In his sober, sad speech in Newtown, Conn., Sunday night, President Barack Obama sounded like he meant it when he promised to address gun violence. "Because what choice do we have?" he said. "We can't accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard?"
In fact, until now, that is exactly what the president, like so many other politicians, has concluded. The challenge is to change that.
I can understand the frustration of the many gun owners who feel like they're being unfairly blamed for the sins of a few mentally unstable transgressors. I get that almost everyone who owns a semiautomatic uses it legally and reasonably.
And I also understand, as my friend and Yale Law professor James Forman Jr. puts it, that guns are the only social problem that are their own solution. We don't fight cocaine and heroin with more cocaine and heroin. We do fight gun violence with gun defense.
But that answer isn't translating into public safety. Maybe we need to shift from fighting over rights to appealing to the communal good. If you are the law-abiding owners of a semiautomatic, Adam Lanza's horrible act isn't your fault, and your desire to protect yourself and your family is probably heartfelt. But if you shared in a collective sacrifice of your preferred type of weapon, you could help make it just a little bit harder for the next young man experiencing a dangerous psychotic breakdown to go on a shooting rampage.
And the thing is, it's hard to see how that could happen without your sacrifice. Lanza got his guns from his mother, who owned five of them and took her sons target shooting. They lived in a town with a strong gun culture — strong enough to torpedo a police-led effort earlier this year to curb the shooting of assault weapons at unlicensed guns ranges.
There's no straight line between the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and that stance, or the town's decision to shelve an ordinance to curtail the unlicensed shooting. But I do think that we have to shift away from the cultural acceptance of weapons and ammunition of the kind that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin talked about when he said: "I'm a proud outdoorsman and huntsman, like many Americans, and I like shooting, but this doesn't make sense. I don't know anyone in the sporting and hunting arena who goes out with an assault rifle; I don't know anyone who needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting." The Second Amendment shouldn't block these kinds of reforms.
There's another parallel route for addressing the problem of mass killings: limiting mentally ill people's access to weapons. "To reduce the risk of multivictim violence, we would be better advised to focus on early detection and treatment of mental illness," Cato Institute chairman Robert Levy told the New York Times. "An early detection regime might indeed be the basis for selective gun access restrictions that even the NRA would support." But it's important to remember that the problem isn't that mentally ill people are more violent, it's the link between untreated mental illness and violence. By definition, this is a breed of trouble that often falls between the cracks. To spot it, wouldn't we have to do comprehensive psychological screening for all gun purchasers, as Israel reportedly does?
There's much to think about. The main thing is to learn more and to hold Obama and other politicians responsible for turning the best ideas into law. We can do this. We've done it before, with problems from lynchings to drunken-driving deaths. We just have to stay the course, for as long as it takes.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book "Sticks and Stones: The New World of Bullying," will be published next spring.
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