Armed with two semiautomatic pistols and an AR-15 assault rifle, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school on the morning of December 14, where he massacred 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself. All of the young victims were ages 6 or 7; some of their bodies were riddled with as many as 11 bullets.
It was a crime scene so horrific that it left a grizzled police veteran at a loss for words. "I'm not going to lie to you," Connecticut State Police lieutenant J. Paul Vance told a press conference three days later. The emerging details of the carnage, Vance said, are still "too difficult to discuss."
But there is a discussion that can't be avoided and that must not be delayed.
The Newtown massacre is only the latest in a string of mass shootings that highlights the tragic nexus between America's gun culture and our woeful lack of services for the mentally ill. And while gun-rights advocates express outrage at the hint of politicizing such tragedies, our continued failure to do so is proving ever more deadly.
Crazy plus guns equals death. The equation is obvious. And so are some of the solutions: tougher gun laws, better mental health services, and a decades-long public education campaign that should aim at changing Americans' attitudes toward guns.
Now is the time to force the issue. Now is the time to call your state legislators and tell them to force the issue by voting for gun control in the session that starts in January. (Find your legislators at leg.wa.gov.) Now is the time to get involved with Washington CeaseFire (washingtonceasefire.org). Now is the time to talk to your neighbors and friends about doing something to change a culture that likes to wring its hands but do little else about tragedies like this.
It won't be easy. Fierce opposition from the powerful gun lobby has bullied political opponents into silence. Here in Washington State, with some of the weakest gun laws in the nation, we can't even bring ourselves to close the infamous "gun show loophole," an absurd exemption through which guns may be purchased from private individuals without a background check or waiting period. This was the same loophole that Radcliffe Haughton exploited in October when he violated a court order by purchasing a handgun the day before shooting seven women at a suburban Wisconsin day spa, killing three including his wife.
It could have happened here.
In fact, mass shootings have happened here, most recently the shooting at Cafe Racer in May that killed five and wounded one. They will continue to happen—here and elsewhere—unless we speak out and demand change from our elected officials and from ourselves, while at the same time standing up to the powerful opposition.
And it will happen—again, here and elsewhere—unless we speak out and demand change from our elected officials and from ourselves, while at the same time standing up to the powerful opposition.
The opposition is just plain crazy.
How crazy is the opposition?
Within hours of the December 14 shooting, conservative Christians like Mike Huckabee declared the tragedy a result of "systematically remov[ing] God from our schools."
Maybe the nice folks at the Washington State Rifle and Pistol Association—the official state affiliate of the National Rifle Association—have more serious ideas for keeping our schoolchildren and public spaces safe?
Duane Hatch, the group's vice president, insisted that "there is no gun show loophole" in Washington State (wrong) and that it is "physically not possible" to prevent gunmen from walking into schools and shooting children (also wrong).
Meanwhile, the group's legislative chairman, Joe Waldron, had this to say:
"The bottom line is, in almost every instance when a mass shooting like this occurs, it occurs in an area where guns are prohibited. This creates an environment where people can't protect themselves. When you have a psychopath deciding that he wants to make some type of a statement, historically those are the places they choose—places where guns are prohibited."
Really, Mr. Waldron? So are you suggesting that the schoolteachers in Washington State should be armed to prevent a Newtown-style massacre from happening here?
"Not necessarily," he replied. "But current state laws prohibit them from being armed, and I'm questioning whether that's the best policy. If guns were as evil as people claim they are, you'd hear about mass shootings at gun shows. Never happens. Police stations. Again, never happens. These things only happen when these nutcases are able to go someplace knowing that they're perfectly safe to do what they want to do."
Um... How about this easy one, Mr. Waldron: Do you think some guns are more dangerous than others?
So how, exactly, Mr. Waldron, do we prevent more mass shootings from taking place?
"Part of the problem, I think, is that by the time a person reaches 18 in the US, he's seen one million people killed, usually unlawfully, on TV and in movies [and] video games... I think we're seeing the results of a failure to enact reasonable restrictions on them at age levels, at the very least."
So what's your solution?
"I'll say this: Given the 250 million guns in circulation in the US, it's amazing how infrequently this happens."
Mr. Waldron's brand of amazement—obviously—is not a solution.
The people who are making sense are powerless.
Unfortunately, the people willing to speak the truth on this issue don't have the power to fix it.
Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, for example, is telling the truth when he says the Washington State Legislature is putting our state's children at risk by refusing to pass meaningful gun control legislation.
