Penned by Billy Asare

I was at work when I heard the news about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.  Once I read the news, I felt shocked and deeply saddened.  It was painful to read that vulnerable young children and teachers lost their lives for what appears to be no reason at all. The pain quickly grew when I thought about the families who lost a loved one in this tragedy just before Christmas, which is supposed to be the most joyful time of the year.  And then I thought about the children who survived the shootings but must now live with this horrific memory.

Like so many other people, I cannot stop thinking about how this massacre could have been prevented.  We have heard opinions from staunch gun control advocates like Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  We have also heard rebuttals from supporters of gun rights as well.  Because the shooter was mentally ill, we have even heard from leading voices in mental health research and treatment.  From each person in the media, I’ve heard the same thing: something has to be done. As we move on as a nation, my concern is whether this terrible moment in history will result in relevant discussions to develop policy changes in three areas: 1. gun control; 2. security on campuses; and 3. mental health.

Gun Control

Let’s face it. The Second Amendment grants only a limited right to possess a firearm.  Not everyone can lawfully possess a firearm, and you can’t take your firearm everywhere.  As stated in District of Columbia v. Heller, “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.” And the purpose in possessing a firearm is also limited.  The right to possess a firearm is limited to lawful purposes such as defending a home or hunting.  In addition, there are prohibitions to the type of firearms an individual can possess.  In Heller, the Court stated the Second Amendment only protects the right to possess firearms “in common use at the time.” The Court interprets this limit as a prohibition of weapons deemed “dangerous and unusual.”

What is a “dangerous and unusual” firearm? Sure some firearms easily fit the distinction of “dangerous and unusual,” and thus are clearly prohibited. However, I believe there could be some difficulty determining whether to label certain firearms as “dangerous and unusual.”  For instance, some firearms popularly used for hunting could be considered “dangerous and unusual” to individuals uninformed about hunting.  Moreover, I cannot find any reasonable basis for using an assault weapon to protect my home so I could conclude that assault weapons are “dangerous and unusual.”  This could be because I live in a safe and quiet suburban community. But maybe an assault weapon is reasonable to protect a home in the minds of individuals in rural communities of South Texas that have been affected by the rampant drug war. Perhaps for some firearms, the determination of “dangerous and unusual” may have to factor in the activity and the location of sane and law abiding person who possess the firearm in question.

Security on Campuses

I read an opinion article in the Houston Chronicle on the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The author proposed that school districts “train and arm certain of their teachers and staff to provide an extra layer of security and protection.”  I agree that our schools should have more security. After all, we trust schools with children to educate them in a safe environment.  Yet, “120 people have been killed and at least 110 wounded while attending school” over the past fifteen years due to gun violence.  So schools need to think about improvement in security.

But I do not agree with the proposed approach to this problem.  I think its best to let trained law enforcement officers protect our children instead.  I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have more armed officers patrolling our schools.

Mental Health

Following the shooting at Sandy Hook, President Barack Obama announced a plan to take a harder look at mental health issues.  This plan is long overdue.  Mental health research organizations do not receive proper funding.  Facilities that diagnose and treat those suffering from mental illnesses could use more funding and support.

In addition, we need to educate society on mental illness so that we can catch the signs of mental illness in family members and friends.  Well informed people on mental illness can do a greater job at finding the necessary help and be stronger supporters for those suffering from a mental illness.

Lastly, there’s an extreme social stigma about mental illness in our society.  Individuals who may show symptoms of a mental illness refuse to get help because of this social stigma.  They are so afraid of public ridicule that they are too embarrassed to seek help for a condition that is not their fault.

Years from now, I hope we can look back at our response to this tragedy as the moment we made significant progress in securing our schools, drafting effective and constitutional gun control laws, and transforming the way we think about and treat mental illness in our country.  As we figure out how to protect schools and other public places from a tragedy like what took place at Sandy Hook, we have to find solutions that ensure the mentally ill and those with wrong intentions do not have access to firearms to perform terrible acts of this magnitude. And for the mentally ill, attempting to limit their access to firearms is not enough.  They need to be treated, and we need to be more supportive and sympathetic to their condition.