In the Arena

Gun Control: What Really Matters

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MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images

Audience members applaud as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on gun control at the University of Hartford, in Hartford, Conn., April 8, 2013.

I’m worried about what happens if the Congress passes the tepid but worthy background checks measure being debated this week.

It has become Armageddon because of the gun lobby’s intransigence–and the rest of us, the 90% who support background checks, will hail a major victory if it passes. But it won’t be a major victory. It could be, in the end, a significant defeat. This is, after all, a tiny piece of the gun control/violence puzzle. It doesn’t address the presence of semi-assault rifles and 30-bullet magazines. It doesn’t touch guns passed about privately among family and friends and gang members.

And it doesn’t address the most significant piece of the problem: the mental health issue. A few weeks ago court documents were released that recounted the infuriating struggle of Jared Loughner’s parents to control their mentally ill son. They took away his shotgun. They tried to prevent him from going out at night. They knew he was headed for something awful, but there was no way–no legal way–to control him. I know other people, wonderful parents, who live in fear that their mentally ill son, who has acted out violently several times, will be the next shooter. But their son is in his late 20’s and they have no legal way to control him.

It seems to me that the anti-gun crowd–and I am a vehement member of that crowd–is making a terrible mistake by not taking on the civil libertarians as well as the gun nuts. There should be a way that parents have more control over their violently ill children. There should be a ¬†way that people diagnosed as paranoid-schizophrenics can be placed in a secure setting if they act out violently.

There was, in the One-Flew-Over -the-Cuckoo’s-Nest 1970s, a bizarre glorification of the mentally ill among certain elite sectors–it was society that was crazy, not the inmates. The mental institutions were closed. Drugs would control the inmates released into society. This was a monumental act of moral irresponsbility that was compounded by a series of court decisions that gave the violently mentally ill–especially those whose violent episodes were intermittent and ¬†could present themselves as sane in court–the right to control their own lives.

I am not suggesting that we go back to the 1960s. I am suggesting that we tack back toward a less extreme position, where the testimony of parents, teachers and doctors has a greater impact on the control of these extremely dangerous people than it now does. That might have prevented the Tucson and Aurora shootings, although probably not Newtown.

Because here’s what is going to happen: If the background checks bill passes–and there is overweening celebration among the gun control crowd–and two months from now a lunatic kills 25 kids in a schoolyard, the gun lobby will be able to say, “See, we passed gun control and it doesn’t work.”

To be clear: I would vote for this bill in a heartbeat. I would go further and propose a nice, fat cigarette-like tax on bullets. But I am under no illusion that we’re dealing with the heart of this problem, and you shouldn’t be, either.