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Tim Steller's column: Snap out of numbness to gun massacres

Texas School Shooting

Crime scene tape surrounds Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing at least 19 fourth-graders and their two teachers.

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It's tempting to succumb to numbness.

Years of absorbing the massacres of our country's children — or the ordinary shootings of our fellow Americans — and doing nothing about it produces in me a narcotic stupor.  Maybe in you, too. 

We've seen this before, we've felt the shock, we've wept for the victims and the families, we've screamed at the state of our country, and we've moved on. As a survival mechanism, we've learned to sedate ourselves against the justified fear and rage that comes welling up.

Maybe this time, let's not. 

We don't need to plumb the depths of our national pathology anymore to measure the dimensions of the problem, to puzzle out the causes or dream up solutions. We've done that all before, and still the problem is getting worse.

Gun deaths have been rising as a cause of death among American children since 2013, the year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. But in the last three years, from 2019 forward, the shooting deaths of children have really spiked, the New England Journal of Medicine reports.

Gunfire surpassed car crashes as the top cause of death for children in the United States in 2020.

Children are perpetrators as well as victims. At least 14 teens were arrested for murders committed in Tucson last year. The most recent one arrested, 17-year-old Fabian Kristyan Montiel, was accused of shooting to death a 70-year-old homeless woman, Linda Mendibles, along the I-10 Frontage Road, possibly as she slept. 

So we know the problem is both chronic and getting worse.

And now, the desperate efforts to blame anything but our easy access to guns are falling apart, too. 

It is guns

People have said we need to "harden" school security, but this failed in Uvalde yesterday. A school security officer exchanged gunshots with the killer, who wounded him and made it inside the school. Police also fired at the armed teen before he'd committed his massacre, but he fired back, warded them off, and made it into a classroom.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and even the mayor of Uvalde, Don McLaughlin, have tried desperately to steer the conversation in the aftermath toward mental health problems. We do, of course, have serious mental health problems in the United States, especially after the pandemic, but we're not too different from any other country in that sense. 

We're the only country where these mental health problems regularly turn into gun massacres, especially by teens and young men. 

Reckless and mentally ill teens are nothing new, of course. Impulsivity and the onset of mental illness occur naturally in teens. But their free access to firearms is, if not new, growing in our state and country. And when you combine impulsivity with guns, and maybe even throw in mental illness, it can be a deadly combination. 

There is no reason a kid should be able to buy a semi-automatic rifle like an AR-15 as soon as he turns 18, as the killer in Uvalde, Texas, did this month and as the killer in Buffalo did earlier this year. A California law establishing a higher age limit has been challenged in the courts, but it seems obvious that if we regulate teens' purchases of alcohol, we should regulate their purchases of guns. 

At minimum, we could put more training requirements or other checks on teens' purchases. 

Making it harder to buy guns won't eliminate teen killers, of course, but any obstacle might work in a given case. And of course, we know that the free access we offer now doesn't work. 

Red-flag proposals

Of course young people don't make up the majority of our killers or victims — just a distressingly large proportion. 

For others who are disturbed, armed and potentially violent, so-called "red-flag laws" fill a need. These are court orders that allow police to remove a person's guns when the person is a threat to himself or others.

In Arizona, we flirted with the idea in 2018 and 2019. Gov. Doug Ducey's office analyzed school shootings in 2018 and came back with a raft of proposals for school and gun safety

Among them was what he called Severe Threat Orders of Protection, or STOP Orders, Ducey's version of a red-flag law. The proposal passed the Arizona Senate but failed in the House due to opposition from the gun lobby and the governor's own GOP. Ducey said Wednesday it's worth another try.

This year, House Democrats have introduced at least 13 bills related to regulating firearms, including a STOP Orders bills. Most of them were introduced by Rep. Jen Longdon, who was injured in a shooting and uses a wheelchair, and none have passed. 

More popular and widely known than either of these ideas are proposals for universal background checks. As it stands, licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks before making a sale, but other sellers at gun shows and elsewhere don't have to. 

The U.S. House has passed bills requiring background checks and other regulations, but the Senate has not followed suit.

In fact, Arizona's senators presented an eyebrow raising contrast when asked about what the body could do following this latest massacre.

"It's f---ing nuts to do nothing about this," Sen. Mark Kelly said. 

But Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was cautious, saying  "I don’t think the D.C. solutions are helpful here, but there are things that we can do, right? There’s some shared agreement on red flag which I think might be a good place to start conversations to actually get something done for real that would make a difference to people."

Majority rules

These things are only unrealistic if we allow ourselves to remain paralyzed by the awful repetition of our recent history.

It's true that a strong minority of Americans oppose some of these relatively modest ideas, as does a powerful special interest with a lot of money. But the majority must eventually prevail, if we keep pushing, to pass reforms that help reduce the death toll and also respect constitutional rights.

As former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia put it in the landmark 2008 Heller decision: "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."

We, of course, have significant laws that we should be enforcing now. Too often the killers are found to have given our authorities reason to stop them before they went on a rampage.

But we also need new tools to lessen the carnage.

So let's snap out of the stupor and get this done. 

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or ​520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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