The Newtown, Connecticut school massacre was not, as often characterized, a “senseless tragedy.” It was a tragedy that makes perfect sense as the predictable result of decades of irresponsible business and political decisions.
Twenty first graders and six adult educators were mowed down by a hail of bullets 10 dayas ago because gun makers have aggressively promoted semi-automatic assault weapons for civilian use, politicians have sucked up to the gun lobby and health insurance companies have treated mental illness like an unwanted step-child.
According to National Institute of Mental Health statistics, nearly 7 percent of adults suffer from major depression, over 2.5 percent from bipolar disorder and more than 1 percent from schizophrenia. These categories alone account for about 23 million people.
Many health insurance policies either don’t cover mental illness or carry high co-pay/deductibles and low caps for treatment. Lack of insurance, plus social stigma associated with mental illness, means that roughly 40 percent of those needing treatment go without it.
Given the right stressors, a small percentage (though still a significant number) of the mentally ill could snap, becoming suicidal, homicidal or both. Over 38,000 suicides and approximately 1,000 to 1,500 murder-suicides occur annually in the U.S., the majority with firearms. In the past three decades, there have been at least 62 mass murders with firearms in workplaces, schools, malls and other public places. Just in the last six months, single-assailant mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, a New York City street and a business in Minneapolis have killed 25 and wounded 70.
It should surprise no one that 20-year-old Newtown gunman, Adam Lanza, a child of recently divorced parents, has been described as a mentally disturbed loner or that he killed his own mother before launching his attack and committed suicide after finishing it.
Of course, an unhinged young man can kill someone just using his hands, a knife or a blunt object. But armed with a semi-automatic weapon designed for close-quarter military combat and capable of firing hundreds of rounds per minute, he can commit mayhem. Lanza’s 223-caliber Bushmaster, just such a weapon, was loaded with clips holding 30 bullets each.
Assault weapons are easy enough to obtain and, for most part, legal to possess.
A poignant irony of the Connecticut school massacre is that the techniques for mass production and marketing of firearms, which make such weapons affordable and accessible to civilians today, originated more than 150 years ago in the nearby Connecticut River Valley.
The Silicon Valley of its era, the Connecticut River Valley was a powerhouse of America’s 19th century Industrial Revolution. Factories centered mainly in the Springfield, Hartford and New Haven areas pioneered precision engineering and interchangeable parts, allowing large-scale manufacturing of such technologically complex products as guns and typewriters.
Firearms companies, with iconic names like Colt, Smith & Wesson, Remington, Winchester and Marlin, flourished there from the mid-1800s, and became known for innovations in the accuracy, rate of fire, ease of use, lightness, durability and lethality of their guns.
Firearms sales spiked in wartime, particularly during the Civil War, World Wars, Korean Conflict and Vietnam War. But to boost sales during peacetime, firearms companies sold their wares to foreign governments and law enforcement agencies and fostered a thriving recreational gun market.
Although much of the industry in recent decades has shifted away from the Connecticut River Valley and undergone numerous ownership changes (including the acquisition of Bushmaster, Remington and Marlin by Freedom Group, a North Carolina holding company), it continues to thrive, picking up ardent supporters not only among recreational gun owners but those who keep guns for self-defense and fringe types who believe firearms necessary to protect their rights against encroachment from government power.
By far, the largest association of gun enthusiasts is the National Rifle Association, with over 4 million members.
Civil War veterans organized the first NRA chapter in New York in 1871 to sponsor marksmanship training programs and shooting competitions, and NRA rifle clubs soon spread throughout the country. The NRA worked closely with the Army and National Guard to maintain a gun-savvy reservoir of potential recruits for wartime. In the 1930s, it formed a legislative affairs division and actually backed early gun control measures, including the National Firearms Act of 1934 and Gun Control Act of 1968.
Over time, however, the NRA has become a shill for the firearms industry, its major mission morphing from gun skill and safety into resistance against any legal restrictions on ownership or possession of firearms and defeat of politicians who advocate such restrictions. Since the 1980s, it has lobbied fiercely against virtually all gun control legislation and sponsored litigation to overturn existing gun control laws.
Most significantly, in 2004 the NRA successfully pushed for nonrenewal of the expiring Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. That law, if still in place, would have banned sale or ownership of the Bushmaster rifle used at Newtown.
Wrapping itself sanctimoniously in the Second Amendment, the NRA has relentlessly promoted its expansive view of the “right to bear arms.”
In 2008, it gained support from the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which invoked the Second Amendment to overturn a D.C. law forbidding citizens from possessing operable handguns in their home. (The decision did not, however, preclude laws barring firearms in sensitive places like schools and government buildings, imposing reasonable conditions on their commercial sale, or prohibiting carrying “dangerous and unusual weapons” like automatic rifles).
Many politicians have been cowed by the NRA’s raw display of political power and have rushed to swear fealty to its agenda (similarly to the way GOP congressmen have embraced Grover Norquist’s “pledge” not to raise taxes). Only now, in the wake of public backlash prompted by the Newtown catastrophe, are a number of them beginning to “rethink” their positions.
The NRA has been uncharacteristically silent about the Newtown murders. After all, what can it say without looking stupid or colossally insensitive?
The organization’s usual response to recriminations about domestic, accidental and other fatal shooting incidents is, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” Its usual prescribed remedy is wider gun ownership to enable vulnerable citizens to defend themselves. Bushmaster’s own website echoes this line of thinking: “With a Bushmaster for security and home defense, you can sleep tight knowing that your loved ones are protected. Bushmaster offers everything you need to ensure the safety of you and your family.”
Would more guns have helped at Newtown? Not likely!
A disturbed, suicidal person like Adam Lanza probably wasn’t going to be deterred by gun-toting defenders. Besides, who could have been armed for self-defense -- students and teachers? And even if there were armed defenders, how could they have reacted in a matter of minutes, the time it took to gun down 26 victims?
The Newtown massacre makes sense then, but only if we pay attention to its lessons. Such grim scenarios will continue to occur unless the market for firearms is tightly regulated and civilian sales of assault weapons -- the recreational equivalent of weapons of mass destruction – are banned altogether.
Elliott L. Epstein,a local attorney, is founder of Museum L-Aand an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He is the author of “Lucifer’s Child,”a recently published book about the 1984 oven-death murder of Angela Palmer.Hemay be firstname.lastname@example.org.