Driving past Newtown, Connecticut this past weekend was a reminder of how virtually nothing has been accomplished since the slaughter of little children at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut a year and a half ago. The Stop Handgun Violence billboard along the Mass. Pike puts at more than 32,000 the number of gun deaths since Newtown. What will it take to limit the ready availability of handguns, or at least to keep them out of the hands of criminals and the seriously mentally ill?
Take the case of Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old madman who went on a killing spree a week ago in California. I will probably never forget the primordial wail of anguish of Richard Martinez, whose son Chris was among the victims of the recent mass killing at U.C. Santa Barbara. The senior Martinez’ rage at the deadly toll exacted by Rodger spilled over in unspeakably painful frustration and despair. It continues to echo in my mind. What parent wouldn’t feel the horror? But which parents will act on it?
Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss wrote on Saturday that “Rodger was less sinister than sad.” I couldn’t disagree more. Lonely, bullied, spurned by women, he was pitiable right up until he armed himself with guns and knives and killed people. Then he became a monster. He killed three people by stabbing and three people by shooting. A mentally ill person shouldn’t be able to purchase guns. The threshold for denial shouldn’t be commitment for mental illness. Too many dangerously unstable individuals are simply walking around, not hospitalized. Even Rodger’s parents knew he was one of those potentially dangerous individuals and reported him to the police.
So, thank you, Bob De Leo. The House Speaker has proposed a series of amendments to Massachusetts’ already comparatively strict gun laws. For one thing, his bill would require the Commonwealth to report mental health records to a federal data base for use in background checks. That’s a no-brainer. All private gun sales would have to involve a licensed dealer, to facilitate tracking. Local police, who have a say in permits for some firearms, would be able to weigh in on permits for rifles and shotguns. There would be state standards for suitability to deter capricious decisions by local police, and there would be more uniform standards for tracing guns. School staffs would be better trained in suicide prevention.
The immediate question is: will the bill pass, and, more importantly, will the state fund the implementation so that it’s not just feel good on paper? The legislature will be deluged by those claiming the Second Amendment guarantees their right to own handguns, in fact, as many as they want. Well, maybe so, if they belong to a militia, and a well-regulated militia at that.
As NY Times Joe Nocera pointed out recently in reviewing Michael Waldman’s new book The Second Amendment: A Biography, what the framers of the Constitution really supported was gun ownership as “a collective right for the common defense.”
This “well-regulated militia” standard was accepted Second Amendment American law until a 1977 power change at the NRA effectively twisted the Founding Fathers’ words, craven legislators caved to the insurgents’ agenda, and partisan judges piled on, notably in the 2008 Heller decision. It’s repugnantly ironic that two centuries of settled gun control law was overturned by Justice Antonin Scalia, who wraps himself in pious fealty to so-called Constitutional originalism, always asking “what the framers and their generation intended in 1789.” I’d like him to respond to Waldman’s book.
I’m sure someone will comment about the fact that Rodger also killed with knives, and will ask whether I want to ban knives. Right after Newtown, I wrote about a crazy man in China who went on a rampage the day before the Sandy Hook killings, attacking 22 people with knives. No one died. Certainly stabbings can be fatal, but gun attacks bring more certain death.
Yes, I know that the Massachusetts law will, of itself, not change a national problem. Much more needs be done. But with the DeLeo legislation, Massachusetts has a chance to make a statement about gun violence and even about responsible gun ownership. It’s time to make that statement and make it stick.
I welcome your comments in the section below.