After a glorious vacation abroad I return this week to admit I came home embarrassed for my country.
My husband and I were in Ireland when word of America’s latest mass shooting hit the European media and the story was the lead item on every news program.
Sky News, the BBC, Good Morning Ireland each featured American reporters in Roseburg, Oregon for the latest on the shooting. Then they brought in panels of pundits to talk about it.
“When there are 24 campus shootings in one year in America we need to realize there is something profound happening in America,” said Zoe Williams, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper. “It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”
Williams was wrong about the number of U.S. school shootings. The actual number so far this year (according to the non-profit group Everytown for Gun Safety) is 45.** But Williams was right that we need to admit there is something horrifically “profound” about what’s happening in America.
Brendan Keenan of the Irish Independent pointed out that mass shootings happen so frequently in the United States that, “A statistician could responsibly extrapolate how many more (shootings) to expect since they occur on such a regular basis.”
What a kick in the teeth. Heartbreaking gun violence happens so often in America that it can now be accurately predicted. Who among us thinks that’s okay?
“It’s in the culture there now,” said the host of one program. “Now these shootings are not an oddity. They (Americans) have come to think of them as a way of life.”
Ouch. Truth hurts.
Our politicians give lip service to the idea of tougher gun laws, oblivious to the idea that the sick and the criminal aren’t deterred by the myriad of laws already on the books. The lame plans calling for more regulations on gun shows and background checks, are stale and irrelevant.
The New York Times reports that most recent mass shooters used legally purchased guns bought from licensed dealers, not from gun shows. Furthermore, these shooters easily passed background checks as they had no criminal backgrounds to reveal. Their murder sprees were their first deadly act.
The real problem is that the systems set up to keep track of both criminals and the mentally ill are insidiously inadequate.
Seung-Hui Cho, who murdered 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007, had a long history of mental illness. A Virginia court had ordered Cho, 23, into mandatory treatment but he never attended and was never reported to the federal background database. He passed two background checks and legally bought his guns.
Aaron Alexis, had been dismissed from the U.S. Navy for disruptive behavior, treated twice by the VA system for psychiatric issues and told Rhode Island police someone was trying to kill him by sending vibrations through his hotel room walls. About a month later, in September 2013, he passed a background check, bought a gun and killed 12 people inside the Navy Yard in Washington, DC.. None of the government agencies ever reported Alexis to the federal database.
Last October, Jaylen Fryberg, 15, used his father’s Beretta to gun down four students inside his Marysville, Washington high school cafeteria. His father never should have been able to walk into his local gun shop and buy that Beretta because he had a permanent domestic violence protection order against him. That information should have been entered into the federal database but it wasn’t.
We know who the mentally disturbed are. Why is there no mechanism for keeping firearms out of their possession? Yes, there are laws against revealing personal medical records but there are exemptions in the name of public safety.
And why aren’t there enough beds to treat mentally ill citizens? How is it that someone suffering from profound schizophrenia can – as James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado Theater shooter did – anonymously buy thousands of rounds of ammunition on line? Can’t we at least regulate the bullets that make the weapons so potentially deadly?
We spend time discussing more laws that are beside the point. The media is blamed for naming the shooters and spawning copycat killers. Responsible gun owners are vilified. Our brains are fogged with so much diversionary discussion that we fail to recognize the clear path out of this deadly problem.
Identify the mentally ill and make sure they are nowhere near a gun. Give their loved ones a mechanism to seek meaningful help. Strengthen state mandatory hold laws for the mentally ill, not to punish but to provide genuine treatment. Make feeding timely information into the federal database absolutely mandatory for all law enforcement and government agencies.
The world is watching. Let’s get smarter about this.
** By the time this column ran in newspapers the number of campus shootings had risen to 47