Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Opinion: People are the problem, not guns

Community members in Newtown, Connecticut try to console themselves after the school massacre.
Community members in Newtown, Connecticut try to console themselves after the school massacre. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

We’re told America is a violent society with a “fatally counterproductive national identity”, says the German magazine Spiegel Online.

We certainly do have a violent cultural undertow in this country, though it has been getting less violent over the years. Americans are also culturally apathetic. Many more kids die every year to gun violence than did at Sandy Hook Elementary, yet the political energy to address gun violence can’t get any wind at its back until something grotesquely tragic happens.

And when it does happen, the anti-gun folks can hardly contain themselves. The call for banning assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and limiting ammunition sales came out rapidly, as if these folks have a template press release ready with blank spaces for the next Aurora, Colorado.

The Christian conservatives on the right were predictably moronic. Mike Huckabee claimed we shouldn’t be surprised by such events because we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.

Our government was born from violent revolution, and we’ve been perpetually at war with others and ourselves since then. We are a violent society because our glory and power was born from it and we require steady doses of it in peacetime. We revere Al Capone and Jesse James and the quickest pathway to fame in America involves beating up your girlfriend.

Guns are invariably part of American culture. They aren’t going anywhere. The Supreme Court rightfully declared that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right. In true American cultural fashion, gun ownership is a civil right in this country, like the right to free speech. Europe has no comparable acknowledgement of this right in their institutions.

Banning guns won’t work and we already have reams of laws on the books that regulates the sale of firearms at the federal level and the states. Like it or not, the right to keep and bear arms is indeed a civil right. The Supreme Court’s decision declaring the Second Amendment an individual right left some room for regulations, but they have already struck down laws from the strictest jurisdictions in the country, Washington D.C. and Chicago.

Yet, there are solutions. Aside from the sudden desire to address mental health in America by Republicans, it is true that this country has been appallingly deficient in our attention to mental health.

The last four mass killings were committed by people who had some mental illness; Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, was seen as a troubled individual by a counselor. A psychiatrist who treated the Aurora, Colorado shooter, James Holmes, was so concerned about his state of mind that he contacted the police.

The shooter in Arizona, Jared Loughner, had an extended record of run-ins with police and his actions surprised nobody when his killing spree hit the news. And the killer at the Sikh temple, Wade Michael Page, was a known sociopath who spewed hatred across the country.

Its seems that rather than focusing on guns, we need to focus primarily on the informational barriers between identifying these people and the authorities charged with acting on that information.

Jared Loughner was kicked out of college and administrators would not allow him back in without a psychiatric evaluation. This decision to act on information by the school possibly saved lives at Pima College.

Yet once he left school, there was nobody to pick up the scent on him. If we are to prevent the next Sandy Hook, we should of course review the gun regulations on the books, but gun bans are not going to change the fundamental problem.

Just after the tragedy in Newtown, two potential killers were reported and arrested; one in Indiana and another in Oklahoma. Both made threats or made plans to kill multiple kids, but the difference was not gun regulations, gun bans or ammunition restrictions. The difference was vigilance by members of society who saw the signs and contacted authorities, and that information was acted upon by them.

We are indeed a violent nation, and we are also notoriously apathetic. Events like Sandy Hook Elementary have brought us together, and has chipped away at that apathy for now, but the answer to prevention lies less on a prolonged political fight over regulations that will get us nowhere and more on a greater appreciation for our responsibilities as a community. Yes, let’s look at gun regulations, but we’ll get nowhere without first looking at ourselves.

Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D., NBC Latino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.

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