the unthinkable


By Denise Dunbar

Like most people, I still can’t comprehend what happened in Connecticut on Friday morning. There are places the human mind just can’t fully go, and visualizing a room full of slaughtered 6-year-olds is one of them.

As a parent, my heart aches for those who lost their precious babies that day. Everyone who’s ever loved a child grieves for the little lives cut short. We wonder, as we hear about the heroic adults who died trying to stop the killer and those whose efforts saved other children, would we have been as brave?

Our thoughts then turn closer to home. What about my child? Are the schools that my children attend safe? Or — in reality — is no school that’s not a prison safe from the combination of an insane person bent on malice and weapons intended for mass killings?

Sadly, and terrifyingly, I think it’s the latter. Of all of the horrific rampages involving crazy people and guns in recent years, this is the most shocking. It’s the one that we, collectively, may never fully get over. Is it also the one that finally galvanizes a majority of the American public to take action to prevent this from ever happening again?

The problem is multifaceted, but I think there are two core solutions: First, it needs to be much easier to involuntarily commit severely mentally ill people to institutions, and second, weapons intended for military use should not be sold to the general public.

The gun side of the equation gets most of the attention, but the mental health side is just as important. As often happens in American life, the pendulum has swung too far on this issue. Because there was a time when the insane were horribly mistreated and too easy to lock up people who didn’t need it, the federal government intervened to protect the civil rights of the mentally ill. The movement to stop putting people in mental institutions picked up steam in the 1960s and 70s, and the mentally ill were moved to community-based care, usually on an outpatient basis. The reasons are complex, but the bottom line isn’t: This model simply isn’t working — at least not as it pertains to severely ill, violent young men.

Reform on the gun side of the problem is easier but will be met with fierce resistance from devotees of Second Amendment rights. I think Sandy Hook will ultimately be seen as the final straw on this issue. Yes, hunters should be able to use rifles or shotguns to hunt, and individuals should be able to own handguns for protection. But no civilian needs a gun that fires five rounds per second or to own a civilian version of the military M-16. At this point in time, arguments against restrictions on these weapons — on the basis of not wanting to go down an imaginary slippery slope — just don’t cut it. These guns have to go.

Friday was one of the saddest days in American history. We are left with a melancholy that even the normal joy of Christmas and Hanukkah can’t quite lift. Right now, all we can do is grieve with and pray for the families of those who died. But in the new year, it’s time to tackle the difficult issues of reforming care for the severely mentally ill and finally ridding our country of the plague of assault weapons.

-The writer is the editorial page editor and managing partner of the Alexandria Times.