Many of us have spent a lot of this weekend trying to make sense of madness. We now live in a world that includes the reality that a night at the movies can explode in gunfire, just as we learned last summer that a morning at the supermarket could. As the list of places that explode grows, so does our sense that there must be something we can do together to make us safer. At the same time, we must also understand that we (as a country) have an incomplete understanding of mental illness and an inability to figure out what to do about assault weapons. Some part of what happened in Colorado is beyond explanation. Some part is a consequence of our failure to recognize and treat illness, on the one hand, and to regulate the distribution of assault weaponry, on the other. The time is now to face these twin demons before another shopping center or movie theater explodes in bloodshed.
In some respects, recognizing and confronting mental illness is as tough a challenge as we can possibly face. Such illness is, in most cases, invisible. A mentally ill person can appear normal, can hold down a job, and can deceive even people he or she knows well. And, unlike a person with pneumonia, a mentally ill person faces stigmatization if he or she seeks treatment. Families have trouble understanding and dealing with such disease as do employers and friends. As a consequence, people who know they are not well do not seek treatment and, as their illness goes untreated, they sink deeper into madness. That descent is as surely a disease as an untreated infection and we, together, need to learn to recognize such illness and to urge people who need help to get it.
The day of the shootings, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, called on President Obama and Governor Romney to take a stand on gun control measures. Both men declined the invitation, instead urging people to pull together rather than risking a divisive political conversation. Now that some time has passed, I think Mayor Bloomberg was right to speak out immediately. Just as we had to pull together as a community to understand the horror that visited us in Colorado, we have to pull together as a community to make sure it does not happen again. Mayor Bloomberg’s call to think about guns is one of the more important ways we might act to protect ourselves against similar evil in the future.
As the news plays out over the next few days, I am willing to predict two things with confidence. One, the number of people who had reason to suspect that the killer was not well will continue to grow. Two, the number of politicians willing to call for renewed efforts to ban assault weapons will not. I think the next phase of our community response to this tragedy should tackle both of these predictable pieces of news. Let’s invest in better public education about mental health issues and appropriate responses — encouraging one another to push people who are ill to seek and obtain the help they need. And, let’s decide that the Second Amendment can abide laws that make it impossible to buy weapons designed to inflict mass casualties. No one needs a weapon like that to protect their home, and we can protect all of our homes by changing the laws about those weapons.
There is no way to erase the losses so many suffered in last week’s tragedies. We can, however, learn from what happened. As we mourn the dead and take note of all the promise contained in the lives lost, we can also make them this promise — we are paying attention and we will endeavor to learn from what happened last week.
1/28/13 — I have posted this as the Congress starts to address an assault weapons ban and other changes to our gun laws. As we all know too well, Aurora did not lead to change. Instead, it took the horror of Newtown to wake our leaders up. Let’s please work to make sure that real change happens now.