Commentary: Some people shouldn't have access to guns

The Sacramento BeeDecember 18, 2012 

I'm tired of debating gun violence with people who cling to ideology as the bodies pile up.

That happens in our country every time there is a massacre of innocents, as there was on Friday when 26 people – including 20 children – were slaughtered at a Connecticut school by a deranged gunman.

Some of us can't even hear or read the words "gun control" without losing it – so lets not even call this gun control.

Can't we simply agree that there are some people in our society who should not have legal access to guns and ammunition?

We can agree that deranged people sometimes will kill no matter what we do or that they will buy guns illegally if we deny them legal weapons. These things are true.

Even in Friday's horrible tragedy, preliminary information points to weapons that may not have belonged to the shooter – who killed himself after the school shootings – but to his mother. Authorities believe the suspect, Adam Lanza, also killed his mother, Nancy.

But let's not lose the point. The absence of a perfect solution to curbing gun violence – or a solution to perfectly fit the Newtown tragedy – shouldn't prevent us from doing more.

There were two public killings last week, in Newtown and a mall in suburban Portland, Ore. There have been more than 30 school shootings since Columbine High School in 1999 – and there have been more than 60 mass killings in America over the last 30 years.

The UCLA School of Public Health, in analyzing the World Health Organization Mortality database, found that the firearm homicide rate in the United States was 19.5 times higher than in other high-income countries.

Such figures usually trigger a Second Amendment fight, but please answer these questions first:

Do you want felons to retain their right to bear arms? Do you want people whose mental illness has manifested itself in violence to have legal access to guns?

These questions are especially relevant in the discussion of mass killings, since some of the most notorious have involved suspects who "slipped through the cracks" of mental health systems – or who acquired stockpiles of weapons online without raising any red flags.

Under federal law, felons forfeit their right to bear arms. But a 2011 New York Times analysis found that thousands of felons across the country were successful in getting those rights reinstated.

"In several states, they include people convicted of violent crimes, including first-degree murder and manslaughter," the Times found.

In Washington state, the Times found that: "Since 1995, more than 3,300 felons and people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors have regained their gun rights in the state. … Of that number, more than 400 – about 13 percent – have subsequently committed new crimes."

There are examples of efforts that are working to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Since the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, the only school shooting more deadly than Friday's, the state has tightened gun laws to address loopholes that contributed to 32 murders by the Virginia Tech shooter – who killed himself as well.

Seung-Hui Cho purchased his weapons with little trouble, though it shouldn't have happened.

"Cho, it turned out, had been court-ordered to receive outpatient mental treatment. That made it illegal for him to have a gun," wrote the Roanoke Times. "But at the time, only commitments to mental hospitals were included in the database used to screen potential gun buyers."

Since then, Virginia changed the law to add outpatient commitments to state databases. As a result, the Roanoke Times reports, the number of mentally ill people blocked from buying guns has doubled.

A consensus of mental health experts rightly point out that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent and are more likely to be crime victims than suspects. In Virginia law enforcement databases, background checks for guns also flag people with protective orders filed against them or domestic violence misdemeanors.

What would be wrong with a national registry based on the Virginia model – a database that would flag authorities across America to people who shouldn't own guns?

What about tightening other glaring loopholes as well? Why not mandate that private gun dealers and proprietors of gun shows have to conduct background checks, as licensed gun sellers are required to do?

The suspected killer in the Aurora, Colo., massacre, where 12 people were killed last July, was able to stockpile a massive trove of weapons and ammunition by buying them on the Internet without so much as setting off a single red flag.

How does that make sense?

It's hard to see how closing loopholes and placing tighter controls on dangerous people would have an impact on the rights of law-abiding citizens.

How many more people have to be murdered before we do something about an epidemic affecting us all? Violence in public places never seems far away anymore.

When I went to see "Lincoln" recently at a local movie theater, I sat in the back row and on the aisle so I could make the fastest getaway possible in case of gunfire.

That's a sad reality, but it's not even in the same league as the cold-blooded murder of babies in their kindergarten classroom.

There isn't even a word for that kind of sadness. It's not enough for us to post our condolences on Facebook and leave it at that. Even if we find there was nothing we could do about Newtown, doing nothing demeans us all.

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