Ben Boychuk and Pia Lopez

Head to Head: What is proper response to gun massacres?

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 15A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:05 pm

The Issue: Last week's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., elicited an outpouring of political responses, notably calls for stronger gun control. On Sunday, President Barack Obama said any solution would be hard. "We're not doing enough, and we will have to change," he told victims' families. "We can't tolerate this anymore."

Ben Boychuk: Less media and a mental health system that actually functions

My 81-year-old father called Saturday morning. "This Connecticut shooting is all over the TV," he lamented. "I want to cry. I want to throw up. I don't know what I want to do." Naturally, he worried about his two grandchildren. What if … ?

No, no. Don't let that infect your thinking. It's no way to live.

"Why don't you turn off the darned television?" I replied (though I might not have said "darned").

He did. So should you.

Crimes like the one in Newtown defy ready-made policy solutions. But the mass media, consumed by the need to fill 24 hours of airtime seven days a week, offer remarkably little insight into these events. They make things worse.

Does anyone really think sticking a camera in a child's face moments after he's witnessed an unspeakable horror enhances the sum of human knowledge about spree killings even a little bit? Of course not!

If the exploitation of children's shock and parents' grief weren't bad enough, most of the early reports were inaccurate. First two shooters, then one. What was the killer's name? Not only did the press identify the wrong man, CNN broadcast the wrong man's Facebook profile to millions of viewers.

Wasn't it just this summer that ABC News misidentified the man who killed 12 people and wounded 50 others in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater? Reporter Brian Ross said the shooter might be a local tea party member. That turned out to be bogus, too.

I'm a great believer in the "right to know," but the media have a responsibility to not overplay these events. Easier said than done, I know; not like passing another law or banning an evil-looking object.

But incessant coverage isn't helpful, especially when the rush to be first with information leads to so many errors and falsehoods.

Suppose media organizations voluntarily agreed to refrain from publicizing the names of these shooters, denying them and potential copycats the infamy they seek? There is precedent. Many newspapers will not report certain crimes, or omit the names of street gangs in their coverage, for precisely that reason.

We may also need to make it easier for parents and authorities to commit mentally ill people for psychiatric treatment. That's a tougher one since we don't have the facilities and would need to spend money to build them. It's unclear whether more liberal commitment laws would have helped last week.

But America's mental health system is a disaster, with the nation's largest county jails doubling as psychiatric hospitals. Any policy reform will be expensive and imperfect, but no less necessary because of it.

Pia Lopez: Enact reasonable regulation, reject games that celebrate bloodshed

As a nation we need to confront some clear trends:

• Easy access to weapons of war

The school shootings in Connecticut, the rampage at an Oregon shopping mall on Dec. 11, the slaughter at a Wisconsin temple in August, the massacre at a Colorado movie theater in July and the bloodbath in Arizona last January have something in common. All involved weapons that allowed the shooter to fire a number of bullets without reloading.

We can address this in a way that does not impinge on use of guns for personal protection or hunting. To that end, revive the 1994-2004 law banning the sale, transfer and manufacture of assault weapons as well as large ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Congress also should close the "gun-show loophole" by requiring all gun sellers to conduct background checks on buyers.

• Popularity of violent video games

Let's stop deluding ourselves that interactive games where players are rewarded for making choices such as dismembering, decapitating, torturing or raping a human being – with blood spurting and victims screaming – are no different from reading "Lord of the Flies" or watching a "Road Runner" cartoon. Obviously, most gamers don't act on violent fantasies. But these games, whether we participate in them or not, reflect and shape a culture that increasingly glorifies and trivializes violence. It is up to us to take on this coarsening of our culture.

• Changes in gun culture

The number of U.S. households and individuals that own a gun is on the decline. But remaining gun owners have more firearms.

Gun ownership peaked in 1977, when more than half (54 percent) of U.S. households had a gun. By 2010, that had declined to less than a third (32 percent), according to the National Opinion Research Center.

But the number of firearms per 100 people continues to grow – from 55 guns for every 100 people in 1970 to 89 guns in 2010, the highest rate in the world.

Increasingly, we have a gun subculture that the mentally vulnerable pick up on – with mother and son in Connecticut as Exhibit A. All of us have to recognize that gun ownership is a huge 24/7 responsibility, not a casual undertaking.

Add up these trends and we have a toxic brew for creating homegrown suicide terrorists like the Connecticut shooter and others.

Certainly, as Ben notes, dealing more effectively with troubled kids would help. But we have to address the toxic brew, too.

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