December 17, 2012 | Back to: Columns

Now is the time for discussion

There is no explanation, no meaning, no real understanding.

Twenty-eight people — 20 of them children barely 6 and 7 years old — murdered in an act of incomprehensible pitilessness is something around which we simply cannot wrap our minds.

And yet, we must. We must finally begin to think and speak in a reasonable, rational way about the issues that underlie this horrific tragedy in Connecticut. The issues are threefold: guns, mental health and our national culture of violence.

America has a long-standing love affair with guns. When I was a child growing up in Auburn, almost every home had a rifle or a shotgun because most adults were hunters or had been hunters at one time. My brothers and I inherited my parents’ long guns, and I suspect we all still have them — even if they live at the bottom of our closets.

Yet today, the culture of gun ownership is much different than it was then. More than 200 million guns are on our streets. In 2012, on what’s touted as the nation’s busiest shopping day of the year, almost 300,000 new guns were purchased.

And every day in America, 32 people die from gun violence.

The answer isn’t to ban guns. Whether by their words in the Second Amendment the founders intended to sanctify individual gun ownership or were endorsing an official armed force, we’ll never know. So let’s just let that argument go.

What we do know is that those founders didn’t envision private citizens carrying assault weapons that hold 100 rounds of ammunition. In any kind of rational world, there is simply no reason for people other than law enforcement or the military to possess weapons that have one purpose and one purpose alone: killing people. Hunters and target shooters do not need assault weapons or clips that hold tens of rounds of bullets that can be fired in a matter of seconds.

There are those who say that more gun laws won’t solve the problem. That may or may not be true. What’s absolutely true is that existing laws aren’t doing enough, when fully 40 percent of gun sales — mostly at gun shows and on the Internet — don’t require background checks. As long as I have the money, I can buy a gun — even if I’m a registered felon or a diagnosed psychopath.

The time for discussion is now.

There’s also something very wrong when two-thirds of our states have cut their budgets for mental health services, signifying a persistent cultural denial of the urgency of mental illness. At best, we trivialize and disparage mental health problems. At worst, we deny them. And all too often, those who need care the most are denied it, can’t find it or can’t afford it. This is especially true for young people, who are more vulnerable to mental disorders yet who seldom get help.

I have no doubt that the Connecticut shooter will emerge as someone beset by psychological demons that certainly contributed to his commission of this appalling act. Did people see his torment and fail to act? Did they act but too little and too late? Or did they simply brush him off as just one more alienated young man dressed in black who couldn’t relate to others? Regardless of what was or wasn’t done in this one instance, as a nation, we have abdicated our responsibility to the mentally ill among us, and we are paying the resultant terrible price.

The time for discussion is now.

The dark underlayment to all of this is the escalating celebration of violence in our culture. Nursed on a steady diet of virtual savagery and carnage in films, television, video games, music and even cartoons, how can our children — how can we — fail to become numbed to horror? While the fabric of our nation is ripped apart by this culture of violence that leaves innocents dead in their classrooms and movie theaters and shopping malls, we rush to buy the latest version of “Mortal Kombat” for our kids’ Christmas stockings or download the latest rap video glamorizing death and hatred.

Setting aside that the Connecticut shooter was seriously disturbed, he was also a product of our American culture. As long as we refuse to open our collective eyes to the unsettling truth that our national glorification of violence is the cradle in which unimaginable events like the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School are nurtured, we are doomed to see them repeated.

The time for discussion is now.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada City.

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Joan Merriam


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The Union Updated Dec 17, 2012 10:37PM Published Dec 17, 2012 09:12PM Copyright 2012 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.