Just hours after the unthinkable in Newtown, Conn., an obviously shaken Ed Davis, the thoughtful commissioner of the Boston Police Department, mentioned another crime from nearly a year-and-a-half ago that bothers him to this day.
Police were called to a public housing facility in Brighton, where they found an elderly man in a wheelchair bleeding from a gunshot wound to his chest. “I can’t believe the boy killed me; I can’t believe he killed me,” the victim kept telling emergency workers. He died shortly afterward.
The “boy” was actually in his 50s, an emotionally troubled neighbor who shot the victim during some undoubtedly incomprehensible dispute. He then barricaded himself in his upstairs apartment and didn’t surrender until a tense hour later.
Here’s what Davis wanted to share: Detectives learned that Boston police had approved the killer’s gun permit. After the slaying, they came to realize the shooter had long suffered from mental illness, a history that investigators would not have been privy to when they completed his background check because the applicant had never been institutionalized. In other words, authorities had been blocked from a critical piece of information and, as a result, a 75-year-old man was dead.
“One side wants to deinstitutionalize the mental health system, and the mentally ill have privacy protections,” Davis said. “The other side wants to give everyone a weapon. We’re living with the consequences of these two things.”
This country has lost its way on guns, completely, embarrassingly, and horrifyingly so. We are armed to the teeth, more than 200 million guns among our citizenry. The industry is unregulated. Our laws are a pathetic patchwork marked by rips and holes.
As bad, the federal agency overseeing gun issues has been emasculated. Congress has been purchased by the bullying zealots at the National Rifle Association. And when the gun lobby isn’t buying and selling elected officials, it is successfully intimidating presidents and everyone else into believing that nothing can or will ever change.
The background noise to all this is the gunfire that plagues too many urban streets on too many nights, the kind that is being highlighted in the brilliant Globe series chronicling life in one particularly dangerous part of Dorchester. It’s also the sound of another massacre in another school or movie theater or shopping plaza in a community that will never be the same.
The worst is Newtown, defenseless children suffering consequences of a nation’s egregious actions and inactions. “Look what we’ve done,” said John Rosenthal, Boston’s most sensible gun control advocate, on the brink of tears Friday night.
Now, though, from the utter devastation of Newtown, we have the first hints of change. The NRA has been largely quiet so far this week, the public discussion free of its arguments that are equally banal and moronic: “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” “there are already too many guns in the nation to start banning them now,” and my favorite, “let’s just enforce the laws we already have.”
President Obama has ratcheted up his rhetoric, not enough, but it’s a start. Gun allies in Congress have fallen uncharacteristically silent and, in some cases, even acknowledged the need for change. And in the most meaningful sign of progress, the private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management, described Sandy Hook as a “watershed event” and announced Tuesday that it will sell the company that made the assault rifle used in the rampage.
We need new laws. To start, we need a comprehensive national ban, free of loopholes, on the weapon of choice for massacres: the lightweight, semiautomatic assault rifle known as the AR-15. Ban the high-capacity clips that feed them. Require background checks for all purchases, including at gun shows and in private transactions. Fund a national buyback.
We need these and more, and we need them now. From the thickest grief come shards of hope. Shamefully, disgracefully, perhaps this is what it took.
Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.