In light of latest tragedy, gun and mental health laws have to change

Local hoops coaches stunned and disturbed

Dec. 18, 2012

"If not now, then when?"

NPR radio commentator on improving gun laws after the Newtown, Conn., shooting massacre Friday.

They're parents first, teachers and mentors second and coaches third. They're also confused, frightened and angry human beings, so it was no surprise that last weekend, following another senseless gun tragedy that took the lives of seven adults and 20 first-graders, area basketball coaches found it hard to concentrate on their games.

"I talked to my son (a sixth-grader) on Friday and he asked me 'Have I heard about this?' " Shorewood girls basketball coach Jeff Eimers said, "and I said 'Yes.' It turned out his main concern went like this: 'Why do people have so many guns? Why do we let people like that (perpetrator Adam Lanza) have guns?'

"This is a 12-year old talking to me and he has a point. This makes no sense. … They (children) don't understand why, we don't understand why. Why a rampage like this? Why little kids?"

- estimates that thereare at least 270 million guns in private ownership in the U.S., other estimates have that as high as 310 million. The U.S. which has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, about 88 out of every 100 people.

Not surprisingly, given those numbers, we had the fourth highest number of gun deaths in a given year (9,369 including murders, accidental shootings, etc.) in the world. We trail only South Africa (31,918), Columbia (21,898) and Thailand (20,032).

In contrast, Germany had 269, Canada 144, Spain 97, Switzerland 68, Australia 59, Japan 47, and the United Kingdom (England) 14. Oman, Luxembourg, and Iceland all had zero gun deaths.

One study showed that the Newtown tragedy was the seventh such shooting where four or more people died (not including the killer) in America this year. That makes it the worst such year in 30.

"My thing is, is that we have people in other countries who try to make bad things happen here with terror attacks," Germantown boys basketball coach Steve Showalter said. "The thing is, is that they don't need to do that, because we keep doing it to each other right here."

Showalter is also a Germantown police officer and the father of two teenage sons.

- There are estimated 58,000 places in this country where someone can buy guns. In contrast, there are about 13,000 Starbucks.

Using his .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle and an alarmingly large amount of ammunition stored in high-capacity magazines, Lanza, before he took his own life, took only 10 minutes to rip the guts out of a town and torture the soul of an already tormented country.

In stark contrast, in the totalitarian state of China on Friday, a man went on a stabbing rampage, too. He injured but did not kill 22 people. For good and ill, China largely bans all private gun ownership.

"This has got to stop," said Whitefish Bay boys basketball coach and second-grade teacher Kevin Lazovik, also a father of a 3-year old and a 6-month old. "We can't have all these mass shootings. You hear statements that guns don't kill people, but guns certainly make it a lot easier. I'm all for sportsmen and hunting, but who needs these kinds of rifles and their big clips?"

Who indeed?

One reason why America has these kinds of numbers, these kind of numbing situations, is that gun advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association, and its allies in Congress, with their seemingly bottomless pocketbooks, are winning the propaganda war over guns, spreading false fears that everyone left of Hitler is trying to take away their weapons.

That's a bald fallacy.

National polls show that by a narrow margin, people say that it's more important to have a personal right to own and use a firearm than the need for the strong personal responsibility needed to use such weapons.

Why is that?

Why is the right to own a gun more important than that of people to go to a movie theater (Colorado), a shopping mall (Oregon), a school (Connecticut) or, in our own backyard, a hair salon (Brookfield) or a place of worship (Oak Creek) without fear that some idiot with a gun might come in and kill them?

Whitefish Bay girls coach Greg Capper, who has coached four generations of both boys and girls players, spoke to the personal responsibility issue.

"As soon as we took religion and God out of the national discussion, these things started to happen," he said. "There are people out there (like Lanza) who have no idea what spirituality or soulfulness is. We of our generation (Capper is in his late 50s) growing up, our parents, our churches reminded us time and again of certain things you just did not do because of social ostracism.

"… There needs to be a code of conduct that helps you make decisions."

Lanza, who reportedly had the socially limiting Asperger's syndrome, killed his mother first. It was she who owned the three guns that Lanza had in his possession and it was she who tirelessly tried to help him make his way through his difficult 20-year life. For her reward, she was shot in the face repeatedly as she slept.

And that speaks to another reason why this happened. The mental health system in this country is frayed, disjointed and grossly underfunded and too often lets people like Lanza fall through the cracks. Fall through the cracks too often with a gun in their hands and misplaced malevolence in their hearts.

More guns aren't the answer, education, funding and more understanding are.

Schools like Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown try hard all the time. They provide as much as they can to such sad cases such as Lanza, but no one can guarantee a happy or safe life. Like many schools throughout the country, Sandy Hook had lockdown drills. All the protocols were followed. Protocols and the brave school administrators who tried to shield the children and lost their lives in the effort, couldn't stop Lanza, who shot his way through the locked doors.

"Whenever something bad happens like this in a school, people look at what could have been done," said Germantown girls basketball coach Matt Stuve, father of a 2 1/2 -year-old with another on the way. "Look at our school. We have a great system in place. It's very secure and safe.

"I hope our community and parents realize that we do our utmost to help keep our kids safe."

But as the president noted in his comments at the prayer vigil in Newtown on Sunday night, we are failing miserably in that regard.

So here are a few suggestions. National discussions on guns and mental health have to be held immediately with action to rehabilitate the mental health system to be taken as soon as possible. Gun rights' advocates will have a seat at the table, but in contrast to what has happened too often in the last few decades, they do not get the last word.

Then some basic things have to happen.

These won't prevent the next determined, demented fool from killing someone if he or she really, really wants to, but it will make it that much harder:

The assault rifle ban, set to lapse close to a decade ago, will be brought back with stronger provisions.

Armor-piercing ammunition and large capacity magazines need to be banned outright, never to be seen outside of law enforcement or the military.

And background checks at all levels of the gun purchase arena (including the heretofore exempt gun shows) need to be amended, strengthened and given the utmost precedence.

Civil libertarians on both the right and the left may cringe or even howl at that latter suggestion, but would you want to look in the face of a parent whose 6-year-old was shot multiple times and tell them "We can't do that."

Then, like President Barack Obama said, if we want these tragedies to stop, even more has to happen. We have to change.

We have to change a lot.

"It was tough getting up for the game Friday night considering all this," Nicolet girls coach Rick DeKeyser said. "Basketball, all it is, is a diversion. I saw the faces of those parents, those kids. I sent a text to my (adult) daughter and told her I was thinking about her and that I loved her. She thought I was over-reacting.

"… but this just breaks my heart."

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