Opinion

Is there a silver bullet for gun control? Pay attention to red flags

It was Dec. 14, 2012 when horrifying news started pouring in from 15 minutes away from my hometown.

I had recently graduated college and was working for a weekly newspaper near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but was living back home in Brookfield, Conn. 

I was at a work-related lunch when I started getting news alerts that there had been a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, the next town over from my hometown. It became more difficult to sit through the meal because subsequent alerts showed the death toll continuously climbing at Sandy Hook, before it eventually reached 26 people, including 20 young children.  

The mass shooting was shocking and devastating for the area. Newtown, like Brookfield, is a small town, and relatively quiet in terms of anything happening beyond the typical day-to-day goings-on of its residents. 

Soon, it came out that the shooter who had carried out one of the worst school shootings in the country’s history was a 20-year-old named Adam Lanza. He had killed his mother, a gun enthusiast, with one of the guns she kept in her home, before carrying out the school massacre with his mother’s weapons. He then shot himself to death. 

Investigators said Lanza used three of his mother’s guns in the shooting, two handguns and a semiautomatic rifle, which they said were acquired legally and registered. 

What I’m always left to focus on is the access Lanza, who was mentally ill and living at home with his mother, had to those guns. Apparently, he and his mother would often go to shooting ranges together.

Reports later came out that he had been seeing a psychiatrist in Brookfield and had a developmental disorder that left him reserved and withdrawn. 

Further investigation showed that Lanza’s online correspondence with an acquaintance revealed that he had an obsession with mass murder, especially the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that left 12 people dead. He was later described by someone as severely depressed. 

Although his mother, Nancy, legally acquired her guns, I would argue that she shouldn’t have kept them in her home while her son was living there. Perhaps if the weapons weren’t so readily available to him, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to act on his dangerous obsession. 

The tragedy put a focus on gun control, something that we’re still debating today. Unfortunately, Sandy Hook was only the beginning. According to a Vox article, last updated on Aug. 28, there have been 2,197 mass shootings and at least 2,472 people killed since Newtown. 

It’s reached a point where they’re almost a regular occurrence, which puts the focus on how easy it seems to have been for these shooters to acquire those guns. 

There needs to be more stringent background checks before people, especially those suffering from mental illness, can buy guns. 

I don’t want to conflate that statement with the belief that people who have mental illness are more violent than the general population, because I don’t believe that to be the case and statistics don’t support that hypothesis. In fact, statistics show that people with severe mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than the general population. 

But many times, people with uncontrolled and unmedicated severe mental illness cannot control their thoughts or impulses. Imagine someone in the throes of or with a history of psychosis, who has suffered or is currently suffering from command hallucinations at all hours of the day, and then give that person access to a gun. That can only be a formula for disaster. 

It’s simply irresponsible. 

If people struggling mentally aren’t violent toward others, that access could allow them the opportunity to turn the gun on themselves. 

Unfortunately, that was the case with one of my family members, who shot himself to death last winter. He was suffering from depression and chronic pain and took a gun into the woods. By the time police found him, it was too late. 

The current administration would like to place the blame for the frequency of mass shootings on mental illness entirely, but the more pressing problem is the lack of gun control. 

Not all mass shooters are mentally ill, of course, but the common denominator is how all of them were able to get guns, in many cases, military-style, semi-automatic weapons, to carry out the crimes. 

Massachusetts has one of the toughest gun laws in the country, which Gov. Charlie Baker has said should serve as a model for the rest of the nation. Last year, it was strengthened when he signed a “red flag” gun bill into law, which allows a family member, roommate or spouse to ask the court for an “extreme risk prevention order,” which would take firearms away from people for a year if they pose a danger to themselves or others. 

Seventeen states have red flag laws. A recent study, reported by National Review, found 21 cases in which California’s red flag law appears to have headed off threatened mass shootings since it was enacted in 2016. 

The San Jose Mercury News studied three years’ worth of active shooter incidents, involving 75 cases from 2016 to 2018, and found that more than two-thirds of the shooters reported their troubled frame of mind on social media, to friends and family or through signs of mental illness, according to National Review. Those actions could have led to them being disarmed through red flag laws before they could carry out the mass shootings. 

While also trying to prevent access to guns from people suffering from mental illness, there should be a proactive approach beforehand to get them help and into treatment. Schools, including in Lynn, are putting more of a focus on social and emotional learning, which is meant to develop the whole child, rather than just teach them academics. 

Maybe if there had been more of a focus on the social and emotional development of Lanza when he was isolating himself and withdrawing socially during his childhood, the tragedy at Newtown could have been prevented. 

What happened that day can’t be changed and those lives can’t be brought back, but there’s a possibility that future tragedies can be prevented with a more proactive approach of limiting access to weapons and providing more support to those suffering from mental illness. 

 

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