This isn’t the country we want it to be.
Surely we can all agree on that much.
We don’t want America to be the country where places are known not for their people or their scenery but for their mass shootings.
We don’t want Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed Wednesday at a high school, to join Las Vegas and Sandy Hook and Umpqua Community College on the grim roster.
What we don’t want to be, unfortunately, is the easy question to answer, the easy platitude to repeat.
The infinitely harder part is deciding what we’re willing to do, as a society, to make our country what we want it to be. Because we will have to make changes — and almost certainly significant changes — if we are to make meaningful progress in reducing the frequency of these massacres.
To make it more difficult (which, to be clear, is not the same thing as preventing) for people such as Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old suspect in the Florida shooting, from acquiring a semiautomatic rifle, or indeed any gun, we need to change laws.
But which laws?
Congress could reinstate the federal ban on the sale of “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines. But that would have no effect on the millions of existing semi-automatic guns, both rifles and handguns. The sheer number of these guns makes it illogical to believe that anything but government confiscation would greatly limit their availability, legal or not. This option has obvious constitutional connotations.
As for Cruz, media reports describe him as a “troubled teen who posted disturbing material on social media.” He had been expelled, for disciplinary reasons, from the high school where he reportedly admitted opening fire, police said. If we believe any of these actions should prevent a person from legally buying or owning a gun, then we will need to change federal, and probably state, laws. This raises constitutional issues as well.
But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that those difficult issues needn’t be raised if we are serious about making a significant difference. Despite implications to the contrary from politicians, pundits and others, we see no compelling evidence that easy legislative solutions exist — which is to say, solutions that don’t require that we dramatically alter how we deal with people and with the availability of guns.
It’s not enough to say, as many people say after every mass shooting, that we need to improve mental health services. Of course we should do so. But officials said Cruz had been treated at a mental health clinic and that he stopped attending more than a year ago. The question is whether we’re willing as a society to mandate therapy for people who are “troubled” and who post “disturbing material” on social media, but who haven’t been convicted of a crime. And if we want the maximum protection from the possibility that such people will commit murder, then merely requiring them to meet with a therapist will never be sufficient. We would need to incarcerate them.
The deadly combination common to each of these tragedies is a person who procures guns and ammunition. Our challenge is to try to prevent that lethal link.
Stricter enforcement of existing gun purchasing and possession laws, and passing more stringent laws such as those requiring background checks, could occasionally keep a dangerous person from legally acquiring a gun (there are, of course, illegal means). These laws don’t infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners — which is almost all gun owners, after all. Last February President Donald Trump signed a bill that canceled a federal regulation, which had yet to take effect, that was designed to make it more difficult for people to buy guns who receive Social Security checks for mental illnesses, or who have been deemed unfit to handle their financial affairs. The law would have added about 75,000 people to the database used for background checks. This is a sensible precaution and it should be reinstated and used.
Cruz, we learned not long before our deadline, allegedly made comments about becoming a “professional school shooter,” threatened classmates and possibly was identified by teachers as a danger. All of this might not have qualified Cruz for the federal database. But it should have constituted ample reason for police to have paid him a visit before he showed up at school with a rifle. That’s the aggressive approach local police took in late January when they learned that a man who had recently been in Baker City said he “might go shoot up a school.” Fortunately, his was an empty threat.