How do we stop the next mass killing?

Ethan: On July 27, you and I wrote a column discussing the Aurora, Colo. massacre. Who would have thought we would be back so soon, having a similar conversation?

Phil: People who suffer from severe illness and psychosis seem to morph from recluse to terrorist without warning. How do we intervene before we have to write another column in tears?

Ethan: It seems to me there are at least two areas this country and Maine must address: mental health services and gun regulation.

Phil: We should also acknowledge the influence of music, video games and movies in shaping emotions and personalities, especially of youngsters who have mental health issues.

Ethan: OK, let’s take them one by one. In terms of mental health, what we know is that these services have been cut by at least $50 million over the past four years in Maine, more than $4.5 billion nationally, and our mental health hospitals are packed. Probably time for a reassessment of priorities.

Phil: While many have benefited from living independently, it has been costly. For others, like the assassin in Newtown, Conn., institutionalizing him might have kept him safe, content and helped avoid this horrific act. We also must find a way to assure that people who have these tendencies follow their doctor’s prescriptions.

Ethan: If you are suggesting the involuntary institutionalization of people or forcing them to take prescribed medication, you are obviously entering some very tough terrain. Sadly, our country has great historical abuses with these kinds of answers.

Phil: Understood, but the path we have chosen has made it very hard to get the medication and hospitalization to those most in need. This has left us very vulnerable.

Ethan: Without doubt, the issues surrounding mental health and when to intervene were the hardest votes I ever took. Heart-wrenching pain that had to be balanced against individual constitutional protections.

Phil: Just like the issue of bearing arms. It’s my opinion that we can’t pass legislation regulating arms and avoid action on mental health issues and think these acts of terror will end.

Ethan: I certainly agree that both must be part of the equation. That said, every time we have tried to have a conversation about gun violence, the National Rifle Association and their followers have said guns are not allowed to be part of the equation. For me, we need an assault weapons ban that includes a limit on magazine size, comprehensive background checks on all sales and a waiting period. These are the minimum basics needed to get a safer grip on gun violence.

Phil: I am willing to have gun control be part of the conversation, but if you try to hammer through all this stuff without the root causes of these acts of terror being addressed, we are likely going to write a few more of these columns.

Ethan: We have to focus on both the cause and the means. Although the federal government spends innumerable resources trying to prevent the root causes of terrorism and get the terrorists off the street, we all still have to clear the no-fly list and take off our shoes before we get on an airplane. We need the same mentality about guns.

Phil: Ten of the largest mass killings were conducted by people untreated for severe mental illness, whether by knives, cars or guns. Yet people with severe mental illness who are treated tend to be no more dangerous than you or me.

Ethan: But the 10 largest mass killings were not accomplished with cars or knives. They were accomplished with guns. And, make no mistake, the overwhelming majority of the 31,000 gun deaths America experienced last year were not perpetrated by people with severe mental illness.

Phil: The same day of the Newtown terror, Min Yingjun stabbed 22 children at an elementary school in China. In 1999, Steven Abrams drove his car into a school playground, killing two children. The common denominator is they were mentally ill and not treated.

Ethan: And every one of those kids in China is still alive, as opposed to every one of the kids in Newtown. Why? Because of the lethality of the weapon used. And unlike gun violence, it’s very rare that cars are used to intentionally mass murder people. Despite that, we regulate them much more heavily than guns. That is why both gun safety and mental health reform must be on the table.

Phil: I can agree with that. The final piece we must talk about is violence in the media. Watch the most popular video games, and you’ll see mesmerized players shooting, axing, knifing, exploding and initiating other acts of cruelty. Same for many movies. Isn’t it possible that many ill or developing minds are influenced by these images? Perhaps Tipper Gore was right that these sources of evil images and messages are harmful, especially to children who are unstable.

Ethan: I certainly share your frustration that so much violence is celebrated in our society, but I am not convinced it is a piece of the puzzle in regard to these mass shootings. What public policy are you thinking?

Phil: I don’t know the specific policy I would propose, but if the president’s taskforce, led by Vice President Joe Biden, is going to deliver meaningful results, it must include addressing the destructive effects of video games and other forms of entertainment that make these horrific acts seem normal.

Ethan: Well, we have waded into three tough constitutional questions: guns, privacy and free speech. But if the president is going to accomplish anything, he will have to enter those waters as well. Godspeed, and let’s hope he acts quickly.

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