This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.
So spoke President Barack Obama in his eloquent remarks at a memorial service Sunday evening for the 26 victims of Friday’s shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
America asks a lot of its presidents. It is a dreadfully hard thing to do to serve as mourner-in-chief for an entire nation, but presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have carried it off with wisdom and grace. Mr. Obama has had more practice than most; as he noted Sunday night, the Newtown service was the fourth time he has spoken at a memorial for victims of mass shootings.
It won’t be the last time, barring a miracle. There are too many things wrong in this society, from the way it cares for its mentally ill to the violence it passes off as entertainment to the casual way it enforces its gun laws. You put it all together and you get Newtown.
We ask our presidents to “do something,” and surely this is a fair thing to ask, so long as we understand not to expect too much. As vast as the powers are that have been granted to U.S. chief executives, they aren’t vast enough to fix a problem like too many troubled people in a nation that has roughly one gun for each of its 310 million citizens.
But there are things a president can do, assuming he will summon the experts he needs to promote data-driven policy, and assuming he can harness the national will to persuade Congress to act.
The nation must understand that in the near term, reducing these incidents is the best it can hope for. Making them go away entirely is too big a hill to climb.
But the first step is obvious: Mr. Obama should create a National Commission on Gun Violence.
We suggest that in the full knowledge that presidential commissions have a spotty record. Sometimes the reports are stuffed away on a shelf, having served no other purpose than to deflect attention.
The Warren Commission’s report into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 was exhaustive. Not everyone agreed with its conclusions, but the nation was at least assured that the tragedy had been fully and independently vetted at the highest levels. The Kerner Commission on race-related violence in 1967 did not solve underlying issues, but it made the nation aware of the scope of the problem and continues to help guide urban policy. The verdict is still out on the success of the Simpson-Bowles Commission on the national deficit, but that’s a matter of political will. The commission got the issues right.
The issue of gun violence in the United States — not just mass shootings, but the day-in, day-out carnage on America’s streets — is every bit as important as those issues. And every bit as complicated, too.
In the first horrible hours after Friday’s reports from Newtown, there were reflexive calls to do something, anything. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pledged to call for reinstatement of the ban of assault-style weapons that was in place between 1994 and 2004. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., called for a congressional investigation into the tragedy in his home state. A congressional inquiry would have less impact than a presidential commission, and Mr. Lieberman’s Senate career has but 13 days to run.
As to renewing the assault weapons ban, we’re all for it, as long as it’s understood it won’t solve the larger problem. The Bushmaster .223 used by 20-year-old Adam Lanza is a semiautomatic assault-style rifle that, depending on its features, could have qualified for the ban, were it still in place.
But Lanza also was armed with two semiautomatic handguns and a shotgun that were owned by his mother, Nancy Lanza. He shot her to death before taking on the first-graders and their adult teachers and caregivers, and then shot himself to death as police quickly moved in. In all of this are elements of the complicated stew of problems a national commission should address.
The 300 million weapons at large in this country are owned by a smaller percentage of people than ever before. The number of guns is up, but the number of gun owners is down. Gun violence, overall, is down, but the number of mass killings (four or more random victims) reached a dozen this year.
One of five gun owners own two or more; they usually are responsible citizens, sportsmen or hobbyists and/or those who feel more secure with a weapon around.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that gun ownership is an individual right, but has said states may enforce reasonable restrictions on their ownership.
A national commission should look at what restrictions might be reasonable. Permits are mandatory when guns are bought at gun shops, but 40 percent of guns are bought and sold, without permits, at gun shows or in private transactions. Three in four gun owners favor such restrictions, according to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, and even 60 percent of National Rifle Association members.
Should there be special restrictions on owners of multiple weapons? On owners of high-capacity magazines?
Perhaps that wouldn’t be particularly effective. Not every shooter in these incidents has used assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines. What is the relationship of these popular accessories to gun violence?
In well over half of the mass shootings, the attacker had a history of mental health issues. Should background checks include mental health screenings? Surely the nation should make mental health treatment more widely available. But often shooters have acquired the guns from someone else, as with the Lanza case.
There are questions here that can be answered.
What is the role of the mass media in all of this? Obviously the publicity attached to mass killings cannot be avoided, but it may well be that such incidents are contagious for troubled minds. It is a question that should be examined.
So is the glorification of gun violence in movies, TV and video games. Studies here are conclusive, and there are First Amendment issues at stake, but the questions deserve a full and complete airing by a national commission.
A national commission can and should focus the spotlight on those who profit from America’s gun culture. Here we’re thinking not just of gun dealers and manufacturers, but video game, movie and television producers. And we’re thinking of the gun lobby itself, which prospers by promoting fears of reasonable gun laws.
Mr. Obama should make the National Commission on Gun Violence inclusive. Its membership should include leading citizens from all sides of the issue. The goal would be to develop data, not anecdotes, to let facts replace fear.
Surely the commission won’t answer all the questions or end all the killings. What if it kept just one crazy man from getting a gun?
Copyright The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.