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Andrea Jaeger places flowers and a candle at a makeshift memorial outside a firehouse which was used as a staging area for families following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 15, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.
The question is, how are you going to curtail these sorts incidents without affecting a lot of innocent citizens' rights to defend themselves? —USU professor Tony Peacock

SALT LAKE CITY — Living in a free society means living with risk. But public policy solutions to prevent events such as the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school Friday, where 20 children and six faculty members adult were killed, can be elusive, experts say.

"The question is, how are you going to curtail these sorts incidents without affecting a lot of innocent citizens' rights to defend themselves?" said Utah State University political science professor Tony Peacock, who specializes in constitutional law.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said steps could be taken to enhance security but they would restrict freedom of movement.

"We could make the grocery store or school the most secure place around. We could build a wall around it and use magnetometers, very similar to getting on an airplane. But would we want to go there?"

W. Clark Aposhian, a tactical firearms instructor and gun rights lobbyist, said it is important not to rush into changes in law or policy that would result in creating a false sense of enhanced safety and security in the wake of Friday's shooting.

"We need to remember this is the exception to the rule regarding firearm owners and users. It's a huge exception to the rule. This was one shooter of the 200 million guns out there. This one was used, obviously, illegally," Aposhian said.

President Barack Obama, who visited Newton on Sunday, put the issue of gun control and personal safety in front of the nation during his emotional remarks hours after the tragedy: "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics," he said.

People should have — and need to have — a reasonable expectation they can safely participate in their daily life, whether shopping at a mall or sending their children to school, said Barry Rose, crisis services manager for University Health Care's University Neuropsychiatric Institute.

"Can we feel safe? I think we have to. The intensity of it will dissipate. Plus everyone is in a crisis frame of mind. This kind of thing can be overwhelming."

Society's influences

Part of the challenge of maintaining that perspective is the immediate and widespread access to reports about mass-casualty incidents, whether round-the-clock television coverage, websites operated by news organizations or social media.

"These things are so dramatic and intense. Everyone feels it almost immediately all over the world. It's a whole different environment these days," he said.

Burbank said the scale of the Newtown, Conn. school shooting and the fact that most of the victims were young children sets the incident apart from other mass casualty events. The lone gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, shot and killed his mother at her home, then drove to the elementary school where he killed 26 people before turning a gun on himself. Lanza, who was clad in black military gear and bullet-proof vest, reportedly attended the school as a child.

The incident is simply tragic, Burbank said, but Americans must realize as impactful as this incident itself is, the incidence of "gun violence in this country is alarmingly high" on a regular basis.

Some major cities deal with homicides nearly every day, Burbank said. In aggregate, those victims far outnumber people killed in high-profile incidents.

"We need to stand up as a society and say we're not going to tolerate this anymore," he said.

Steve Gunn, who serves on Utah's Gun Violence Prevention Center's board of directors, said part of the problem is that entertainment, even the frequent news reports about gun violence, "have deadened our sensibility about violence.

"Combining that with the proliferation of very lethal firearms has led to the state where we are now. Almost weekly, we're hearing about some new massacre," Gunn said.

National conversation

Some in the gun rights lobby criticize people who believe these incidents should be the starting point for community conversations about the ease of accessing firearms, and the availability of certain types of firearms and their access by people struggling with undiagnosed, untreated or poorly treated mental illness, said Burbank.

"No one should be assailed for saying we should have a discussion. That's just as bad taking away your right to own a firearm," he said.

Burbank said police chiefs are particularly concerned about people with mental illness obtaining weapons, although he acknowledges it is difficult to know where to draw the line in restricting access.

To further complicate matters, public resources to assist people struggling with mental illness have become scarce as local governments have tightened their belts during the economic downturn, he said.

National and state lawmakers lack the political will to rein in the proliferation of firearms or curb gun rights, Gunn said.

"To what extent any legislation can prevent a tragedy like this, who can say?" he said.

But Gunn questions the rationale for the need for self-loading weapons for people who say they need them for self protection. These weapons are often used in mass-casualty events, he said.

"I can't see any reason how society is benefitted by allowing individuals to carry and own such firearms," Gunn said.

Aposhian said the Connecticut tragedy highlights the difference between Utah's and Connecticut's concealed carry laws. Permitholders can carry concealed firearms into Utah public schools. Connecticut does not allow the practice.

"In Utah, we can carry guns into schools for this very reason," Aposhian said of the mass shooting. "The only reason we should be able to carry in schools is we're serious about protecting our families, the children in a school and the staff. I bet law enforcement showed up extremely quick yet 27 people died."

Society needs to focus on the state of mind and personal history of the shooter, Aposhian said. Lanza was wearing black military gear and bullet proof vest.

"I think we're going to find in the days to come that there were some tell-tale signals and that family, friends and co-workers knew this kid was definitely off," he said. 

Peacock said such incidents stir debates about competing liberties in a free society, including whether there should be more restrictive laws with respect to gun ownership or if existing gun laws enhance safety.

"Arguably, these sorts of incidents are going to exist no matter how many protections there are. There's no way in a free society to prevent these acts of unmitigated evil. That's just the reality of living in a free society," Peacock said.

But the country should take inventory of the societal forces that can enable such events to occur, he said.

"The problem isn't guns in the culture, it's a culture that creates dysfunctional youth that can commit such horrific acts. There's no other word but evil for what they do."