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Opinion: What’s the real tragedy in the gun control debate?

Raising age limits, background checks and red flag laws make sense. So does more money for mental health services and beefed up police departments.

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President Joe Biden and his wife visit Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit Robb Elementary School on Sunday, May 29, 2022, to pay their respects to the victims of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

The mass killings keep happening.

Last weekend they plagued Pennsylvania, Tennessee, South Carolina and two cities in Arizona. By some reports, at least 13 people were killed and more than two dozen wounded. The victims ranged from people enjoying a night out on a popular restaurant row in Philadelphia to attending a graduation party in Clarendon County, South Carolina.

This is hardly the type of thing one would expect from a civilized society, let alone from a place many of its citizens consider the greatest nation on earth. Surely, the leaders of this great nation can agree on some commonsense measures to fight the problem, even if we prevent only a percentage of the deaths. Surely, they won’t see what is happening and do nothing.

Yes, total solutions to this uniquely American epidemic may be elusive. But that reality should be the starting point to any discussion, not an impediment. Lawmakers should not be dissuaded from doing things that could deter at least some perpetrators.

For instance, both sides of the aisle ought to agree on raising the legal age for purchasing long guns, including assault rifles, on the need for expanded background checks on purchases at gun shows and online marketplaces, and on the need for red flag laws that would allow a judge to temporarily remove weapons from someone exhibiting behavior suggesting the intent to commit mass murder.

Also, Congress should increase funding for mental health services. And the destructive move toward defunding police departments, which became popular after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, should be reversed. That’s a local government issue, and it ought to be a discussion at every city council meeting. Police departments need more resources and more well-trained officers in place to respond quickly when crimes occur.

Even though each of these comes laden with political baggage, these ought to be areas ripe for compromise and agreement. Each also comes with the potential for dangerous people to fall through the cracks. But stopping even a percentage of future mass shootings would be worth the effort. 

These crimes aren’t a new thing. They have happened for centuries — there is documentation back to March 1, 1889, when a man named Jim Jumper killed at least seven and injured one more in Okeechobee, Florida.

But today they are happening with a disturbing frequency. The Gun Violence Archive identifies 239 mass shootings in 2022 as of Monday morning. That’s an unconscionable figure no American should tolerate.

As a New York Times analysis of mass shootings reported this week, these crimes remain a tiny portion of overall gun crimes in the United States. Most gun deaths involve suicides.

But mass shootings take a psychological toll on the population. They make people feel unsafe and suspicious while doing routine chores or enjoying a night out. They heighten anxieties and destroy trust. And when the targeted victims are children, as they were in Uvalde, Texas, they rob the nation of its innocence and its future.

Taken together, they are a national disgrace. And yet, there is much the nation can do given what is known about the crimes.

Youth is becoming a more frequent identifier for perpetrators. Jillian Peterson, a criminal justice professor and co-founder of the Violence Project, told The New York Times many recent shooters fall into the 18- to 21-year-old range. This is the time when males, in particular, “get caught up in the social contagion of killing,” she said.

That makes increasing the federal age limit for purchasing long guns a logical step. It would also rid the law of a huge inconsistency, as current law prohibits people under the age of 21 from buying handguns but not long rifles, including assault weapons. A current bill in the House would accomplish this while still allowing teens to buy hunting rifles.

A recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling struck down a 21-and-under ban, but that should not be the last word on the subject. 

Likewise, expanded background checks and red flag laws would not keep all killers from obtaining weapons, but they could be important tools. So would greater funding for mental health services and more money for well-trained police.

More important than each of these measures, however, is the willingness of regular people to report unusual behavior. While overactive vigilance may result in abuses, and even vigilantism, evidence shows that mass killers often tell others of their plans in advance. Prompt reporting of such admissions could save lives.

The scourge of mass shootings won’t go away easily, especially not in a culture awash in violence and an ever-present social media that beckons attention-seekers. 

But when even partial solutions exist, the real tragedy would be for good people to do nothing.