In the wake of tragedy: Gun control debated after Sandy Hook school shooting

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 file photo, parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where Adam Lanza fatally shot 27 people, including 20 children. (Associated Press) In this Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 file photo, parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where Adam Lanza fatally shot 27 people, including 20 children. (Associated Press)

Gun control and mental illness have been at the center of the debate following the Connecticut school shooting. Read more about the ongoing discussions regarding mental illness.

The murder of 20 elementary school students in Connecticut at the hands of gunman Adam Lanza has sparked a national cry for a new look at gun control laws, with suggestions ranging from reinstating the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, to addressing magazine capacity.

"This one feels different," Jon Vernick of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research told CNN. "Maybe because of the timing, maybe because of the victims, 20 young children. Maybe it's because we have a president who has been re-elected who is not going to be running again. That doesn't mean those political obstacles aren't still there, but it does feel different."

According to Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, an assault weapon may have flash suppressors, bayonet mounts, folding stocks, and use high-capacity magazines. Semi-automatic weapons require someone to pull the trigger for each shot, which differs from both automatic weapons like machine guns and single shot weapons, which require the user to reload, cock or pump the new load each time a shot is taken. A magazine completely surrounds the bullets and uses a spring to inject the bullet into the gun. Most semi-automatic weapons use magazines.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has already announced that she planned to introduce a bill that would place a ban on assault weapons, and that she hoped "the nation will really help."

"We're crafting this one. It's being done with care. It'll be ready on the first day," Feinstein told CNN. "It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession. Not retroactively, but prospectively. It will ban the same for big clips, drums or strips of more than 10 bullets."

"We need to accept the reality that we are not doing enough to protect our citizens," Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said from the Senate floor Monday. "In the coming days and weeks, we will engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow violence to grow."

On Monday, President Barack Obama also began a push toward collecting proposals for curbing gun violence, The Washington Post reported. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the effort, and will be joined by White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, Biden's chief counsel Cynthia C. Hogan and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.

At Sunday's memorial service, Obama said he intends to talk with law enforcement officials, mental health experts, educators and others to come up with proposals to reduce gun violence, and the White House later suggested the proposals will probably include ideas to address mental illness and violence depicted in popular culture.

"Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?" Obama asked Sunday. "If we're honest with ourselves, the answer's no. We're not doing enough, and we will have to change."

During Tuesday's "Morning Joe," Joe Scarborough said that any defense of the type of weapons used in the shooting are "nonsense," and called on Republicans to support gun control in order to avoid being seen as the party of Glocks, Bushmasters, combat-style military weapons and rapid-fire magazine clips.

Whatever side of the gun debate individuals fall on, any gun control suggestions must be approached pragmatically in order to achieve meaningful action, a trio of Atlantic writers recently suggested in three different articles.

A debate on guns can only begin and be productive in a country as pro-gun as the U.S. if people on both sides of the issue understand the disagreements at the center of the debate, Conor Friedersdorf cautioned on Monday.

"So far, too many newly vocal reformers are operating under the conceit that if only American 'finally' had a conversation about gun violence, everyone would immediately see the wisdom of the position reformers have advocated all along," Friedersdorf wrote. "One need only to reflect on the state of public opinion after decades of debating the issue to conclude that the conversational outcome many reformers presume isn't at all certain."

In terms of gun control specifics, Jeffrey Goldberg suggested making it more difficult for the criminally minded, the dangerously mentally ill and the suicidal to buy guns and ammunition. He also suggested closing the gun show loophole, installing longer waiting periods, encouraging or mandating mental health professionals to report patients they think shouldn't own guns to the background check system and restricting drum-style magazines.

"Conservative gun-rights advocates should acknowledge that if more states had stringent universal background checks — or if a federal law put these in place — more guns would be kept out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally unstable. They should also acknowledge that requiring background checks on buyers at gun shows would not represent a threat to the Constitution," Goldberg wrote. "Anti-gun advocates, meanwhile, should acknowledge that gun control legislation is not the only answer to gun violence. Responsible gun ownership is also an answer. An enormous number of Americans believe this to be the case, and gun control advocates do themselves no favors when they demonize gun owners, and advocates of armed self-defense, as backwoods barbarians."

A gun control law that would actually work should focus on magazine capacity in pistols, Robert Wright argued Monday, rather than the assault weapons "red herring," which is ineffective due to the lack of a clear and simple definition of an assault weapon and "incoherent regulation."

Although Wright's proposal — to make it illegal to sell or posses a firearm that can hold more than six bullets — would "make lots of current guns illegal" and would face strong resistance, he suggested that it provides a real answer to the dilemma of reducing the scale of mass killings while preserving the right of Americans to use firearms for legitimate purposes.

Newsweek's Megan McArdle wrote that while changes made to current gun laws may help cut down on gun crimes, the steps necessary to absolutely prevent a copycat school shooting tragedy are "impractical and unconstitutional."

"As soon as Newtown happened, people reached into a mental basket already full of 'ways to stop school shootings' and pulled out a few of their favorite items. They did not stop to find out whether those causes had actually obtained in this case," McArdle said. "It is easy and satisfying to be for 'gun control' in the aspect, but we cannot pass gun control in the abstract."

While McArdle said she is in favor of "reasonable gun control" that in some ways goes farther than current rules, generic solutions like a ban on extended-capacity magazines and required background checks for private sales would not have stopped Newtown.

The extreme solutions on the table would be preventing the media from mentioning the names of the killers in order to prevent copycats, institutionalizing more of the mentally ill or banning all guns in private hands, McArdle said, but these solutions are all "so wildly unconstitutional as to be hardly worth discussing."

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