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Voices / Column

High Noon in the OK Corral

It isnt just Arizona thats nuts when it comes to guns in this country

Saxtons River

For the first several days after the assassination attempt against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the ensuing shooting rampage that killed six innocent bystanders, the key question among legislators seemed to be, “Are we safe from similar attacks?”  The media beat to death the question of whether we need to tone down political rhetoric, with plentiful asides about which side was more likely to incite violence.

But where were these two key inquiries:  Isn’t it time to revisit gun laws in this country?  And, how has deinstitutionalization failed the criminally insane, and what are we going to do about it?

* * *

Arizona’s gun laws are among the most liberal in the nation.  It’s absolutely the Wild West out there.  People without criminal records are allowed to carry concealed weapons, and workers can take their guns to work (with the proviso that they be kept locked in their cars).

Hidden guns are permitted in restaurants and bars. Under Gov. Jan Brewer, thanks to an environment condoning even broader potential for disaster, bills have been introduced recently that would allow guns to be carried onto college campuses by both students and professors. It’s High Noon in the O.K. Corral. Don’t like your grade, partner?  Shoot ’em up.

But it isn’t only Arizona that’s nuts when it comes to guns in this country.  Two other states allow concealed weapons to be carried on one’s person.   Only six states and the District of Columbia prohibit gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.  It hardly matters what kind of weapon was used at Virginia Tech when a disturbed student shot several people to death there. 

None of this seems to be enough to get us “up in arms,” if you’ll pardon the expression.  The Brady Bill has no teeth.  According to a recent Gallup poll, only 44 percent of Americans think current laws covering the sale of firearms should be made stricter, even in a post-Columbine, post–Virginia Tech, and now post-Tucson world.  The NRA continues to win the argument.

Heck, even Giffords, who supported gun rights, said last year, “I have a Glock 9 mm weapon, and I’m a pretty good shot.” Judge John Roll, who was killed in the shootings, owned a gun, as did one of the doctors who operated on the representative.  (The Pima Pistol Club in Tucson is a popular place.)

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) is the first to approach the issue of gun control after the Arizona shootings, albeit gingerly, in Congress.  She wants to push legislation that would prohibit high-capacity magazines.  Working with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), she’s “trying to come up with something reasonable that has a chance to go somewhere,” her spokesman said.

Too little, too late, I’d say.  Possibly pathetic.

As for what deinstitutionalization of the seriously mentally ill and insane has wrought, there aren’t enough column inches.  Back in the ’70s, when ending involuntary incarceration and offering humane community-based services was in vogue, the idea had a lot of appeal, at least to liberals.

The problem was (grossly simplified), states never adequately funded community clinics or mental health services, which no one particularly wanted in their neighborhoods anyway; psychotropic medication trumped long-term care, and before you could say “criminally insane,” the streets were full of deranged, dangerous individuals for whom one felt compassion while trying not to consider what might be coming down the pike if these poor souls weren’t cared for properly.

* * *

Now, it seems, is the perfect and necessary time to revisit these two questions:  When are we going to join the world’s civilized nations in legislating strict gun control laws, and what are we going to do about criminally insane individuals who live at risk of hearing voices telling them to go out and shoot innocent people for whatever reason?

These are not rhetorical questions. They are real and pressing.  The safety of every one of us, including those privileged to work on Capital Hill, resides not in guards and gated communities.  It rests with sensible and enforced laws aimed at keeping lethal weapons out of the hands of anyone who would use them for ill.

So, too, our safety depends on taking care of the most ill among us, lest they roam the streets in a state of frenzied fantasy that can all too easily result in a slaughter of the innocents.

Did we ask the right questions after the tragic events in Tucson?  Probably not. But we can ask them now. 

We must ask them now, for the sake of a 9-year-old girl with such promise, a young man about to be married, and an older man who died saving his wife’s life.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #88 (Wednesday, February 16, 2011).

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