The often-virulent debate over needed protections against gun violence has intensified in recent days in ways that Wayne LaPierre, the over-the-top spokesman for the National Rifle Association, apparently didnt anticipate. Doubtless he figured that even after the heinous murders of 26 people, 20 of them first-graders, in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., he and his organization would do business as usual.
As with other horrible acts of gun-fueled murder, there would be calls for more regulation of high-powered, semiautomatic, heavy-loading weapons. But LaPierre would ride out to shout down those proponents as crazy liberals built on the dismantling of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the one from 1791 that the NRA has long cited as guaranteeing the rights of all Americans to have as many guns as they want. (Actually, in those days it was designed to protect the independence of state militias, not personal arsenals.)
Politicians would begin to cower, and gradually the call for more regulation would fade.
The truth is, even after President Obamas powerful call Wednesday for a ban on assault weapons, a limit on ammunition magazines, broader background checks on purchasers and tougher penalties for those who violate gun regulation laws, that usual political scenario could indeed play out. Congressional Republicans, and some Democrats, are reluctant to buck the gun lobby under the not-exactly-courageous belief that such a fight is more trouble than its worth.
But theres no shortage of courage in Newtown. In the wake of the murders, it seems those who believe its time America had a serious dialogue about gun violence and all its causes and ramifications arent going away. LaPierre, a man who once called federal law officers jack-booted government thugs, a statement that brought an NRA resignation from life member President George H.W. Bush, might have met his match in the parents of Newtown.
Nicole Hockey, mother of little Dylan, one of the children killed at Sandy Hook, said it simply: I do not want to be someone sharing my experience and consoling another parent next time. I do not want there to be a next time.
Hockey is a member of the newly formed Sandy Hook Promise, a group demanding a discussion of all matters related to gun violence and particularly gun violence related to schools. They want to talk about guns, about school safety and about mental health. But they want something to happen.
As one put it, We want the Sandy Hook school shootings to be recalled as the turning point where we brought our community and communities across the nation together and set a real course for change.
A shift in sentiment?
There are signs public opinion may be shifting. In the Triangle, for example, the mayors of Chapel Hill, Durham and Morrisville called for stronger gun-control laws. New Yorks governor and New York Citys mayor are leading an effort to strengthen regulation.
Part of the equation is of course a greater effort to find and treat those with the types of mental illnesses that can manifest themselves in violence. North Carolinas lawmakers have paid lip service to that kind of effort, but it hasnt been backed up with much practical effort. The states reform efforts of more than a decade ago left the mentally ill worse off than they were before that wasteful effort.
Its true that the gun laws on the books are not as well-enforced as they might be, and that needs to change. But its also true that with gun laws varying widely from state to state, the patchwork approach isnt working. Federal law must be clear and strong, and members of Congress should not shy away from ending the availability of assault weapons and magazine clips designed for killing people.
The parents of Newtown have spoken, and so in many ways have their children.