The Universal Notebook: Is there anything we can do about gun violence?

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Watching students running from their Florida high school on Valentine’s Day as a deranged young man killed 17 of their classmates and teachers with an AR-15 brought tears to my eyes.

They were tears of sadness, but also of frustration. Apparently there is just nothing we can do about gun violence in America.

If 20 little first-graders being torn apart by AR-15 fire in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 did not shock this country to its senses, nothing ever will. We know what we want to do, but we lack the political will to do it.

Nothing is going to prevent someone bent on violence from unleashing their demons on innocent people, but, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, 84 percent of Americans favor universal background checks (which Maine voters rejected in 2016), 71 percent favor a federal registry to track gun sales, 68 percent support an assault weapon ban, and 65 percent support a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Personally, I have come to believe that the only way we are ever going to take meaningful action to stem the epidemic of gun violence is for responsible gun owners to take the lead. The problem gun owners need to help solve is how to keep a mentally ill young man from acquiring firearms and how do you disarm a troubled young man when he starts threatening violence?

I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that more guns isn’t it. There was an armed guard at the Parkland school, as there was at Columbine in 1999. I also know what has worked elsewhere.

In Australia, in 1996, a shooter used an AR-15 to kill 35 people and wound 23 more in what came to be called the Port Arthur Massacre. Horrified Australian leaders took immediate action, banning automatic and semi-automatic firearms, adopting new licensing requirements, establishing a national gun registry, imposing a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases and spending a half a billion in taxpayer dollars to buy back and destroy 600,000 firearms. There has not been another mass shooting in Australia.

Of course, it would not be that easy in the U.S., where the evil genie is already out of the bottle. There are an estimated 310 million guns in private hands in America. There is also organized and effective opposition to any and all gun control measures.

We once had an assault weapon ban, but the National Rifle Association managed to snuff it out by convincing enough members of Congress that there was no way to define an assault weapon. Sadly, our own U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King voted against the assault weapon ban in 2013.

In the Parkland case, it is obvious that mental health, school and law enforcement officials all failed to take appropriate action against a disturbed young man who was well known as someone who was a threat to commit violence. So this is not just a gun-control issue. But for Donald Trump, who repealed a regulation designed to report severely mentally ill people to the national background check database, to blame mental illness alone for the Parkland shooting without even mentioning the word “gun” is the height of hypocrisy.

An AR-15 was the weapon of choice for mass murderers in Aurora, Orlando, San Bernardino, Newtown, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and now Parkland. While Congress does not seem to have taken notice of this, investors may have. Remington, maker of the Bushmaster AR-15 that was used to kill 20 children and six teachers in Newtown, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Analysts say Remington’s financial woes are a product both of investors withdrawing their support from a manufacturer of controversial weapons and of the election of Trump.

Ironically, Trump has been bad for gun sales. Gun lovers do not fear he will restrict access to firearms as they feared Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would. But gun sales are expected to pick up again in November, following an anticipated Trump backlash and accompanying Democratic landslide.

What I hope will happen in the wake of the Parkland killings is that responsible gun owners will step forward to help federal and state officials find effective ways to reduce gun violence. No one wants to take guns away from law-abiding citizens, but everyone should want to make it harder for mass murderers to get their hands on so much firepower.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.