Death comes to an Oregon college

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Chris Harper-Mercer
Chris Harper-Mercer

I thought President Obama sounded as uncomprehending as he was angry. At his press conference he was outraged over the murder of 10 people and the injury of 30 others at an Oregon community college.

He was basically asking, “How can we let such a thing like this happen?”

We know the killer, a 26-year-old man named Christopher Harper-Mercer. We also know that he had been treated for a serious mental illness. We know, too, that he was a loner. We know he was fascinated with guns.

When he was finally shot and killed by a police officer during the rampage, he was carrying six guns and five ammo magazines. He had another 13 firearms at the apartment he shared with his mother.

One account described him as deeply troubled. That’s not only obvious. It grossly understates Christopher’s problems.

This tragedy has a familiar ring. It should.
In just past few years, we heard about the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Fort Hood, Charleston, the Washington Navy Yard. That’s the short list.

The killer not only is predictably mentally ill. He has easy access to firearms. So there are two big national issues jumping out in a most tragic fashion.

First is the mental illness of a young man. Second is his fascination with guns. In the case of mental illness, let’s be honest: We do a lousy job in this country identifying and treating persons with the disability.

With firearms, we have a powerful lobby that promotes gun ownership as a kind of constitutional right – I believe deliberately misconstruing the Second Amendment. I also believe that this view is mostly motivated by money.

The NRA is in political bed with the firearms industry. To paraphrase H.Rap Brown, this cozy relationship is as “American as apple pie.”

This unholy marriage, I believe, is the main reason we can’t get laws that keep firearms out of the hands of disturbed people.

Of course, there’s more to it. Those who support tough gun laws often come across as too nice to send the gun lobby running.

Our former mayor, Paul Helmke, served as the head of Handgun Inc. a few years ago. Excellent mayor and eloquent spokesman for the Brady Campaign.

But a gentleman through and through.

The pro-gun control lobby needs a nasty, no-holds-barred SOB to put the gun lobby on the defense. Then, you just might see political leaders in Congress and state capitols discovering some courage they didn’t know they had.

That’s just for starters. The other part of this is our treatment of persons with a mental illness. Christopher and other disturbed young men who’ve committed these mass murders have friends and family members who know something’s “not right” with them.

Just think. One mentally ill person, John Hinckley managed to shoot President Reagan and his press spokesman Jim Brady. How in the world was this possible?

Maybe family and friends attempt to steer those who suffer to professional help. But there remains such as stigma attached to mental illness, it’s common for many people to just pretend the person will “grow out of it” like a bad habit.

I’m sure the advocacy groups have already spoken up publicly once more to call for greater access to mental health treatment.

But few in Congress and state government are known to be the voice that calls for national action.

Even if the president were inclined to propose tough gun regulation and call for greater access to mental health services, I’m sure his proposals wouldn’t get a hearing before a Congress so beholden to the whims of the gun lobby.

But most newspaper editorial writers – and I’ve known scores of them – know what this game is all about. It’s long past time for more than a few newspapers to take a stand.

What a disgrace for this country, the world’s richest and most open, to tolerate mass murder committed by a few disturbed persons who aren’t getting treatment that can make them decent citizens.

For goodness’ sake, let’s not forget those young students murdered in cold blood in Oregon. Let’s make the tragedy this time different.

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They’re gunning for you

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Don Davis, Gun Dealer/Advocate
Don Davis, Gun Dealer/Advocate

“You got creamed,” the woman declared as I headed up the escalator to the main floor of the downtown Indianapolis shopping center.

She was referring to my just completed live television debate with Don Davis who claims to be the Midwest’s biggest gun dealer. I don’t recall the year. I retired from writing editorials for the paper in 2000.

Well, I watched the video the producer of the show gave me and I think “creamed” is a bit strong. But then Don had done a lot of TV commercials and comes off as a real showman. I came across as my usual low-key persona.

What brought all this back was this morning’s editorial in The Journal Gazette. The piece was lamenting the continuing high rate of gun related homicides.

At more than 850 a year in Indiana, gun deaths now exceed auto fatalities, about 840 a year.

That’s about the same story in Ohio and Michigan.

To be sure, auto fatalities have been dropping. No, Indiana’s drivers aren’t necessarily safer drivers. Detroit is just producing safer cars and more people are wearing seat belts.

Still, with more than 800 gun homicides for our state makes us look like the Old West’s Dodge City. You’d think such a tragic loss of life would stir the Republican controlled legislature to call for stricter gun laws.

Such an idea, knowing our state government, would be a fantasy. Rather,
today’s editorial cites one legislator’s moves to further weaken our already anemic gun laws.

Gun control opponents, such as the National Rifle Association, cite instances where an armed shopkeeper or ordinary citizen defended him or herself against an attacker.

