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Point Austin: Making Sense of Newtown

A year later, small steps toward changing the gun violence paradigm

By Michael King, Fri., Dec. 20, 2013

"Our pain should not be wasted." – Michele Gay, mother of a murdered Sandy Hook student, in the Cape Cod Times

It seems morbidly appropriate that another school shooting took place just a day before the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 26 people in New­town, Conn. The Arapahoe High School shooting in Centennial, Colo., last Friday bluntly served to remind us that concerning restrictions on gun ownership, not much has changed in a year. The next day, gun control advocates (Moms Demand Action, Texas Gun Sense) rallied across the country (including at Austin's City Hall), rang bells to recall those who died in Newtown, and vowed to keep up the fight for reasonable restrictions on guns.

Their long-term goals are not grandiose, though in the current political context they might well seem unattainable: 1) background checks for gun and ammunition purchases; 2) banning assault-type weapons and large-volume magazines; 3) tracking multiple gun and ammo sales and banning online sales; 4) improving gun product-safety and child-proofing; 5) promoting gun safety; and 6) combating the gun lobby's efforts to weaken gun laws.

As I've written here before, if all gun production and sales stopped tomorrow, it wouldn't put a dent in the millions of guns already in wide circulation. Yet on the most pressing gun issue – keeping guns away from criminals and the mentally ill – even gun enthusiasts say they are supportive. That support flounders whenever there's an actual, specific proposal in play. The gun lobby yells "slippery slope," demands Second Amend­ment absolutism, and threatens election campaigns – rendering such proposals DOA.

Small Victories

Nevertheless, not all the news is bad. You'll be surprised to learn that in the 2013 session, the Texas Legislature enacted a gun control measure. SB 1189, sponsored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, enables a law enforcement officer to seize a firearm possessed by a person taken into custody because of mental illness and judged to be a danger to himself or others. I know what you're thinking: You mean to tell me, before SB 1189, a law enforcement officer couldn't seize a weapon possessed by a crazy person? Not unless he or she had used it first, bucko. Can't be too careful about that slippery slope. And the new law makes certain that once this mentally ill person returns to his senses, officials must take the necessary steps to return that firearm.

Until the next time somebody calls 911.

Several similar laws were passed across the country this year, most addressing gun possession by the mentally ill; meanwhile, politicians in Texas and elsewhere continue to push for guns, including open carry, everywhere and always. We're a long way from addressing our national culture of guns-always-at-the-ready.

Necessary Knowledge

Marking the somber anniversary, New­town's First Selectman Pat Llodra suggested, "Maybe this tragedy can serve as a reminder for all families to set aside a few minutes to talk together about the importance of compassionate acts – that those acts become the glue that binds us together in our humanity." It's a useful reminder, especially on the eve of the Christmas holiday. Particularly with young perpetrators, when it's not always clear precisely why they take violent actions, the smallest moments of communication or compassion can potentially derail violent or self-destructive impulses. While we're trying to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill, it's worth remembering that emotional and impulsive young people are also not ideal candidates for weaponry.

That reality is reemphasized by the results of Slate magazine's yearlong project to track every death by gun. Working with volunteer spotters of news reports, Slate's researchers grew increasingly puzzled because their accumulating totals appeared much lower – by more than half – than the annual gun-death statistics issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gathered from actual death certificates. Senior editor Dan Kois reported last week, "Suicides, it turns out, are this project's enormous blind spot."

Suicides are not systematically reported by local media – indeed, wrote Kois, they "are mostly invisible. And the fact is that suicides make up 60 percent or more of all deaths by gun in America." It's no coincidence that, in a culture generally drowning in guns, gun mythology, and gun sensationalism, young people and others suffering from clinical depression or other mental crises should find guns handy and efficient at abruptly ending their pain.

Kois adds a couple of pieces of good news, at least on the information front. By executive order, President Barack Obama has directed the CDC to resume research on firearms, which had been effectively prohibited by Congress. And Slate's gun deaths project is about to be assumed and expanded by the newly established Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit funded by Michael Klein, who plans to incorporate official statistics on all forms of gun violence: "Once the integrity of what we're doing is evident," Klein told Kois, "I hope we'll get buy-in from police departments and city governments to share their reports in a timely manner."

Newtown resident Monte Frank wrote recently in the Guardian, "Newtown is no longer just a place, but a movement." If that movement is to succeed over the long term, accurate information about the causes and effects of gun violence is fundamental and irreplaceable.

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