What can anyone say? We could discuss the difficulty of dealing with mental illness when patients have been turned out of facilities or forego treatment because of budget cuts or a refusal of a family (or an individual) to admit that there is a problem. Perhaps we could expand on that subject, bemoaning the continued (and wrong-minded) stigma / shame / denial of mental illness — and why it is so hard for average people to get (and afford) help when it is needed for themselves or a family member.
We could talk about evil. Or hate. Or anger. Or fear. Or we could ask this: What can we do today that might offer at least a small note of solace?
We are not powerless, but finding answers and potential solutions will be difficult and drawn out. “Normal,” sane people do not commit mass murders. Restricting their access to firearms will do little or nothing to prevent future incidents like that we saw last week. As with most past gun-control efforts, such proposals punish the law-abiding without doing anything to protect them.
Rather, the common denominator in the wave of mass killings has been mental illness. We obviously need to update firearms laws as they pertain to those with mental illness, but even that is not as easily said as done.
For example, a mentally ill person can still legally obtain a gun in this country as long as he has never been formally committed to a mental institution or found by a court to be insane or incompetent. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, current laws prohibit those who have recovered from mild mental illness and are leading healthy lives from ever owning a gun. As the Wall Street Journal noted on Monday, “A single involuntary commitment for a severe eating disorder at age 20 will preclude a person from possessing a hunting rifle for the rest of his life.”
In addition, we cannot delay asking why mental illness so often goes untreated or “under-treated” and why these elements came together to so brutally attack an entire town’s hopes for the future.
It has been clear for years that the 1980s-era push to “mainstream” those with severe mental illness, rather than institutionalize and treat them (a push driven by both budgetary and misplaced humanitarian reasoning), was a mistake. As a result, our streets and jails are full of people who are dangers to themselves and those around them.
Another possibility is stronger laws requiring gun owners (especially those who have young children and/or mentally ill family members, i.e., Adam Lanza’s mother) to store their firearms securely when not in actual use.
IN THE DEPTHS OF DESPAIR at what happened in a place similar to most parts of Cherokee County — in which most people felt relatively safe — we must find a way to keep the conversation civil and ongoing. For if we don’t do this now, inevitably we will have yet another tragedy to rage against, to report, to regret.
As the families of Newtown begin to bury their dead — the children and the adults who performed so bravely to protect them — we can be conscious of their sorrow, even in the midst of being lost in our own gratitude that our children are safe — at least for today.
In the coming days, as they continue the agonizing task of learning to cope with such loss, we can’t simply say it must never happen again. We must find common ground to work harder than we ever have before to make sure it doesn’t.