BY ELROY JOHN
After the heart wrenching mass shooting in Connecticut, the debate over this vague yet frustratingly artful excerpt from the Bill of Rights has been reignited. The more liberal-minded of us wonder aloud what manner of game have evolved in America’s back country that only a huntsman armed with an AR-15 and drum magazine dare confront. Self-avowed “Second Amendment Carriers” alternatively cite the country’s long tradition with firearms and a societal decay that now demands a citizenry ready to dispense lethal justice at any moment. It is an inane, if not cathartic, ritual that has emerged after the many tragic shootings of recent years and one that often fades leaving little in the way of substantive policy solutions. This massacre, however, of cherub-faced grade-schoolers and their brave caretakers may prove different. Our national leaders must seize this moment to act and address issues surrounding the availability of mental health services, gun violence in ALL communities, and funding for a multi-faceted approach that sensibly balances individual freedom with public safety.
What ultimately motivated the 20-year-old Newtown shooter to slay his mother in her own home, with her own gun and then turn his rage on Sandy Hook will likely never be fully known. It serves as a chilling rejoinder, however, to the notion that increased gun ownership is the answer to growing gun violence. Emerging reports now claim that the killer’s mother was growing weary about her son’s deteriorating mental state and may have been seeking professional help. That search may have been confounded by a dwindling availability of resources. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) released a report in 2011 in which it describes state budget reductions for mental health services. According to the research, states across the country reduced such spending by more than $1.6 billion between fiscal years 2009 and 2012. And while some states, like Florida, made nominal increases for such services in their budgets during the same period, they were nullified by debilitating federal Medicaid cuts made last year. As a result, the report points out that “…both inpatient and community services for children and adults living with serious mental illness have been downsized or eliminated.”
Since the shooting, there have been some noticeable shifts in tone from gun advocates in Congress. The National Rifle Association (NRA) briefly shut down its Facebook page and issued a tone-deaf statement about putting even more guns in schools. The President has charged Vice President Biden with leading a White House task force on gun control. Taken collectively, they are all certainly reasons to be cautiously optimistic, but what will ultimately decide the quality of the outcome will be the ability to keep the American people engaged and the scope of the approach.
Gun violence in small suburban or rural hamlets is indeed shocking, but children in urban communities have long been victims of the proliferation of firearms, buoyed by the illegal drug trade. In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale Metro area alone, between 2006 and 2007, the U.S. Center for Disease Control reported a total of 657 firearm related homicides, 112 of which involved victims between the ages of 10 and 19 years old. Any attempt to address the issue of gun violence must subsequently include a complete overhaul of our supposed “War on Drugs.”
Finally, the question of funding a comprehensive package that addresses both broadening the availability of mental health services and reducing overall gun violence will undoubtedly arise in a political climate weary of increased government spending. My suggestion would be to begin by raiding the existing budgets of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and that of state and federal corrections agencies. Certainly our money can be better spent on restoring funding for mental health services, gun buyback programs, and returning more SROs to school campuses as opposed to ONDCP’s interminable war on the poor and imprisoning low-level drug offenders. Newtown can be a turning point or another missed opportunity. The difference is really just a matter of time.
(Elroy John was president of the Broward Young Democrats from Feb. 2009 to Nov. 2010. A U. S. Army veteran and Florida Atlantic University graduate, John is current works for a non-profit organization that finds housing for homeless veterans.)