In wake of Newtown, time for honest dialogue on guns and violence

December 18, 2012 

The nation cries yet again over another murderous rampage by a deranged gunman. This one, though, hurts more, much more. Our youngest citizens, with all their innocence and vulnerability of first-graders, became targets and 20 died. Six brave teachers and administrators also perished at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As the nation emerges from grief-stricken shock over the monstrous slayings in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school on Friday, we must come together for a soul-searching conversation about guns and violence. We must also address mental illness as a major part of the equation. School security should be another aspect of the discussion.

President Obama addressed the issues on Sunday, telling mourners at a Newtown vigil: "What choice do we have? Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?"

Even in Manatee County, anxiety over safety prompted law enforcement agencies to increase patrols at all schools this week after parents called the district to request heightened security. Those agencies and the school district should re-examine the issue of funding for school resource officers since there have been cutbacks and none patrol elementary schools.

We value our Second Amendment rights, but we must talk about sensible exceptions -- starting with combat-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazine clips. The Newtown gunman, Adam Lanza, forced his way into the school armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle -- the civilian version of the military's M-4 and M-16. This is the same weapon used in the Colorado theater slaughter of 12 in July and the Portland, Ore., mall shootings last week. Lanza also carried hundreds of rounds in numerous clips. Should weapons designed for war be readily available for purchase? All of the Newtown victims died from multiple gun shots from bullets also specially designed to kill.

If this horror can occur in an idyllic small New England town, it can happen anywhere. Even though the doors were locked at Sandy Hook Elementary School that fateful day, the gunman still broke inside. Do schools now have to be built like fortresses to prevent security breaches?

Will this latest horror halt the trend toward fewer restrictions on guns? The day before the Connecticut massacre, Michigan lawmakers approved a bill that would allow people to carry concealed weapons into schools.

Some gun rights advocates and even educators suggest teachers or administrators should be armed. Do we as a society think more weapons are the answer? And in elementary schools where children could accidentally grab ahold of one?

Florida will soon have more than a million residents with concealed-weapons permits. Do all these guns make society safer, as proponents claim? Or do all these weapons provide easier accessibility to the mentally disturbed?

In the Newtown case, Lanza's mother owned the two handguns and assault rifle that he carried that day. Withdrawn but bright, Lanza was described as a "very scared young boy" by one former school district official. At this point, it's unclear whether Lanza was receiving any treatment for his mental issues.

Florida does an exceptionally poor job at mental health care, with state funding behind only Texas as the lowest per capita in the nation. Florida's Legislature continues to give short shrift to mental health. While the national average stands at $120, Florida spends $40 per capita annually on this important public policy issue. We're not suggesting that more money is the answer, but we as a society must place greater value on mental health and reach out to people who appear troubled.

We hope this nation can discuss all these issues in an open and honest way without fear of any political backlash -- unlike past tragedies. Schoolchildren everywhere deserve answers and action.

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