Last Tuesday, the day after Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, gave a lengthy interview to Piers Morgan on CNN.
Warren is perhaps the best-known clergyman in the country, the founder of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and the author of the best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life.” Five months earlier, his son Matthew, who suffered from debilitating mental illness, had used a gun to commit suicide.
Matthew had tried for years to get ahold of a gun, his mother told Morgan, but he had never been able to obtain one legally. That’s because California has laws preventing people with serious mental illness from buying a gun. “We’re grateful that the laws kept Matthew from getting the gun for as long as they did,” said Rick Warren. But, after years of trying, Matthew finally found someone on the Internet who was willing to sell him a gun illegally. He filed down the serial number so that the gun couldn’t be traced, and a month after taking possession of it, he killed himself.
Watching the interview, I couldn’t help but reflect on Alexis, who also had the kind of history – including an episode of hearing voices just five weeks earlier – that should have kept him from getting a gun. In Virginia, however, he was able to legally purchase a Remington shotgun. Remington is part of the Freedom Group, a company owned by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital. Adam Lanza used a gun from the same company in the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
I was about to say that, once again, the intersection of mental illness and gun policy is top of mind. But that’s not really true, is it?
What has been most stupefying about the reaction to the Navy Yard rampage is how muted it has been. After the horror of Newtown, people were galvanized. This time, the news seemed to be greeted with a resigned shrug.
“Is this the new normal?” David Gregory asked Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association on Sunday on “Meet the Press” on NBC. It’s sure starting to feel that way.
Mass shootings “ought to obsess us,” said President Barack Obama when he spoke on Sunday to the grieving Navy Yard community. “It ought to lead to some sort of transformation.” But it never does.
We know that most mass shooters have this one thing in common: They have usually shown signs of mental illness in the past. And while keeping guns out of their hands won’t put an end to gun violence, it might at least mitigate against these ritual slaughters of innocent people.
It wouldn’t even be that hard to accomplish. “You have to create a net that will weed out people who are likely to commit acts of gun violence,” says Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
It would require universal background checks, for sure, with criteria built around past acts of violence, commitments to mental health facilities, and addiction to drugs and alcohol, among other things. California, in fact, has such criteria, which is why Matthew Warren had such difficulty getting a gun. (You would also have to crack down on illegal gun sales.)
But it does require a political will that the country simply doesn’t have. In recent months, it’s been the hard-line gun owners who’ve been galvanized in defeating an effort to institute national background checks in April, openly taking guns into Starbucks - forcing Howard Schultz, the chairman and chief executive, to issue a plea that they stop.
When he spoke on Sunday, the president seemed to almost seethe with frustration. But he also noted that the politics were “difficult.” And though he said that we should never view mass shootings as “the new normal,” he also made it clear that he won’t lead the charge. There’s no political upside in trying to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
Earlier on Sunday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, who had courageously led the effort for universal background checks back in April, was asked on “Face the Nation” on CBS if he were willing to give it another try.
“I’m not going to go out there and just beat the drum for the sake of beating the drum,” he replied.
Meanwhile, we nervously await the next mass shooting, knowing with a painful certainty that it will come. And that it could likely have been prevented, if only we had the will.
Joe Nocera is a New York Times columnist.
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