If we can’t agree about violent video games, or Hollywood’s negative influence, or whether any of this is the president’s fault, can we at least agree that it should be harder for mentally ill people to purchase semi-automatic weapons?
Well, not yet we can’t, unfortunately.
The question arises after another series of American-made mass shootings. On Aug. 3, a 21-year-old killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Early the next morning, a 24-year-old killed nine people, including his own sister, in Dayton, Ohio.
The shootings occurred only days after Drew Grant, 33, died in a traffic accident near Cave City July 27. Grant had changed his name – he was born Andrew Golden – apparently hoping to escape his past. He could not.
At the Westside Middle School near Jonesboro on March 24, 1998, Golden, then 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, pulled a fire alarm and then hid in the woods like snipers while the students and teachers gathered on the playground. Then they murdered fellow students Paige Herring, Stephanie Johnson, Brittney Varner and Natalie Brooks, and teacher Shannon Wright.
Westside’s was the second deadliest public school shooting at the time. Aside from directly killing five people, Golden and Johnson set an example for copycat mass killers to follow. Thirteen months later, Columbine happened.
The Westside tragedy helped kill our sense of security as well. Schools no longer seem as safe. Across Arkansas, school districts are spending millions of dollars to harden themselves, somehow without becoming prisons. Salaries are being paid to security personnel instead of teachers. Teachers and other staff members are practicing defending their schools.
So now do we harden Walmarts, too? Or train cashiers, the few that remain anyway, to stop store shooters?
The day of the shooting in Dayton, attendees at a vigil for the victims shouted at Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to “do something.” But doing something isn’t exactly our strong point in American politics these days.
We all know none of this would be happening if parents would do their jobs and if all of us would follow Jesus’ command to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. But since those things can’t be legislated, we must at least talk about guns.
Which is really hard, because the Constitution has this important but awkwardly written amendment that includes the words “shall not be infringed” but also inserts a phrase about a “well regulated militia” in a way that different people can read totally differently. Meanwhile, a segment of the population is passionate about guns and votes overwhelmingly in Republican Party primaries.
So the policy is hard, and so is the politics. But then, America sometimes succeeds in doing hard things.
President Trump said Wednesday there is “a great appetite” for background checks for gun sales, which according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll are supported by more than 90% of voters.
Meanwhile, some in Congress favor “red flag” laws that allow concerned family members to petition courts to temporarily restrict gun rights for their mentally ill loved ones. Trump favors that as well. Sen. Tom Cotton has indicated he is open to them.
Some states have passed such laws. Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters as late as Wednesday that he would be open to them, though he hasn’t seen anything specific he could support. A red flag bill sponsored by Democrats went nowhere in this year’s state legislative session, and Hutchinson doesn’t plan to propose anything at this time.
Unfortunately, a red flag law wouldn’t have stopped Golden and Johnson, who committed their crimes while of sound mind using family members’ legally purchased weapons. No one could have imagined they would do what they did. Thank goodness they didn’t have AK-47s.
Still, public opinion is reaching a tipping point on this issue. These public massacres aren’t happening anywhere else in the Western world, despite those countries having broken families and violent video games, too.
It took less than a decade to put men on the moon after President Kennedy said we should do it. Westside happened more than 21 years ago. Can we figure out how to balance public safety and individual rights so these mass shootings happen less often – or even better, never?
It would be hard, but it’s long past time to try.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.