But, as McGinn noted in a press conference at Seattle Police headquarters on December 14, he can't personally change the state's gun laws. The city's attempt to ban guns in parks was recently struck down by the state supreme court. He needs the legislature to act—needs it to close the gun show loophole, pass an assault weapons ban, and stop preempting cities like Seattle from banning guns in community centers and other public venues.
State senator (and mayoral candidate) Ed Murray, who agrees that "we need gun control," is also telling the truth when he says another part of the problem is that there's simply not enough support for gun control in Olympia. "We can't even find enough Democrats to support it," Murray says.
So McGinn can promise to keep the pressure on. And Seattle City Council member (and potential mayoral candidate) Bruce Harrell can promise to talk about all this in his public safety committee (which doesn't have any control over state gun laws). And Council Member (and declared mayoral candidate) Tim Burgess can introduce a council amendment about lobbying the legislature more forcefully on gun control. And Murray, who actually does have a vote in the legislature, can keep on saying, "We need gun control." But none of it matters because, as Washington CeaseFire director Beth Flynn points out, when it comes to gun control, in the overall picture in Olympia, "there's no support for it."
Her group has tried and failed to get the gun show loophole closed too many times already, Flynn says, and always finds itself "outgunned by the NRA—no pun intended."
So this year, her group is pushing for legislation that would simply increase the penalties for underage possession of a firearm. Right now in Washington State, according to Flynn, if someone under the age of 18 is found to be in possession of a firearm (which is illegal), that person essentially gets five chances—that is, four more times to be caught with a firearm—before the threat of time in juvenile detention comes into play.
With the support of King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg, as well as support from state senator Adam Kline (D-37) and state representative Christopher Hurst (D-31), Flynn's group will be pushing in the legislative session that begins in January to change the law "from a slap on the wrist until you're caught for the fifth time to 15 weeks in juvenile detention for the second time you're caught."
"We're choosing to focus on that," Flynn says. Because, based on past experience, that's the only thing that seems maybe—maybe—politically possible.
Olympia is fucking gutless.
Thanks to senate majority leader Rodney Tom and his so-called "bipartisan" coalition coup, the senate Law and Justice Committee—the committee through which gun control legislation must pass—is now firmly in the National Rifle Association–endorsed hands of Senator Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) and his "A+" NRA rating.
Which means any hope of getting gun control legislation through committee is now as dead as... well... you finish that bloody metaphor for yourself.
There's also the conventional wisdom that gun control is the electoral kiss of death with swing district voters. And since the Democratic leadership doesn't believe it can win a meaningful vote on gun control given this reality, they don't believe it's worth spending the political capital even trying.
Hence, apart from the shouts of a handful of liberal Dems in very safe districts, you aren't likely going to see any real Democratic leadership on this issue.
Judging by the initial reaction to the Newtown shootings, these epidemics are likely to remain untreated. "Today is not the day" to engage in a policy debate over gun control, White House press secretary Jay Carney cautioned in the immediate wake of the tragedy, a sentiment echoed a short time later by Governor-elect Jay Inslee, who timidly proclaimed that "today is a day for mourning."
Such silence may be smart politics if you're focused on winning the next election. But it's a silence that will fill our streets, homes, and schools with more and more guns.
So what should Olympia actually do?
State senator Adam Kline says that given the power of the NRA, and the lack of an equally strong gun-control organization on the other side, state legislators need the people behind them on this.
"There has to be the political cover of popular support for our side," Kline says.
Another force that could help: the state's prosecutors.
"They could stand up to the NRA," Kline says.
He'll be proposing a bill this year that would allow prosecutors to charge parents with "criminal negligence" if their guns get into their kids' hands and are used in a crime. Prosecutors actually support the idea, and because of that, Kline thinks it has a better-than-usual chance of passing.
"We may also take a good look at the assault weapons ban again," Kline says. "It's not gonna win. It possibly wouldn't even get out of the judiciary committee. But it has to be done."
Same with closing the gun show loophole.
Has enough changed since the shootings in Newtown for any of this to actually get through the legislature and onto the governor's desk?
"I don't know that," Kline says. "But how do you find that out unless you try?"
And, like Kline says, the answer will be determined largely by how many people—average citizens, taking their responsibility as citizens seriously—show up in Olympia and defend legislators like Kline as they try to do something to keep the state's children safe, not just from guns, but also from the gun-crazed forces that make these weapons far too easy to get.
Additional reporting by Chelsea Kellogg.