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What must we do to end mass gun violence?

Published: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 8:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 8:04 p.m.

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school is galvanizing the American conversation in profound and painful ways. From Sonoma County to Washington, D.C., people are asking, pleading, demanding solutions to the horror of mass gun violence.

Facts

Mental health assistance

Anyone with a mental health crisis can get help 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling Sonoma County's Mental Health Hotline: (800) 746-8181.

Yet key figures in the fields of law enforcement, mental health, government, religion and education offer no simple remedies, a reflection of the incendiary political nature of the topic and the complex web of social influences at play.

But, most agree, if anything is going to change in the debate, it will be now.

“We're going to move. It's time,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who is leading a House Democratic task force exploring ways to curtail gun violence in light of the Dec. 14 killings in Newtown, Conn. He met with colleagues Friday in early discussions.

Authorities said Adam Lanza, 20, shot his mother four times in the head as she slept before he drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 children and six staff members with a high-powered rifle, committing suicide as police closed in.

The second-deadliest school shooting in the country's history has sparked heated debate on gun control, personal freedom and responsibility, mental health issues and school safety.

President Barack Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden to oversee an administration-wide review that will consider gun-control legislation and ways to keep society from glamorizing guns and violence.

On Friday in Washington, the politically powerful National Rifle Association called for creation of a model security plan for schools that relies on armed volunteers.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said the group's spokesman, Wayne LaPierre. He blamed video games, movies and music videos for exposing children to a violent culture.

Thompson, a veteran and hunter, has allegiances to both sides of the debate about regulating firearms.

“I'm a gun guy. I hunt. I've got guns,” he said. “I carried an assault weapon for my tour in Vietnam. I know guns.”

Still, he looks at Little League photos of his children and grandchildren and sees in them the faces of the 20 children slaughtered in their classrooms.

“Military-type assault weapons and assault magazines have no place on our streets or in our communities,” Thompson said.

He said his task force will create a legislative package that may include tighter restrictions on military-style weapons, stronger background checks, increased mental health services and regulations on what he called high-capacity “assault magazines” of ammunition. Authorities said Lanza was equipped with several 30-round clips of ammunition.

Thompson and Steve Herrington, superintendent of Sonoma County schools, dismissed the NRA proposal to arm school personnel.

Herrington called for additional or restored funding for police officers in selected schools, which has in Sonoma County at times been curtailed by budget cuts.

Santa Rosa Junior College Police Chief Matt McCaffrey, whose officers oversee 38,000 students plus staff on two campuses, said schools and law enforcement routinely prevent violent acts by being watchful and intervening when someone acts out or has expressed violent ideas.

But with Lanza, who is said to have been awkward socially and may have had Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, any warning signs apparently weren't enough for law enforcement or mental health officials to get involved. Mental health workers have cautioned that Asperger's has not been linked to violent behavior.

“People start looking for a reason or a cause or something to blame it on,” McCaffrey said. “We hear gun control, we hear mental health.”

Instead, he said, we should look at the person responsible. “In this case, it wouldn't have met the threshold for law enforcement to take action,” he said.

Still, he said, the magnitude of the tragedy might have been lessened with tighter restrictions on weapons. Police in Connecticut have said Lanza's mother owned the guns he used and all were purchased and possessed legally.

“If this person had no access to firearms, could they have carried this out? No, it would have been much more difficult to arm yourself with a weapon that could kill a lot of people,” he said.

Sam Paredes, the executive director of Gun Owners of California, agreed with McCaffrey that it is important to understand what motivates mass shooters. “We need to find out what drove a guy, a kid, from normal to evil in a short period of time,” he said.

But he insists that guns, access to firearms and high-capacity magazines aren't the culprits. “It isn't a gun problem, it's a people problem,”

“Was it exposure to violent video games, printed materials? Was he on medications? Let's take a look at it, then sit down and talk about what can be done,” he said.

Mike Kennedy, Sonoma County director of mental health services, said identifying signs that someone is a potential risk is complicated and imperfect.

“There are no really good ways to predict — whether it involves mental illness or not — that somebody would do something like this,” he said. “We have all these risk assessments on whether somebody will recommit a crime, use drugs again — but they don't have any science that will predict violence.”

He said several programs begun in Sonoma County within the past five years that bring mental health services to the community, many of which work in conjunction with law enforcement, show promise.

Several programs train high school, junior college and university students to recognize the signs of suicide, depression and mental illness and give them resources for how to find help.

“The earlier people get treatment, the better they will be,” he said.

As the Newtown tragedy unfolded, religious leaders across the country vowed to mobilize their congregants to push for gun-control legislation. A group of clergy members representing mainline and evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims announced in Washington plans for a campaign to provide ground support for politicians willing to take on the so-called gun lobby.

At Santa Rosa's First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dale Flowers said he prefers instead to comfort those affected by the shootings. More than 200 members of the Pacific Avenue church signed cards that were sent to Sandy Hook school and two churches in Newtown.

“We've been trying to comfort and speak a sense of solace to our community that's been hurting as a result of this,” he said. “It is so complex; it has so many layers.”

He said he tells worshippers doubtful of God's presence in violent incidents like Newtown that God granted humans free will: “He does not overcome our free will. When you give people free will, you suffer the consequences of that when it goes awry.”

Though outrage over other mass shootings has faded, Flowers said he senses more motivation for change now because so many of the dead were innocent children.

“What I'm hearing this time is that they're not willing to move past it. That's a good thing, but we have to be careful about assessing blame,” he said. “We need to look out for each other a lot more intently than we have in the past.”

Those ideas — blame and looking out for one another — have been on the minds of workers at Santa Rosa's LifeWorks, a nonprofit mental health agency in Sonoma County, since the shooting.

On Monday, Executive Director Jill Royce said her agency fielded several calls from parents worried that their child who exhibits the Asperger's-like traits ascribed to Lanza may be prone to violence.

“Asperger's is not a mental illness,” she said. “It doesn't trigger this kind of reaction.”

Mental illness has such a stigma surrounding it that families ignore it, friends turn the other way and society sometimes closes its eyes to the signs.

“When it rears its ugly head, we talk about it, and then it goes away again,” Royce said. “We have to get over this stigma and address the mental health issues in each of our homes and families. It's OK. There's lots of help out there. Don't be afraid to make a phone call. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Advice is free.”

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