There were two primary reactions to the Newtown shootings of a year ago.
The first was universal sorrow for the 20 first-graders killed in a blaze of gunfire, the six adults who died defending them and the families that were emotionally wounded in a way that will never quite heal.
The second reaction was a mad rush to buy guns. In Wake County, for instance, the first month after the Dec. 14 massacre saw handgun permit requests soar to 7,320, compared with 2,587 the previous January.
The surge reflected an expectation that tougher gun laws would be inevitable after such a tragedy. But that fear underestimated the strength of the gun lobby. Despite polls showing an overwhelming majority of voters supported a U.S. Senate bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, a minority of senators managed to block the legislation.
In North Carolina, lawmakers actually eased gun laws to allow handguns in parks, bars and restaurants. Indeed, of the 109 new gun laws adopted across the nation since Newtown, nearly two-thirds of the new laws ease restrictions and expand the rights of gun owners, The New York Times reported last week. In Colorado, a state that has seen two of the most horrific mass shootings and another school shooting last week, legislative leaders who managed to pass tougher gun laws were either recalled or driven to resign by the backlash.
A minority obsessed
As a nation, we come to this first anniversary of Newtown with renewed sorrow and deepening resignation. Nothing, not 20 murdered first-graders, not an outraged president, not a majority of the U.S Senate, can shake the dominance of a minority obsessed with having wide and easy access to guns. And so the carnage goes on. In the year since Newtown, USA Today reports that nine mass killings have occurred involving five or more victims, all but one involving firearms exclusively. Every year, gun violence kills more than 31,000 people and wounds more than 78,000.
Those who wanted Newtown to be the beginning of change owe those dead more than resignation and acceptance of the gun death toll as an inevitable consequence of the Second Amendment mixed with violence and mental illness. Congress has failed in tightening gun control but some states did make advances. Those changes can be tested and improved upon and perhaps one day expanded to other states.
The reality about guns is that the Constitution whether intentionally or not does confer a right to bear arms. And most Americans favor the right to own a gun over a ban on gun ownership.
Working the middle
The solution lies not in one sides victory over the other, but in carefully working on aspects of guns and gun ownership on which most Americans agree. That generally would involve deeper background checks for gun purchases, tougher penalties for people who fail to secure their guns, controls on types and volume of ammunition and greater efforts to promote awareness of gun hazards.
A report issued last week by the American Psychological Association looked at the problems of gun violence in the wake of Newtown. The report said the best approach to gun violence is to treat it like other pervasive and chronic health threats such as smoking or drunken driving, both of which have been sharply reduced by broad education, restrictions and penalties. The report also suggests wider adoption of behavior threat assessments in schools and workplaces.
What policies or laws, if any, would have stopped Adam Lanza from shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School we do not know. But those who died there have moved many to seek ways to reduce the allure of guns and the violence of video games and movies while making it harder for the angry and the unstable to become armed.