The Sandy Hook Murders, and Their Lessons: A Three-Part Legislative Agenda to Protect Us from Future Deranged Mass Murderers

Posted in: Constitutional Law

Here is why we elect legislators: to solve America’s problems.  That’s right. They are in Congress and the state legislatures not to raise money, to have photo ops, and to get re-elected—all of which they spend scads of time doing—but to lead the way to a better United States.  We are facing horrible fiscal problems, and even more horrific mass shootings by the mentally deranged, and the members of every legislature in this country, state or federal, should understand that they had better fix these problems or be judged severely for failing to do so.

That judgment will not be measured solely by whether they are re-elected.  It will also—and more importantly—be a measure of whether they were any good at their job, or, maybe, whether they were any good, period.

There has been a persistent buzz behind the fiscal cliff negotiations from the people of the United States, and if you listen carefully, you can hear the message: “Hey, Washington, just solve the problem.”  And there is a new element in these difficult times.  It is not that the people are simply demanding a bipartisan solution, where each political party gets its druthers, followed by self-serving press conferences with each side claiming they won.

The people are demanding a non-partisan solution.  To put it bluntly, the legislators need to put the people first, make some compromises, and stop their stupid, self-absorbed posturing.

That was the public’s mood when Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday, and killed 20 angels and 6 adults, who died protecting the children.  Only a few days later, we are now in the midst of a debate in which the political slogans provide no answers, and lobbyists look even more self-dealing than usual.  Again, it is necessary to fix the system, not merely to indulge in the familiar political tripe.

Apparently, though, United States Senators did not get the memo, given that not a single one—not one—of those who receive high rankings from the National Rifle Association (NRA) had the decency or guts to go on the Sunday morning news programs to talk about gun control following Lanza’s massacre of the innocents.  Every show host noted how hard it was to find anyone to talk about gun control on this weekend, of all weekends.

As the days wear on, and the funerals sadly march forward, Members of Congress are starting to make noises on the Sandy Hook tragedy that echo the welcome sounds of Republicans breaking free from their mindless allegiance to Grover Norquist in the fiscal cliff negotiations.  The NRA may not own Washington, or at least the Republicans, after all!  Our elected representatives may be accountable to us first, just as they ought to be.

The key to the discussion following Lanza’s attack, though, is that this is a debate about gun control and about those with mental diseases, not just about gun control alone.  The NRA has been mentioned on one media outlet after another, but that group is not the only faction that created the conditions for the unthinkable to happen. I will discuss both elements of the necessary discourse below.

The Easy Part:  Enact Gun Control Laws, as There Is No Constitutional Right to Weapons of Mass Destruction

First, let’s get the constitutional discussion off the table.  There is no absolute right in the United States Constitution except the absolute right to believe what you choose, and the right set forth in the Second Amendment is no different than the others: It too, may be subject to exceptions in the interest of the public good.  Guns, in particular can be regulated in the interest of protecting the public.  And if the NRA or anyone else says otherwise, they are kidding you, and hoping you fall for it.  Now, regulating guns down to zero would, indeed violate the Second Amendment, but that is not where this debate needs to start.  Pistols kept locked-up in one’s house for self-defense, and hunting rifles are not the weapons of choice for our current generation of deranged mass murderers.

Here, the gun-control part of the debate again hearkens back to the fiscal cliff debate.  In the cliff discussions, the options are so obvious: raise taxes, and reduce or delay entitlements.  Let’s break that down into its component parts: the government must bring in more income or do less spending.  It is embarrassingly basic.  What needs to be done here, with respect to the issue of guns, is equally obvious, even if our timid politicians quake in the face of the terrifying politics:  Assault weapons and large clips of ammunition do not belong in the hands of ordinary citizens.  They are for making war by trained members of the military against our enemies, period.  There is no right to have your own nuclear war button or deadly toxin, and, on the same score, there is no right for any individual in the United States to be walking around with an assault weapon and a clip that can shoot 100 rounds.

The Harder Part:  Where to Draw the Line on Dealing With the Emotionally Disabled Who Have the Capacity to Harm Others

After centuries of inhumane treatment of the disabled, disabilities-rights advocates and organizations have worked for decades to ensure that the disabled—physically, emotionally, and mentally—are treated with dignity, and have succeeded in ending the cruel commitment procedures of the past.  They should be applauded for that. When we removed the awful mental institutions, though, we did not replace them with a better system for those who are emotionally or mentally disabled.

Many of these reforms were necessary and beneficial, but the balance has tipped too far. Following Lanza’s attack, there was an outpouring on the Web of accounts from families with emotionally and mentally disturbed children who live with the fear that their child could have done the same thing.  There was also some backlash against those families for speaking out.  That is the debate we must have, because the current system is not working.

The disabilities-rights movement—when combined with the health system’s pressure to treat as many illnesses as possible at home to reduce costs—has left families that include a severely disturbed individual with little recourse other than to cautiously watch their troubled loved ones.  Like the mother who could relate to Adam Lanza’s mother’s situation, and who wrote the blog post, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” they fear their emotionally disabled children, but have nowhereto turn, and, therefore, feel trapped.  It is telling that Lanza’s real mother told Adam’s babysitter, when Adam was a child, never to turn his back on him.

We have to find ways to better treat and house those whom their own families fear.  It won’t prevent every one of these mass attacks, but it can certainly help.  Current civil-commitment statutes are typically so restrictive that even when everyone knows that a particular child or family member needs to be taken out of the house, and out of community, for everyone’s safety, little still can be done.  We must replace the inhumane institutions of old, which were rightly feared, with enlightened, treatment-centered destinations for the emotionally and mentally disabled.  But we must also abandon the Pollyanna-ish notion that the needs of the disabled should always outweigh the needs of those around them.

The Really Easy Part:  The Law Must Forbid Parents’ Arming Their Emotionally Disturbed Children, and/or Teaching Them to Shoot 

Each mass murder tragedy has its own distinctive features, and in the case of the Sandy Hook Elementary devastation, it is painfully clear that one of the victims was also a cause of the tragedy—his mother.  As hard as it is to believe, Nancy Lanza taught her troubled son how to shoot, and apparently made her many guns available to him.  If doing that is not already a crime in every single state in the Union, it should be.  The parent who trains and arms someone like Adam Lanza is no different than the parent who arms an irrational and angry adolescent.

Given the facts as we now know them, Lanza’s mother was an accomplice to the 26 deaths at Sandy Hill Elementary School.  I don’t know what she was thinking when she introduced her deeply mentally ill son to guns, but I don’t really care, either, because there can be no justification for her actions.  They were straight-out murderous.

Posted in: Constitutional Law