In a rare display of emotion, President Obama wept on Friday as he spoke of the tragic loss of 20 school children in yet another senseless mass shooting, this time at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, just days before Christmas. Twenty girls and boys, only six and 7-years-old, will never grow up, graduate, marry or have children of their own because another disturbed individual had too-easy access to a weapon of mass destruction. On Sunday night, our president addressed the nation from the auditorium of Newtown High School, and he spoke eloquently of the loss and grief suffered by the people of Newtown, and America. He was speaking as the so-called "comforter-in-chief," but it was also clear that he was speaking as a father of two young daughters, Sasha and Malia.
Before Friday, Newtown would have to have been considered as safe a place to live as one could imagine in our country, a small New England town with 27,000 residents founded in 1711. It was that image of peaceful living that likely attracted the family of Ana Marquez-Greene, who had arrived in Newtown from Canada only two months earlier, seeking a safer environment for their little girl. She died on Friday at Sandy Hook with her new classmates, along with six of the teachers and school administrators whose lives were devoted to their education and well-being, and who died as heroes trying to save the children in their care from a madman.
The killer was aged 20, and he carried with him an assault rifle and two handguns, with magazines filled with enough ammunition to have killed nearly everyone in that school of 670 students. He used guns registered to his mother, who we can only assume was one of those "responsible gun owners" the NRA and gun lobby are always lauding. He shot his way into the school and murdered children and teachers in two classrooms, and was only stopped from more carnage because of the heroic actions of teachers Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau and AnneMarie Murphy; teacher's aide Rachel D'Avino; principal Dawn Hochsprung; school psychologist Mary Sherlach -- all of whom died that day -- and so many other teachers and staff who used their training to protect the other children in the school, as well as the police who responded quickly to the 911 calls.
Two days later, the president came to Newtown to offer support and condolences to the families and town. He held the granddaughter of principal Hochsprung in his arms ever so tightly, as if embracing and comforting one of his own daughters, and he met with the father of Emilie Parker, a man who had spoken so eloquently on Saturday about his daughter, while also finding it in his heart to express his condolences for the family of the shooter. An overflowing audience welcomed the commander-in-chief to the interfaith ceremony Sunday night; he was needed, and he, in turn, felt the need to be there as well, his usual cool demeanor and aloofness absent during his remarks.
Among the dead was the killer's mother -- his first victim before he went to the school -- as well as the killer himself. His mother had trained him to shoot at a young age, and owned two high-powered handguns and a semiautomatic assault rifle. She clearly knew that something was going terribly wrong with her son, telling friends that she had lost the ability to reach him in the last two months of their lives and that he was intentionally hurting himself. Though she said she was seeking help for her son, it clearly was not enough, and the fact that such destructive weapons were made available for him to use makes this tragedy so much worse.
How many times will this story be played out? We have seen it before in the assassinations of presidents and public figures like John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. We saw it in the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, which left his Press Secretary James Brady permanently disabled and gave birth to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Sarah and Jim Brady's mission over the past 30 years to end the carnage.
But it has not ended. Throughout the '80s and '90s there were mass shootings in post offices and mail sorting facilities, which became so commonplace that they gave birth to the slang term "going postal." There was Waco and Ruby Ridge, where madmen made war with our government in defense of their own delusional world views. Then, in 1999, there was Columbine, the first major school shooting in the U.S., also carried out by angry young men with assault weapons. Since then, the shootings have become more horrific and frequent -- a parking lot in Tucson, Arizona; a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; an immigrant center in Binghamton, New York; a place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; college classrooms in Blacksburg, Virginia and DeKalb, Illinois; shopping malls in Happy Valley, Oregon and Omaha, Nebraska; and now, Newtown.
In 1993, a maniac with a handgun rampaged through a car on the Long Island Railroad, killing six people, including Dennis McCarthy, while wounding 19 others, including Mr. McCarthy's son, Kevin. Carolyn McCarthy, Dennis' widow and Kevin's mother, would later be elected to Congress with the mission to put a stop to these senseless killings. She now joins Mayor Bloomberg and his organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns, as well as Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Dianne Feinstein, to write legislation and to see that the dialogue on serious gun control begins in Washington and remedies are created. The issues are very complicated, especially since they have been ignored for decades due to the influence of a once-powerful NRA, which Bloomberg feels has been overstated. The NRA has even taken down its Facebook page since the massacre at Sandy Hook. Clearly they are in hiding.
The president has said he will take on the NRA, and the American people must have his back on this one. The conversation must also include identifying these disturbed young people -- each of whom seem to share at least some common traits -- to give them the help they need while they can still be saved. Cutting community mental health services and funding does not help deal with this issue and is counterproductive. That 34 people die from guns each and every day in this country is simply too high a cost to pay, and far outweighs whatever "savings" might come from cutting off people -- especially young people -- from the help they need.
As we look to close loopholes and create gun laws that can be effectively enforced, we must also open up an extensive dialogue with social scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists to better understand the causes of this aberrational behavior and violence among our troubled youth. We must train teachers to identify students in need of help, who can then be referred to professionals in mental health agencies in the community for counseling. Creating a greater awareness on the part of parents would also go a long way in heading off disasters in the making. And the resources must be made available -- in schools and the community -- to care for our children's mental health. This is one public service that cannot be skimped on any longer.
And, yes, we must reinstate the ban on the sale of assault weapons to civilians, and we must ban high-capacity magazines for guns.
We cannot turn our backs on the victims of gun violence any longer.
-- with Jonathan Stone (NHS '86)