Mental Illness, Guns, Sandy Hook and an Uncomfortable Truth

Government's primary responsibility is the protection of the citizens it represents through collective defense. This is true of government at every level. Government is meant to protect us from enemies that we can not possibly be expected to individually protect ourselves against.

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut showed in vivid detail how limited any government is in being able to fulfill its obligation to protect its citizens.

A mentally ill 20-year-old male killed his mother with guns that she legally purchased and owned. After killing her, he stole her semi-automatic weapons, several high capacity clips and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. He broke into the school, executed the principal and school psychologist in cold blood before entering a 1st grade classroom where he killed nearly everyone in it, including 20 children who were 7 years old or younger.

Thanks to quick thinking and a rapid response from local authorities, police moved in quickly and the shooter took his own life before killing any more people in the school.

In the aftermath of another deadly mass shooting at the hands of a mentally ill person, people are again asking questions about what local, state or federal government officials could have or should have done to protect those children, teachers and administrators. They were all American citizens who expected their government to protect them from this kind of horror.

The mass shootings of this year all have two things in common: they involved mentally ill people and high capacity, semi-automatic firearms.

So government officials have two issues that must be addressed simultaneously: mental illness and guns.

Depression, anxiety and learning disabilities affect every group of people in every country around the world. Our society is still learning how to look for signs of mental illness that could lead to violent outbursts. Our health services and schools are not very good at identifying people in need of help and then providing them resources to manage their ailment.

There are tens of thousands of our fellow American citizens who struggle with mental illness. The constitution and all the laws that protect our liberty apply to them as much as they do to those without psychiatric conditions. We can not simply strip away all their freedoms, place them under the custody of the state and then lock them away from society forever.

We have to rely on the families and friends of the ill to protect them, sometimes from themselves. They are the only ones who know how much suffering their loved ones are enduring because they spend so much time with them. Schools, police, churches and neighbors can often help identify people in the community who are sick; but, only a family or a close associate can take any real action to help. We then have to rely on medical professionals to make accurate diagnoses, prescribe appropriate treatments and monitor the progress of their patients.

It sounds too simple. We feel like government should be able to do more. However, people who end up being extremely violent often drop out of the society and have few, if any, friends or close family. By design, they make themselves nearly impossible to identify and keep an extremely low profile until they are ready to carry out an act of violence.

Before engaging in the conversation about 2nd amendment gun rights in America, we have to embrace the cold reality that there is little any government can do about the criminally insane before they become outwardly violent.

If you embrace that reality, the conversation about gun rights becomes even more complex.

Since the invention of the modern rifle, governments have placed various prohibitions on civilian use. It is widely accepted that automatic weapons should be outlawed from civilian use because they are exclusively weapons of mass warfare that have little defensive purpose outside a declared war zone. In fact, machine guns and Uzis are primarily offensive weapons used to attack a position.  They could be used defensively in the event of an invasion by large numbers of heavily armed troops, but this event is highly unlikely in civilian life.

The question before us for the past several years is whether or not semi-automatic firearms and high capacity cartridges fall into a similar category. Do such weapons have a reasonable civilian purpose outside of a declared warzone where the possibility of large troop invasions are possible?

There is a simple answer and we all know it. No.

The United States allows semi-automatic weapons to be legally available to civilians because they are perceived as necessary for home self-defense and are not substantially more dangerous than most single action firearms.

Any gun enthusiast will tell you how much they enjoy firing off semi-automatic handguns and rifles at a shooting range. However, even the most avid gun collector will tell you that they don't need it for home defense. They are more than capable of protecting their family with a single action firearm. Pump action, lever action, bolt action, etc.

A well trained marksman will be just as effective with a pump action shotgun as he will be with a semi-automatic assault rifle like the one used in Sandy Hook Elementary. However, most mentally deranged criminals are not well trained marksmen.

As for large cartridges (clips), is there any self defense or home defense argument against limiting the number of bullets a civilian firearm cartridge can hold? Holding 20 - 50 bullets in a clip increases the odds of a weapon jamming and who needs to unload 20 bullets without reloading for home defense? A trained marksmen will have no problem reloading his weapon if necessary. A deranged psychopath will probably struggle, giving his victims a chance to escape, stop him or even kill him if they are also armed.

I am not arguing in favor of a new assault weapons ban, I am simply trying to make you feel better about it because it will be law soon.

The consciousness of the nation will seek a scapegoat for the horror in Connecticut and semi-automatic rifles and larger capacity clips will be it. Democrats will easily demonize any Republican who tries to stand against the law and many voters will see politicians who oppose such a ban as "taking the side of the baby killer." This will be the government's way of trying to fulfill it's responsibility to protect its citizens.

The vast majority of legally owned guns in the country are not semi-automatic rifles and thus most Americans will be unaffected by the renewed ban.

Guns are a part of our national experience. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Many generations have passed with gun ownership as a fundamental part of everyday life even though the percentage of us with guns has slowly declined. Lone criminals, street gangs and organized traffickers will not be stopped by a new law when they already circumvent existing ones. Many citizens will continue to keep low caliber, low capacity pistols and higher capacity shotguns in their homes and on their person for self defense.

Sadly, new restrictions will not end tragedies like the ones we have witnessed this year because there is little that the government can do to protect us and our families from deranged, lone wolf gunmen. Government's are nearly powerless in those situations. The threatened individuals are the only ones who can make a difference as some teachers at Sandy Hook did. If someone in that school had been armed, perhaps the madman would have been stopped sooner before he took innocent lives.

A new assault weapons ban will accomplish very little in government's quest to protect its citizens. As a result, each citizen will have to make a choice:

In a nation and a world full of guns, do you feel the need to arm yourself for personal safety? Do you feel safer with a weapon other than a firearm? Do you feel safest with no weapons at all?

It is your choice and each person will answer differently. We are Americans and each of us should be free to decide for ourselves what means of self-defense, if any, we wish to use.

Regardless of which route you choose, one haunting fact remains: government can not always protect you even though it seeks to do so.

You are responsible for preserving your own individual life. How do you want to best protect it?

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