Michael Ryan

‘Not an ideology — it’s idiocy’: Cleaver is right on guns, but Congress can’t do it all

A member of Congress must hear many things that shock and stagger.

Can you imagine U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s astonishment, though, when he heard his grandson say he was sitting with his back to a restaurant wall so he could watch the door, as a veteran of combat might?

Heaven forgive us for the unseen things we’re doing to our children.

As a constituent recently pressed the Kansas City congressman in a restaurant, “You’ve got to do something” about the mass killings in this country.

Cleaver feels it, too. In The Star Editorial Board’s Facebook Live interview with the Missouri Democrat on Wednesday, you can see the crushing weight of all this in his pained expression. He prays we can escape the disgraceful, depressing “nation of slaughters” label we are earning with each new bloody massacre in our streets, stores and public gatherings.

“This is not an ideology,” Cleaver says. “It’s idiocy.”

It is undeniably madness. Sanity needs to step in.

The problem is, it’s increasingly difficult to spot sanity and reason in our politics.

The case for owning military-style weapons is ringing more hollow with each murderous round, and we should have a fresh congressional vote on it. Moreover, there are compelling arguments for expanded background checks and “red flag” laws that seek to separate dangerously ill people from easy access to guns — as long as there is sufficient due process.

Missouri is its own peculiar case, a nearly lawless frontier when it comes to gun availability — no doubt helping put the state’s three biggest cities into the nation’s top 12 most dangerous, as Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith notes.

But while it’s past time for reasonable new gun laws, and most of us would thirstily welcome a mere sip of progress, it’s doubtful gun restrictions would be the panacea Cleaver and many others hope. By their very definition, criminals violate laws, and gun laws would be no different. A posted “gun-free zone” feels great, but only the law-abiding abide the law.

Then there’s the sneaking suspicion that current laws aren’t adequately enforced. And in mass shooting after mass shooting, there are wildly flapping red flags missed and dismissed.

You can’t legislate your way out of a societal sickness, and you can’t cure the illness by treating the symptoms.

To be sure, weapons are only part of the anatomy of a mass shooting. Academic researchers Jillian Peterson and James Densley of The Violence Project say there are four things most mass shooters have in common:

early childhood trauma (parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying) that serves as a precursor to mental illness;

a recent personal or professional crisis;

the calamitous role-modeling of previous mass shooters;

and, ultimately the weapons — though it’s instructive that 80% of the firearms involved in school shootings come from family members.

Along with making it more difficult for the suicidal and homicidal to obtain weapons, “Potential shooting sites can be made less accessible with visible security measures such as metal detectors and police officers,” Peterson and Densley write in a Los Angeles Times column.

Most important, societal institutions and, frankly, family members must get infinitely better at identifying and acting on red flags — and mental health and law enforcement authorities must be empowered to help them.

I feel such common cause with Rep. Cleaver and the burden he feels in his heart today. Yet, we’ve got to be both proactive and exhaustive in fighting violence and mass shootings, and not just focus like a laser on guns.

The biggest danger in the current debate isn’t that we won’t get new gun laws, but that the over-hyped hope for them will cause us to lose sight of what will truly make a difference. The chronic, creeping catastrophe of mass shootings is mostly a human problem, part of an ages-long battle against despair, illness and meaninglessness.

We’ve got to think comprehensively. We’ve got to get this right. Children cannot be allowed to believe that they’ve got to sit facing the door to be safe.

The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.