Of course, it’s about the guns. Let’s get past that right now. The 19-year-old who slaughtered 14 teens and three teachers at a Florida school so much like Fargo South or Moorhead High was able to buy a military-grade weapon undeterred … though a federal law from a saner era, the 1968 Gun Control Act, still prohibits him from buying a handgun.
That act was passed 50 years ago, when Congress and the public acknowledged that handguns were linked to most crimes. It was easy enough for them to accede to the public’s demand for an age limit on the weapon of choice for criminals and killers.
Long guns — rifles and shotguns — were for hunters, sport shooters and farmers picking off varmints. High-school boys drove to school with guns racked in their pickup trucks’ back window. In the classroom, teachers had almost forgotten the bad old days of fueling kids’ nightmares with mandatory drills for atom bomb attacks.
School massacres hadn’t been invented yet. Even then, we had no answers.
Today, everyone who’s ever raised a child — or been one herself — is dizzy with questions. According to the Washington Post, 150,000 American students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Two of them were right down the road in Red Lake and Cold Spring, Minn, too close for even a smidge of comfort.
Of course, it’s about guns. A majority of the post-Columbine massacres have been committed by young men with AR-15 semiautomatic rifles. They’re the most popular weapon in the United State. Their fans characterize them as a benign choice for hunters and sportsmen. Manufacturer Colt describes its best-seller with a greater jolt of testosterone … “the closest commercial AR-15 you will find to the military M4.” After more than a decade of active marketing to gun aficionados, some 4 million AR-15s are on the ground today. They’re not going anywhere.
But the easy availability of fearsome weapons like the AR-15 is only one part of the problem. You can spot the other holding that gun with rage in his heart and his finger on the trigger. Mental illness — at least, trauma and resentment and anger that causes young men to kill — is a part of the equation, too.
Let’s take a deep breath here. Yes, we need to talk about sensible regulation to keep lethal weapons out of reach of the young, the mentally ill and dangerous individuals of every age. We need to eliminate the tools to turn them into automatic rapid-fire killing machines. We need thorough background checks and interstate registration. We might even take a look at the loathsome federal law passed in 2005 that prohibits shooting victims from suing gun manufacturers. Lawmakers do, after all, have the leeway to institute reasonable reforms. Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms can indeed be regulated to prevent harm — much as libel and slander laws restrain our First Amendment freedom of speech.
But to make our children safer — safer every day, not just in those pitch-black moments when an armed and mortally damaged young man sprays their classrooms with bullets — we need to examine a separate and even more difficult issue. We need to seriously address mental wellness in children and teens.
I understand why mental health experts righteously bristle when that comes up. Children and adolescents who struggle with mental illness are far, far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of carnage. Depression, anxiety and other psychiatric diagnoses hammer them with risks that are truly horrifying, from various kinds of self-harm to suicide. One out of eight North Dakota students reported seriously considering suicide in the state’s most recent assessment of behavioral health. Nearly one in 10 said they’ve made an attempt in the past year.
But the pain of these potential victims may apply just as aptly to the gun-toting would-be killers. According to data gathered by the Secret Service, 98 percent of armed attackers experienced or perceived a major loss before they acted. Almost 80 percent had a history of suicide attempts. Seven out of 10 felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the incident. In 80 percent of cases the agency studied, the attacker acted alone.
We can’t afford to discount a connection between these damaged young people and school violence. Isolation and rejection, perhaps both caused and compounded by other mental conditions, sometimes seem to congeal into rage.
It could happen here. Educators and mental health counselors recognize the problems all too many kids bring to school that get in the way of confidence and learning. They’re already working to help them heal. Most local teachers have received training to help them recognize how trauma of all kinds affects children and their behavior. Now specialists called “student wellness facilitators” also add an extra level of expertise on the schoolground, thanks to an initiative developed by the foundation known as Imagine Thriving. Counselors refer troubled students who may need help to them; the facilitators connect the kids and their families with local resources for counseling and support, including financial aid. It seems to be making a difference, but the problem is massive: Since these wellness programs began in 2014, some 1,700 young people, elementary through senior high, have been referred or sought help themselves.
Neither gun reform nor mental wellness training, by itself, is the magical silver bullet America is demanding so loudly. Revising laws on access to guns is an uphill climb, given the cult-like following and virtually unlimited resources of the NRA. Allocating adequate resource for mental wellness is every bit as steep. No corporate sponsors and big-bucks PACs are lining up so far to counter the easily purchased influence fueling the status quo.
Will our children remember their school days as a fearful time of active-shooter drills and lock-downs? Will they see teachers armed with Glocks?
We urgently need deliberate, serious study of gun violence and measures that can control it. We need reasonable debate and compromise. We need action. Otherwise, we are left to defend the children who are our future with little more than unreliable half-measures, bullet-proof backpacks … and the desperate hope that our own ZIP code won’t be the next number that comes up.