The last time I left this country, I stopped in Istanbul on the way home. Istanbul has had its share of terrorist activity in the past several years, so when visiting it is advisable to keep an eye out. If a rowdy-looking young fellow with a backpack approaches, you might want to walk the other way. That didn’t happen, and the time my wife Cheryl and I spent there was wonderful. While we were in Istanbul, a shooter killed 59 people and injured more than 500 in Las Vegas for reasons we may never know.
Our most recent out-of-the-country excursion took us to the Middle East, India and Paris. None of those places has been free from terrorist acts, but generally they aren’t known for a lot of violent crime. Late one evening, Cheryl and I were walking on a relatively dark street on the way back to our hotel near the old Paris Opera House. There were a couple of young men on that back street who did not look particularly affluent or savory. Hypothetically, they could have been alcoholics or drug addicts. Cheryl got nervous, but I calmed her down by saying, “Relax. We’re in France, not the United States.” It was a sad but truthful thing to say. It’s not that gun violence can’t happen in France or around the world, but those incidents don’t to occur with the same frequency as in the United States.
On the day Cheryl and I landed back on American soil, 17 people — including 14 high school students — were killed and at least 14 others were wounded in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The shooting has sparked an outcry for action. It is finally clear that virtually all of America believes something needs to be done. Led by the young and joined by some of the old, Americans are calling for changes and for the political heads of those who don’t react quickly. Being a product of the ’60s, I am very aware that demonstrations and outrage can in fact lead to change. It’s virtually never fast and not at all easy, but at some point enough pressure results in change.
Because no other country experiences the mass shootings in schools in the way we do in the United States, the answer cannot simply be: “It’s a mental-health issue.” Every country has mentally ill individuals, and not many countries spend the per capita dollars on mental health that we do. My recent trip took me to Jordan and India. Those countries spend very little on mental-health issues compared to the United States. One report said more than 60 million people in India suffer with various forms of mental disorders. Neither country has experienced mass school shootings. The answers for us must lie in doing different things, such as stronger preventative measures in our schools and certainly changes in the gun laws.
It is no secret that a portion of Americans are concerned that any laws regulating guns are the first in a series of steps to take their guns away. There is no doubt that a certain percentage of Americans believe they not only should have the right to have any kind of gun and ammunition they want, but that those guns are necessary to protect themselves and their freedom. Protection from what may not be an entirely uniform answer. The view on the other side is that the Second Amendment was an 18th-century attempt to preserve a right to state militias in case the federal government became too overbearing — as in the case of King George III. It goes without saying, however, that the arsenal the federal government wields today — such as tactical nuclear, biological or chemical weapons — could readily overwhelm automatic weapons shot from the windows of houses or the ridges of soybean fields, but that reality doesn’t really matter at this juncture.
What we need to do now, and maybe events have coalesced to make the time right, is begin taking actual steps to make Americans safer. Although we will not agree on what all of those steps are, the vast majority of us will agree to certain initial steps, such as banning bump stocks, improved national registration background checks, stronger regulations covering those with a violent criminal record, mental health issues or a history of threatening others with firearms, clamping down on easy accessibility to guns at gun shows and perhaps better laws to keep guns away from younger people. It seems crucial that some of those first steps be taken immediately. Perhaps those steps can then lead to the next steps. After all, it is generally clear that most people do not want to take guns away from hunters, or from people defending their homes from intruders or protecting themselves or their loved ones on the street.
It seems clear that most American believe there is no legitimate purpose for any of us to own assault-style weapons that can fire 700 rounds a minute. Today many people have forgotten that conservative President Ronald Reagan joined Presidents Ford and Carter in successfully convincing Congress to vote in favor of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. The presidents wrote then, “[W]e urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community…” And that “…statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns….” The bill passed the House by two votes. It expired in 2004.
Maybe it’s time to ask ourselves how we got to where we are and how we walk back from the place we find ourselves. The truth is that we just cannot go on this way. We cannot keep tolerating school shootings. We have got to build more trust among the parties whose members see things so differently. There’s nothing wrong with strong beliefs about what laws Americans should have. That is a key function of our democracy. But today there is way too much mindless yelling and not enough meaningful listening. You can’t learn a thing while you’re talking. As the old Turkish proverb says: “If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” Just maybe, we have finally reached a point where the middle is going to ostracize the extreme views on both sides, and the clear majority will coalesce to get some things done. Maybe we can influence our news reports to change from “active shooter on campus” to “active listener in Congress.”
2018 Under Analysis, LLC. Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm Lashly & Baer, P.C. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org