*Editor's note: The following commentary was extracted from Lonnie Barham's weekly column.*
I have purposely refrained from joining the myriad of commentators who issued immediate "gut reaction" responses to the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. – almost all demanding immediate changes to gun control laws – and instead chose to wait until the justified editorial rage had subsided somewhat before expressing opinions that, in the immediate wake of the massacre, might have been misinterpreted as callous.
For some time to come, in the wake of the tragic shooting rampage in which so many beautiful young children were killed by a monster carrying a semi-automatic weapon, anyone offering an argument in defense of our right to bear arms, especially to own semi-automatic weapons, will likely be taken for a "fanatic, right-wing, paranoid gun nut." Temporarily, at least, most of those voices are stilled that profess an armed citizenry is essential to the continued freedom of our country. Thus, simply expressing an opinion on the matter risks one being categorized among the paranoid gun nuts.
We should never forget the young lives taken in Connecticut. We should, however, refrain from "hip shoot" responses and instead endeavor to make legal, societal and policy changes that will go furthest toward ensuring there is no recurrence. Rational people realize that three questions must be addressed in a logical, methodical and fiscally responsible manner if resulting changes are to receive nationwide support and be capable of surviving legal and political challenges. The three questions: How can we better identify and treat mentally ill individuals who may have the propensity to commit such gun violence? How can we enhance school security without creating unintended dangers, without detracting from the education mission, and without pushing districts into bankruptcy? How can we balance the risk to public safety with the Constitution's guarantee that Americans have the right to bear arms?
Can gun laws be tightened without infringing constitutional rights? Somewhat, yes. But will it work to prevent a recurrence of the Newtown tragedy? History says it will not. With more than 300 million guns in private ownership in this country and with other instruments of murder even more readily available, regardless of stiffened gun control laws, there will always be ways for demented individuals to commit horrific crimes involving mass killings. Beware the false security that comes from quick, "feel good" solutions that don't work. Remember, Connecticut has banned semi-automatic rifles and large-capacity magazines for 20 years, yet it did not prevent the Newtown massacre. If gun availability is truly the proximate cause of gun violence, how do we explain the independent studies that show states with high gun availability have low gun violence rates, while states with low gun availability have high gun violence rates? Enacting stronger gun laws is, however, the quickest and least costly "solution," albeit the least effective, and the news media and politicians will clamor for it.
Can we strengthen our ability to identify and treat mental illness? Certainly, and it will have a greater likelihood of successfully preventing future violence than will enacting draconian and unconstitutional gun laws. But, such changes to an already costly health care system will have a hefty bill attached. Will taxpayers and sycophant politicians allow such costly changes, especially when less effective but "no cost" gun legislation is available? And, of course, there are constitutional concerns here, too. How do we restrict the actions of mentally ill persons before they act on their tendencies without depriving them of rights?
Most easily addressed and most likely to have immediate salutary effects will be improving school security. Enhancing the safety of our children in this manner will not run afoul of the Constitution and its cost will be far more palatable than making massive changes to our mental health system. Somewhere along the safety, cost and disruption spectrum, actions must be taken – from arming teachers, to arming administrators, to arming well-trained parent volunteers, to hiring security guards, to posting police officers, to creating secure containment areas just inside school entryways for vetting of visitors before allowing entry, to total prohibition of visitors during school hours, and numerous other security options.
Regardless how we feel and the rage we are rightfully expressing, all three of these areas must be addressed with clear minds and rational thought, while suppressing the urge to do something so quickly that it will do little good and will keep us in a position to experience another Newtown in the not too distant future.