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St. Joseph News-Press (MO) - 8/6/2012
Perhaps it was inevitable that the Colorado Movie Massacre, or Batman Shootings, would ignite another robust debate over gun control.
Those favoring tight gun control will argue that, had his weapons been more difficult to obtain, impossible even, James Holmes might not have burst into an Aurora, Colo., movie theater where he killed 12 people and wounded 58 more.
National Rifle Association members will counter that Holmes is a flawed individual and his actions are to blame, not the firearms he used. If not guns, Holmes would have chosen other weapons, such as explosives, to inflict a high body count.
Both sides have valid positions and no doubt the debate will rage. But it’s an open question whether spree killings affect how safe the average American feels.
In the short term, more people buy guns. NPR reported last week that gun sales in Colorado may have increased. The number of mandatory background checks performed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation increased 43 percent over the previous week. Gun dealers in other parts of the country say they’ve seen a surge in sales.
But over time, Americans own fewer firearms than they did decades ago. In a recent story called "The Declining Culture of Guns’ that appeared on The American Prospect’s website ( http://prospect.org/ article/declining-culture-guns ), writer John Sides speculated that the gun argument might soon be downgraded to a minor discussion.
Sides quotes numbers by the General Social Survey, a function of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, that show violent crime has steadily declined over the past 40 years, as has gun ownership.
Two GSS highlights that Sides included in his story are:
n In the early 1980s, almost half of Americans ... were "afraid to walk alone at night’ in their own neighborhoods; now only one- third feel this way.
n In the 1970s, about half of the nation said they kept a gun in their home; today only about one-third do. Driving the decline: a dramatic drop in ownership of pistols and shotguns, the weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes.
So, if violent crime has dropped and gun ownership numbers are bottoming out, then why do we have events like Columbine, the massacre at Virginia Tech and the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords? Are there other, more insidious factors at work here?
It remains to be seen if Holmes will pin his defense on mental illness, but most of us believe that a normal person in control of his or her faculties would never commit such an atrocity. The same could be said of Ms. Giffords’ assailant, Jared Loughner, and Seung- Hui Cho, who slaughtered 32 people at Virginia Tech.
Both men were at least "disturbed’ and either were or should have been receiving care. The image of a catatonic Holmes sitting in court, with his freakishly red/orange hair, leads one to believe that he might indeed have issues.
Unfortunately, mental health care is a tough issue. Successful treatment takes time; it’s expensive and an easy target when it comes time to balance the budget. A recent story in the Chicago Sun- Times estimated that states have slashed $1.8 billion in spending for non-Medicaid mental health since 2009. The Sun-Times story also predicted further cuts in the next two years and said only about half of the people who need treatment actually receive it.
In this context, stricter laws intended to keep guns away from crazy people seem about as well-thought-out as plugging a leaky boat with a sponge.
Conversely, delivering treatment and therapy to those in need appears the wiser strategy.