Archived Story

Address causes, not symptoms

Published 9:47am Friday, December 21, 2012

When an impaired driver gets into a wreck, after-crash discussion never focuses on the car’s powerful engine. Why should it? If the driver was drunk or ill, details about the vehicle don’t really matter, and anyone who uses the crash to campaign for a law to require lower-powered cars will be laughed out of the room. It was, after all, the driver’s fault, not the cars.

Those who have already noticed that the preceding paragraph is an analogy for the gun control debate that occupies so much of the news this week may also suspect they are reading a column about gun rights. They’d be wrong.

This is, rather, a column about the need to address causes rather than symptom.

It was inevitable that last week’s horrible school shooting incident would fuel new calls for gun control and that those demands would, in turn, cause others to suggest that the problem isn’t too many guns but too few.

Just about every politician and public figure in the country has weighed in on one side or the other now, dragging politics into what should be a time of mourning. But beyond politicizing children’s deaths, those who are debating gun control now have also steered the national conversation in a completely unproductive direction.

Because the issue is not really guns, any more than the issue in a drunk-driving accident is the car’s tires or engine. And just as the root issue is not guns, it is also not school security.

Americans love their safety. We’ve done more than any other culture in the world to ensure that we’re cushioned against danger — or, more accurately, to feel like we’re protected. Real security is incredibly expensive and incredibly inconvenient. So even when security is in place in principle, as it was at the school where last week’s horrible episode took place, there are many holes. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that even if kids can be kept safe inside a locked, brick building during school hours, there are many other times and places where they are vulnerable.

As a society, we can spend nearly infinite time and money on school security and accomplish no more than making ourselves feel safe.

Guns are in a similar category because what the hard-core gun supporters always say is, unfortunately, true: Laws take guns out of the hands of the law-abiding, but don’t stop criminals who, by definition, don’t mind breaking the law. And people who are intent on killing or injuring others will find ways to do it whether or not they have an assault rifle or, indeed, any gun.

That analysis is coming from a place of neutrality: I don’t own a gun, but I don’t mind if my neighbors or friends do. It’s a matter of personal choice.

It is understandable, however, that the talk is about guns at this time. Gun control is easy to write about and lends itself to lost of quick and easy television graphics. Gun control is easy to make speeches and promises about if you’re a politician. So those who control the public agenda love the topic.

But most importantly, gun control and security are much easier to talk about than the real issue: What is it that would cause a young man to go on a killing spree?

Issues of mental health — and we have to agree that anyone, regardless of his or her other issues, who goes on a killing spree is having some mental health problems — are a foggy area that Americans have long been uncomfortable confronting.

There is a thick and hard-to-penetrate curtain of prejudice and fear surrounding mental health issues of all kinds, from mild seasonal depression that most people ignore, to major issues that leave people only loosely connected to reality.

What was going on in the Connecticut shooter’s head is never going to be clear, and most people don’t even want to think about it.

But focusing on peripheral issues like guns and security is never going to resolve the real problem, whether that is inadequate funding for mental health services, prejudices and ignorance about mental health, or pure distaste for the topic.

We can talk about guns all day, but until we look hard for the real answer, tragedies will keep on occurring.

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