By Columnist Susan Estrich
I happened to be sitting in the Fox News bureau between “hits” on Tuesday morning, when the news broke about the stabbing at Lone Star College in Houston. Watching it unfold in real time, I couldn’t help but think (as I’m sure all of us did) about the Newtown, Conn., massacre and the families flying to Washington and the fear that the parents of the Texas college students must be feeling.
The difference, of course, is that no one died in Texas. The perpetrator had a small knife, not a gun.
In interviews being conducted by the local affiliate at the scene, two students described what it was like to be in classrooms in the Health Sciences building – hearing the screams, crowding into classrooms, trying to escape whatever was going on. They said virtually the same thing: They got on their knees and prayed to God, trusting that God would protect them and that they were in His hands. And they both said it would have been better to have guns as well as God.
Sadly, as a professor, I’ve actually thought about what I would do if there were a crazy person loose in one of the buildings where I teach. I like to teach in rooms with sturdy locks, with desks you could move to barricade the door and with some very big guys (sorry for the sexism) among my students who could “take out” a would-be killer. I certainly understand the instinct to pray. I wish I had as much faith as the boys being interviewed; I wish I could trust that God is always watching over. But even if I didn’t, I would still pray.
The boys kept talking about what they could’ve done had they had guns. I kept thinking about the carnage that could have been caused by that crazy kid (and it appears, at least from early reports, that he is mentally ill) if he’d had one, if there had been a gun battle.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, a minor miracle was unfolding. Two NRA stalwarts in the Senate, one a Republican and one a Democrat, had reached a compromise that would allow a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases to move toward a vote. It is a ways from becoming law, but it is the first such bill in years that has not been “killed” before even getting to the point of consideration by the Senate.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why any law-abiding, mentally healthy person would oppose background checks. If you have a right to purchase a gun, why would you object to those who don’t being prohibited from doing so? No one is taking “your” gun away.
The much harder question is how do you ensure that background checks keep guns out of the hands of those who are mentally disturbed, as so many (all) of these mass murderers and would-be killers are.
Make no mistake: I’m not saying those who kill or try to should be exonerated because they are mentally ill. The scope of the insanity defense is extremely narrow. My question is how do you guarantee that those who are dangerously ill show up in the background checks.
It’s not enough to include the criminally insane or those who have been involuntarily committed because they are a danger to themselves or others. In almost all of these cases, we discover – after the fact – alarming warning signs that were known to school officials or psychiatrists or to neighbors and family. Believe me, there are other men like James Holmes and Adam Lanza out there and not on anyone’s list.
If we could stop screaming at each other over what should be non-controversial issues like background checks, we might be able to have a serious discussion about how to make such checks more effective. The argument I keep hearing from the opponents of background checks is that they won’t work. Isn’t the answer to figure out how to make them work better?