In times of crisis or shock, overreaction is hard-wired. A political spasm, an upwelling of sentiment, is followed by amnesia. A few public memories, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are forever. The horror and scale impress on lives and pass along to future generations. That is the case of the Newtown massacre. Too many murdered children.
The salient lesson from 9/11 was, in all things, judgment. The Patriot Act passed by Congress was freighted with a number of ill-considered measures, including “sneak and peek” searches and warrantless surveillance. The Iraq war was lit on a false premise. The touchstones for federal action after Newtown will be what works and who benefits.
On Wednesday, President Obama announced an interagency task force to curtail gun violence. The one-month timeline to issue its recommendations would be worrisome if policymakers didn’t already know what needs to be done. They do. Gun violence, unlike pre-9/11 mass terrorism, has been over-studied. The answer settles on a comprehensive strategy: additional resources for mental-health services, gun control, and a broader community-centered focus on education and violence prevention.
After the task force publishes its report, Congress will cherry-pick what is politically palatable. Many in the political class will speed dial the NRA to be told how to vote. They push that button unwisely, blind to America’s sea change on gun violence. Northwest politicians, from the venerable Tom Foley to Idaho’s Frank Church, were NRA stalwarts. But this will be no ordinary vote, just as Newtown was no ordinary evil.
Congress, with the recent support and leadership of Everett Rep. Rick Larsen, should quickly prohibit the sale of high-capacity ammo magazines and reinstate the assault-weapons ban. Congress should also end the gun-sale loophole and require background checks for all firearms transactions. More resources for mental health, targeting teens and young adults in particular, are vital.
Guns are clearly part of the mosaic. So is ammo. Lawmakers might revisit an idea floated by the late U.S. Sen. Pat Moynihan that high taxes be placed on certain categories of bullets. “It is time the Federal Government began taxing handgun ammunition used in crime out of existence,” Moynihan said.
Sensible gun control is not a panacea, nor is it an overreaction. Judgment is tempered by the immutability of human nature. The mission is to curb mass shootings, however much bloodletting is embedded in human DNA.
Gun violence braids the narrative of the American West. But 26 dead children and teachers turn America’s culture of violence into something different, something abominable. Now, not in six months or a year, is the time for meaningful action.