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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In honor of Jim Brady

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Jim Brady (08/02/2006)
Jim Brady (08/02/2006)

I told Jim Brady that every time I wrote an editorial in favor of gun control, it seemed that people in Fort Wayne bought more guns.

Jim just smiled and told me to keep writing the editorials. He died this week at 73, news that touched me with special sadness.

In 1994, he was in Fort Wayne to speak at the annual Golden Pen Banquet. This is the occasion when The Journal Gazette’s editorial board honors readers we thought wrote the best letter to the editor of each month of the past year.

At the time the paper held the event at the private Summit Club downtown. That particular evening the room was filled with letter-writers, spouses or their significant others, as well as the paper’s editorial page staff. This particular we all were especially honored to be in the presence of a man who had become the national symbol of the campaign for rational gun control.

Of the four people a mentally disturbed John Hinckley shot March 30, 1980, including President Reagan, the most seriously wounded was his press secretary Jim Brady. His head injury might easily have cost him his life. A bullet damaged the right side of Jim’s brain. It left him unable to use his left leg and loss of some short-term memory. The injury also impaired his speech.

But I can attest that during his talk that February evening, we understood Jim clearly. As I recall, when he finished speaking from his wheelchair, we gave him a standing ovation.

Even before the near fatal shooting that March, Jim was a person who drew others to him. Nicknamed the “Bear,” he first served Gov. John Connelly’s 1980 presidential campaign as its spokesman. When Connelly lost his bid for the nomination, Reagan’s team enlisted the wise-cracking, amiable Brady to represent the former actor before the legion of journalists.

After the shooting, Jim spent 11 months in a Washington hospital during his long battle to recover his wounds. But he and his wife Sarah soon enlisted in the national gun control lobby, Handgun Control Inc. I was well familiar with the advocacy group. I pestered them so frequently, they knew of the gun control advocacy of The Journal Gazette. But the Bradys’ involvement soon gave the organization greater visibility and national influence.

Handgun Control became the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. By the time Bill Clinton was president, gun control advocates really had something to cheer. Congress passed a bill to require a five-day waiting period for background checks. Jim and Sarah Brady were on hand when the president signed the bill into law. Unfortunately, because of the opposition of the National Rifle Association and the pro-gun lobby, the law didn’t apply to gun shows or to private gun sales. The loopholes remain to this day.

Nevertheless, researchers say that the law, now known as the Brady law, has prevented more than 2 million gun purchases. Who knows how many gun deaths the law prevented? Few Americans can claim doing so much good for so many people.

So years after that terrible spring day in 1981, the fight for rational gun policy goes on. We still kill more people with guns than any country. That’s about 30,000 a year. So many homicides. So many suicides. Research has long established that guns haven’t bought people safety.

But all of us who have joined the cause for rational gun policy will always remember our most courageous ally and friend, Jim Brady.

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