Here we are again, wringing our hands over another mass shooting.
This time the victims are college students and staff, in class at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., when the carnage began. The toll Friday stood at 10 dead, including the 26-year-old shooter, and nine wounded.
Gun violence is America’s national sickness. Over and over, we watch it flare up on the news. Panicked faces. Ambulances. Candlelight vigils for the deceased. Grim law enforcement officers summarizing the latest developments.
We could jump into the roiling debate over what actually constitutes a mass shooting, whether the numbers are rising or not, and whether President Barack Obama is correct when he says the United States experiences mass shooting incidents at a much higher frequency than other advanced nations. (It does.)
But much of that is noise. What we know is that no American is safe from gun violence. It has become the norm in some urban areas with high levels of criminal activity. But you can be a law-abiding citizen, minding your own business, and you can still be shot in a classroom, at your workplace, in a movie theater or on a military base.
Gun violence is a sickness, all right. And it demands a full-on rush for prevention and treatment. But that isn’t happening.
Imagine if a virus were killing Americans violently and without warning. People would routinely go to work, or to school, and never come home. And then imagine lawmakers in Congress and state legislatures forbidding public health officials and local leaders from taking any steps to prevent this virus. They could not look for its source or keep data about it or order precautionary measures.
That’s what is going on with regard to gun violence. After 20 small children and six staffers were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, U.S. senators, cowed by the gun lobby, refused to even debate sensible measures like universal background checks for gun purchasers.
Politicians in Washington and states like Missouri and Kansas rushed to pass laws making it easier to purchase and carry weapons.
It is no longer necessary to obtain a permit to carry a firearm in Kansas. Missouri made open carrying of firearms legal throughout the state and lowered the age at which one can obtain a permit to 19 from 21. Legislators in both states stripped local governments of the right to pass ordinances restricting firearm access.
Much of this activity is driven not just by the political clout of the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups but by the deeply held conviction on the part of many lawmakers that any restriction on gun use constitutes an attack on personal freedoms.
It’s an irrational fear. Law-abiding Americans are and always will be free to possess firearms to protect their families, hunt and target shoot. Laws requiring background checks for private sales and gun shows don’t interfere with that right. Neither would a ban on rapid-firing weapons that increase the casualties in mass shootings.
Politicians who oppose gun safety measures insist that the root of the problem is mental illness. They are correct that only disturbed individuals take up arms to slaughter strangers. And those who call for a better mental health system are on point.
A bipartisan bill known as the “mental health awareness and improvement act” is headed for the full Senate. Co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, it contains some good provisions, such as resources to help professionals detect the signs of mental illness more quickly.
But in a nation awash with guns, it is unfair to blame the problem on persons with mental illness, or to expect that they won’t get access to firearms.
Along with better mental health services, we need to be legislating reasonable gun safety measures.
They won’t instantly stop mass shootings or crime-related gun violence, but they would send a message that America recognizes it has a sickness. And that it wants to get better.