free society to stop all these killing sprees; but the faster we address the psychological side of the equation via compulsory intervention the more likely we will save innocent lives.
Writing this on Christmas morning, my heart goes out to all those who were lost and especially to the parents of those children. To have borne such a loss with equanimity is impossible. We are left only to plant flowers among the burnt ashes and learn what we can from the past. The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Herod who ordered the deaths of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity 2 years old and under after being told that a Messiah was born there. The horror of the massacre and devastation of the mothers and fathers led Matthew to quote Jeremiah: A cry was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted for her children are no more.
On December 28, the Church observes the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a fitting time for us to offer prayers for all those in Newtown: the brave teachers and administration, the poor, helpless children and their families who mourn so deeply. Solace for the bereaved is a distant land; yet in the Book of Revelation it says Behold, I make all things new. Is there not, in the eternal scheme of things, an intimation of the unmaking of everything sad, where tears are dried and hope renewed so that the love we had in this world will be greater for once having been broken and lost.