But what you’re not likely to hear from such folk is the number of cases in which an armed citizen accidentally kills an innocent bystander or get him or herself killed.

Nor do you hear mention of the many Western democracies that tally far fewer gun-related homicides and suicides. I believe that without exception, these countries have strict gun laws.

The Second Amendment? Constitutional scholars that I’ve read argue that this wording of a well-regulated militia refers to what today we call the National Guard. It’s not Uncle George guzzling beer on his porch with a 9-mm strapped to his waist.

I’ve always felt our lax gun laws weren’t so much about the U.S. Constitution. They reflect the political power of gun manufacturers who prey on people’s fears and regularly pour millions of dollars into political campaigns.

So you follow the money and you discover what kind of laws you get.

Of course, that’s cold comfort to the survivors of gun violence.

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Don’t shoot me. I’m armed

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Some gun stories don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to.

Take the recent incident at the Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan.

Jeffrey Johnson had shot and killed a former co-worker. Police were called, of course. When they showed up, Johnson pointed his gun at them. Half a dozen officers or more appeared on the scene. They returned the fire.

Naturally, police bullets finally hit and killed Johnson. But not before their bullets had hit and injured nine bystanders. Now one news account put that at eight bystanders. Still, that means these highly trained officers, who must regularly re-certify their marksman skills, missed their target numerous times.

Here it is in the middle of the day and a group of law-abiding citizens ended up unwitting actors in a OK-corral shoot-out. No officer was shot.

You’d think police officers would only shoot the bad guys. In fact, the NYPD has conducted studies of this sort of incident. Turns out, police only hit their targets about a third of the time.

Advocates of gun rights often argue that people are safer if they have a firearm handy, in their home, car or on their person. The Empire State Building incident ought to suggest a caution about depending on a firearm to protect you.

If highly trained police officers regularly miss their target, what’s the chance that the homeowner, perhaps in the middle of the night, perhaps in the dark, will have the presence of mind to properly aim a gun, fire and actually stop the person before he shoots back?

Sure, there are plenty of stories gun rights advocates cite as evidence that firearms can protect you.

I remember what these same folks said after Jared Lee Lochner killed six people and injured 18, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at Tucson shopping center.

“If one of the congresswoman’s aides had been armed, this tragedy could have been shopped.”
But the fact is that nearby at least one citizen was carrying a gun. The man complained later that he couldn’t see what was happening soon enough to get off a shot. Bystanders did manage to wrestle Lochner to the ground when he was trying to reload.

In the Aurora, Colorado, theater, James Holmes, wearing armor and a gas mask, firing tear gas, killed 12 people and injured 50 before he ran from the scene.

Again, I remember too well the response of the gun rights advocates: “If somebody had been armed, Holmes wouldn’t haven’t killed and injured so many.”

I don’t know why the advocates are so sure some people in the Aurora theater weren’t armed. After all, Colorado is one of those states with very permissive gun laws.

Some years ago, I was invited to debate Don Davis on a live daytime talk show in downtown Indianapolis. Don owns the Midwest’s biggest gun dealership. I wrote editorials in favor of tough gun control laws for The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne.

I must admit Don was a pretty good debater. He’d had lots of practice doing TV commercials, I guess. But his professed belief in guns protecting citizens hasn’t always panned out. (I always suspect the main issue with gun dealers is profits.) One time, a holdup man shot and killed on of Don’s employees who was working late. And carted off a bunch of firearms. Then this fall at Don’s shooting gallery, another guy got into an argument over charges shot and critically wounded another of the store’s employees, Ben Chance. This time, Chance managed to return fire, killing the assailant. I understand Mr. Chance will survive, thank goodness.

But you’d think the last place anybody would want to pull a gun on an employee would be in a gun store.

I grew up around guns. Dad and many of his friends were hunters. So when hunting season arrived, Dad with his double-barrel 12-gauge and I with my 20-gauge single shot headed for the country and the fields in search of pheasants. I doubt if I ever hit anything. Dad was a good shot, though, and he often bagged one of those beautiful birds and carted it home or to my grandparents’ for Thanksgiving dinner. I haven’t hunted in many years, I guess since high school. I do understand why lots of people really enjoy the pastime and may even contribute money to the National Rifle Association, in the belief they’re preserving their rights under the Second Amendment.

But you’re kidding yourself if you think having access to a loaded gun will protect you from someone intent on harming you.

You’re not likely to replay a scene from an old Western movie in which the guy wearing the white hat shoots the gun out of the hand of the guy wearing the black hat. Don’t be a hero. Just hand over the money and jewelry. And when the bad guy leaves, call the cops. You’ll have better luck. They’re only minutes away.

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