Forecaster Forum: Mass shootings: Is there a tipping point?

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Shortly after the massacre of 5- and 6-year-olds and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I wrote an op-ed on gun control for this paper. It was December 2012, and I was about to begin my first term in the Maine House of Representatives.

I was not naive; I knew the subject would spark hostility among some Mainers. In fact, word spread quickly, and I was soon the poster child for blogs fed by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), an ally of the NRA. Hate mail descended.

I wrote the piece because I thought no gun violence could be worse than what had happened. Perhaps that would create enough revulsion to change minds. Tiny children had been pulverized by a young man with obvious mental troubles, who had access to high-powered rifles in his mother’s home and regularly went to target practice with her. There was something crazy about this, I mused.

I focused on the deadliness of the weapons. The firearms were not about self-protection or hunting or target practice. Owners purchased them because they were captivated by the sheer power of these machines. For bragging rights, some admitted.

The folks at SAM told me I couldn’t write accurately about weapons without understanding them. Fair enough. So I went to their annual meeting, where experts demonstrated that there was no real difference between hunting firearms and military-style weapons. So efforts to distinguish them in the law were fruitless.

But then I heard speakers voice a more disturbing theme: we need these high-power weapons to defend ourselves against our own government. The Supreme Court had recently held that the Second Amendment right to bear arms belonged to individuals, not the state. The court simply read away the amendment’s preamble relating to states’ need to raise a militia.

While I thought the case was wrongly decided, it was now the law of the land. What this meeting taught me was that these gun advocates believed that to be prepared to match the government, they needed extreme firepower. Muskets may have been on the mind of the founding fathers, but grenade launchers, fully automatic weapons and worse were now needed to face a standing army.

So far, the Supreme Court has held that the Second Amendment, like all parts of the Constitution, is not absolute. But that is immaterial to true believers. Their sense of the Second Amendment is absolute and deeply ingrained in their identity. That is what drives their unceasing opposition to even the most modest gun control measure, from background checks to limits on the size of magazines. That, and the unfounded fear that any legal limit is intended to lead to confiscation of their guns. (Automatic weapons have been banned since the 1930s, with no such effect. Nor have stronger state gun-control laws resulted in registries or confiscations.)

Last year, I worked hard to pass Question 3, the referendum to institute a basic background check for all weapon purchases. Opponents waged a clever campaign to confuse voters, arguing that the exceptions written into the proposed law were really traps for the unwary. I thought that with polls showing 60 percent or more of Mainers favoring the referendum, it would pass. I was wrong. The opponents were more motivated.

I have come to conclude that legal restraints will make only a small difference in the gun violence in America. Some, but not enough. More important is to have an honest and open conversation that includes all Americans – gun owners, and non-gun owners alike. We can all see that there’s a problem and it’s up to average people to talk to each other about the facts, not get stuck in conspiracy theories. Both sides have to be open to facts, especially credible facts that contradict our positions.

To be sure, guns kill. But they rarely kill bad guys. They kill women at the hands of angry, drunk spouses. Depressed men by suicide. Children by accidents. In other states, street crime is the major culprit. Having a gun in your home magnifies your chances that one of these gun-related deaths will happen in your family. Having a gun in your pocket also reduces your chances of living through an encounter with a bad guy.

In Las Vegas, it was the police who hunted down and stopped the killer, not good guys with guns on their hips. Ordinary citizens were powerless in this situation.

But ordinary citizens are not powerless to stop the next mass shooting. We can’t just wait for another Las Vegas, or Sandy Hook, or San Bernardino, or Orlando, or Columbine to happen. When we say that we can’t have a discussion about mass shootings during the aftermath of a mass shooting, we’re saying that we can never have that conversation.

When Second Amendment advocates suggested that I should learn more about guns before talking about them, I did. Gun violence is not a black-and-white issue, and we need to stop speaking about it in absolutes. We all need to listen to each other and have a conversation about reasonable solutions instead of talking past each other.

Democrat Janice Cooper is serving her third term in the Maine House of Representatives. She represents Yarmouth, Long Island and Chebeague Island.