Searching for Answers After Newtown


Following the school shooting horror in Newtown, Conn., our nation shares a heartfelt belief that something must be done.

Polls instantly showed an increase in support for stricter gun control laws. Fifty-one percent of American adults expressed that view in Rasmussen Reports polling.

But there is even more support (81 percent) for taking action on mental health issues. That’s probably because incomprehensible acts are seen as the result of deranged individuals more than anything else.

Balanced against the desire that something must be done was an uncomfortable awareness that solutions are hard to find. As just one example, while there is a desire for less violence in movies, there is little support for giving the government authority to censor movies based upon violent content.

That balance set the stage for President Obama’s press conference earlier this week. He needed to show that something was being done, a need that was met by issuing 23 executive orders.

Most of the executive orders sound like steps in the right direction. The president called for more research, hardly controversial. He tried to make it clear that medical professionals are allowed to notify police of potentially violent patients. Seventy-seven percent of Americans want to go even further and require such disclosure by mental health professionals.

The president’s half-steps also could be seen in his efforts on the mental health front. He wants to provide everyone with more access to mental health care but stopped short of calling for stricter observation of those who are mentally ill. More than seven out of 10 Americans want such observation, and 52 percent believe it can be accomplished without violating the rights of the patients involved.

On the gun control front, the president called for stricter background checks of gun buyers, a position supported by 86 percent of Americans. But he did stop short of calling for laws that would require longer prison sentences if a crime is committed with a gun. Americans support that approach by a 2-to-1 margin.

Then, recognizing the limited impact of his action and the limits of public support, the president said that “to make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act.”

The president and other advocates of strict gun control have sometimes tried to make it sound as if the only thing preventing congressional action is fear of lobbying by the National Rifle Association. Sometimes, the blame gets shifted to the Second Amendment, which guarantees Americans the right to own a gun.

But, in his press conference, the president acknowledged the real problem for advocates of strong gun control measures. “The only way we can change is if the American people demand it.”

That’s not likely to happen in a nation where six out of 10 adults would rather live in a neighborhood where they can own a gun and most would feel safer if their children attended a school with an armed security guard. Seventy-five percent believe it is morally acceptable for Americans to have a gun in their home.

Still, as Congress looks to respond, the nation’s legislators should be mindful of the public desire that something must be done. If they are not willing to go as far as the president wants on gun control, perhaps they should go further in some other areas. They might take stronger action on mental health issues or increase the penalties for crimes committed with a gun.

There are no perfect options, but doing nothing is perfectly wrong.

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