The announcement that Vice President Joe Biden is heading a task force of officials from Justice, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Education to prepare a response to the nation’s epidemic of mass killings hints at the scope of the problem: No single answer, even expanded gun controls, is going to prevent deranged individuals from attempting massacres.
But the Obama administration's approach of combining measures from different departments seems by far the wisest course — especially compared to the inertia that usually comes after the grieving for victims has ended. To develop a comprehensive plan in short order, Biden's task force should draw on proposals that are already in place:
■ Renew the so-called assault-weapons ban. Rifles similar to the Bushmaster AR-15 that the Newtown killer used were covered by the federal ban, which Congress allowed to expire in 2004. That ban, opponents protest, was absurdly easy to get around; gun makers simply tweaked the cosmetic characteristics of weapons. Yet that’s an argument not for dropping the issue, but for extending restrictions to a broader range of semiautomatic weapons.
■ Regulate sales of ammunition. Limits on the number and kind of bullets that customers can buy could slow down people who intend to use them in vast quantities. Bullet purchasers should also be subjected to background checks.
■ Keep guns out of the hands of unstable people. Under federal law, gun buyers must pass a background check that relies on an FBI database. But some states don’t submit relevant data identifying the mentally ill. It’s time for all of them to get in line with the federal law — regardless of local politics.
■ Make sure that dangerously mentally ill people stay on their medications. The great majority of mentally ill people are not violent. But a small subset do pose a threat to society, especially in relation to mass killings. All states provide some mechanisms for forcing the dangerously mentally ill into restrictive treatment centers. But a few states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, reject so-called outpatient commitment as a means to treat mentally ill people whose failure to take their medication could cause their conditions to escalate to dangerous levels.
Figuring out which conditions are likely to escalate, and therefore which patients should be required to take medication, is not an exact science. But rather than shying away from drawing any sort of line, states including Massachusetts and Connecticut should commit themselves to finding a workable definition of potentially dangerous conditions. Hospital beds for the mentally ill are hard to come by. But psychiatric medication is widely accessible. States shouldn't limit the ability of courts to mandate treatment on an outpatient basis for people whose conditions could escalate.
■ Help schools to identify students with signs of dangerous mental illness. A study presented to the American Psychological Association in 2003 dealing with threats by special-education students, in particular, offered a guidepost to defusing potential violence.
Not one of the 188 threats documented by the researchers led to an actual incident of violence because each of the schools where the study took place had created in-house assessment teams who were trained to distinguish between idle and serious threats. In about an hour, the team analyzed the personality and family situation of each student, paying special attention to students with low tolerance for frustration, unusual interest in weapons, and turbulent relations with parents. Identifying and helping such students could be a key to preventing future tragedies.
■ Build community support for anti-violence measures. The gun lobby, in particular, must take greater responsibility for the effects of its policies. In the last decade, it has been remarkably effective at rolling back restrictions on weapons. Yet instead of satisfying its demands, the gun lobby’s success has only led to pushes for more far-reaching measures. After persuading state legislatures to pass concealed-carry laws, gun advocates are now pushing for bills to allow civilian gun owners to carry weapons in plain view. Having secured legal protection for gun owners who stand up against intruders in their homes, they’ve promoted stand-your-ground laws that, in effect, afford legal protection to those who shoot after confrontations on the streets.
This approach is all the more striking in light of the National Rifle Association's traditional mission of promoting gun safety. Indeed, one could imagine the gun-advocacy community as a force for keeping weapons from criminals and deranged people. Troubled individuals seeking weaponry and instruction turn up at gun clubs, gun shops, and gun shows, and law-abiding members of those groups could play a vital role in identifying buyers who are violent or dangerously mentally ill.
In seeking to prevent mass killings, a greater alertness is necessary. Often, it comes down to common sense. See something, say something — and don't be afraid to give voice to fears. After the recent spate of incidents, the stakes couldn't be more obvious.