12/21/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

What About Armed Social Workers?

Today's NRA press conference in response to the Newtown, Conn. school shooting was as bizarre as it was outrageous. The only breath of fresh air was when Medea Benjamin of Code Pink interrupted the proceedings with an anti-NRA sign, chanting that "the NRA has blood on its hands!" Her protest resulted in a photo on the front page of the Washington Post web site, along with appearances in other media outlets. Medea's action was particularly welcome since it was the only sign of opposition to what NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and his cohorts had to say -- the NRA refused to take questions from the press.

Outrageous as it was, the NRA's call for a "school shield program" that would put an armed security guard in every school in America was consistent with the view of the group's leadership that there is no problem that can't be solved by putting more guns in the hands of the "good guys." This of course ignores the fact that the policies the NRA supports make it easier for everyone to get a gun, not just the anointed "good guys." Or that it's not always that clear who the "good guys" are. Or that even "good guys" can misfire, mishandle, or poorly store their weapons in ways that lead to deaths and injuries.

And by the way, how will all of this be paid for? It appeared that LaPierre was suggesting that most of it could be done by -- wait for this -- volunteers! But no worries, the volunteers would get training from the NRA.

Putting aside the ill-considered "school shield" initiative, which would be laughable but for the fact that it sounds like the NRA may actually move ahead with it, there was one particularly interesting section of the LaPierre speech: his criticism of the federal government for failing to create "an active national database of the mentally ill." This runs contrary to the NRA's general opposition to the heavy hand of government. But if it takes the focus away from the role of ready access to guns in tragedies like Newtown, apparently the NRA thinks its worth calling for. But if we're going to talk about data bases, as LaPierre suggests, why not a comprehensive national data base that covers anyone who shouldn't have a gun, including felons or perpetrators of domestic abuse? And why not use that data base to do effective background checks on any prospective gun buyer from any source, including the roughly 40 percent of sales that come through unlicensed dealers at gun shows and elsewhere?

There is a version of such a system already, but as reported in today's New York Times --- drawing on research by Mayors Against Illegal Guns -- "significant gaps in the F.B.I.'s database of criminal and mental health records allow thousands of people to buy firearms every year who should be barred from doing so." If we're going to have the "active national data base" that LaPierre appears to support, let's fix the existing system -- as legislation sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the "Fix Gun Checks Act" would do. As long as we're going to talk about data bases, why not this one?

Although not fully developed in LaPierre's speech, an ironic feature of the unfolding debate is the suggestion by some conservatives that the problem is too complex to be solved with gun control measures. What we really need, they suggest, are policies to address issues like mental illness. We certainly do need such policies -- in their own right, not just as a way to prevent gun violence. So let's call their bluff -- if it's not about guns, as the gun lobby suggests, let's ask the lobby's allies in Congress to support a comprehensive overhaul and expansion of our system for providing a full range of mental health services to everyone who needs them. I would welcome their support, as long as they don't ask us to arm psychologists and social workers as part of the bargain.