When the 2013 legislative session convened in Hartford on Wednesday, state lawmakers sat down to the usual agenda of budget conundrums, but overshadowing this normal partisan tug-of-war over finances were the events in Newtown on December 14. Consequently, hearings will be scheduled soon on possible gun control legislation, and the leadership of the Democratic legislative majority is calling for a “bipartisan approach” to the issue. Last week, Governor Dannel P. Malloy announced the creation of a Sandy Hook Advisory Commission to make policy recommendations on gun violence prevention and associated mental health and public safety issues. Similar choreography is playing out in Washington, D.C., featuring President Obama and the Congress. There has been plenty of talk as various interests lay out their opening positions, but few detailed proposals.
The real question is whether the impact of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre is any different from that of other mass shootings in recent years, which generated debate but little legislative action on gun violence. Perhaps we here in Newtown are too close to the tragedy to gauge its influence on the rest of the nation, but maybe this time is different. We hope that our community’s wrenching loss at the hands of a gunman has so shocked the nation that the attention span of the political class will extend past the chattering stage into a substantive debate and a common sense legislative response to gun violence. That debate needs to start not from the entrenched orthodoxies the NRA and the gun lobby, but from scratch.
The low-profile private meetings with elected officials and family members of the Sandy Hook victims conducted January 4 in Newtown by former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, were followed this week by the couple’s formation of a grassroots group, Americans for Responsible Solutions. The group invites gun owners, sports men and women, public safety groups, community leaders, and ordinary citizens to initiate a national conversation about gun violence, mental health, public safety and the law in a spirit of common purpose and common sense. It is a conversation we should have started long before December 14.
From the time our nation first declared itself independent and established the “unalienable rights” of its citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, these three precepts have guided the United States to greatness. But when life itself is increasingly sacrificed to the liberty and pursuit-of-happiness prerogatives of those possessing assault weapons with high-capacity ammunition magazines, the basic human rights of citizens as innocent as first graders in Sandy Hook seem suddenly and shockingly alienable.
What should a society’s response be to a class of firearms that facilitates mass murder so effectively — weapons that grossly amplify the lethality of sick and desperate people — people with criminal intent but who are technically law-abiding right up to that moment when they take aim and fire? It is an important question. We just hope our elected representatives can maintain their focus long enough to come up with an answer. Perhaps this time the incalculable suffering and anguish of our community will make the difference.