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Following Massacre in Newtown, A National Call for Action on Gun Violence

Can massacre in Newtown break pattern of US indifference to gun violence and cultural depravity that allows it?

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Alice Chen, right, and Alizza Manzoeillo participate in a candlelight vigil outside the White House for victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (December 14, 2012)As the horrific details of Friday's mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut crystallized overnight, a familiar but possibly heightened outcry has wrung out across the country that the US must finally release itself from the grip of the radical gun industry lobbyists to address the culture's deep problem with gun violence.

Paired with a call for better gun safety measures—including mandatory background checks, a ban on high-capacity clips and semi-automatic weapons, and an end to the various loopholes that allow for easy purchase and a thriving black market—others also say that now is the exact right time to acknowledge, discuss, and find a remedy for the mental health crisis that has long plagued the nation.

"How young do the victims have to be and how many children need to die before we stop the proliferation of guns in our nation and the killing of innocents?" asked the Children's Defense Fund's Marian Wright Edelman.

"Elected leaders... will issue the typical platitudes to those who have seen their loved ones gunned down in cold blood, telling them, 'Our thoughts and prayers with you.' Then, if the pattern holds, they will immediately retreat into silence."—Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

Noting that 119,079 children and teens have been killed by gun violence since 1979 (when such collection of such statistics began), Edelman said this number is larger than the number of Americans killed in any of the 20th century's largest wars.

"Where is our anti-war movement to protect children from pervasive gun violence here at home?" she asked.

Though White House spokesman Jay Carney received wide rebuke for saying that Friday "was not the day" to talk about gun control, the President reassured some mildly in his later remarks by saying "we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."

A new trend on Twitter began after Carney's comments, with many following the hashtag #todayIStheday, meaning the day to "talk about gun violence."

Within hours of the shooting, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, half a dozen online petitions had been started urging Obama and Congress to take action on gun violence.

The Brady Campaign, one of the nation's chief advocacy groups for stronger gun laws, said it was moved by Obama's emotional comments—where the president pushed away tears—and said it was ready with him "channel it into the change that is too long overdue."

A petition sponsored by the Brady Campaign under the name We Are Better Than This, was also spotlighted overnight, offering support for the victims and their families and saying, "We must work to make the voice of the American public heard. We all just want to live in a safer nation."

Other groups and commentators, however—having seen previous mass killings like Friday's spur discussion and lofy rhetoric but no action—were sadly predicting that even the death of twenty kindergarten-aged children will not be enough to break through the lock held by the nation's gun lobbyists and the industry's political operatives.

As the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said in a statement:

Our elected leaders, in the coming hours, will issue the typical platitudes to those who have seen their loved ones gunned down in cold blood, telling them, “Our thoughts and prayers with you.” Then, if the pattern holds, they will immediately retreat into silence and refuse to engage in any meaningful debate about America’s catastrophically flawed gun laws, which directly facilitate one gun massacre after the next.

The group said that this pattern should be unacceptable to Americans of conscience, and that the day of carnage and death of innocent children should compel the nation to "Americans must demand immediate action by our President and Congress to reform our gun laws."

The CSGV also held a vigil outside the White House Friday evening, calling on lawmakers to move beyond promises towards meaningful action. As Time's Alex Altman reports:

As twilight descended on Washington Friday afternoon, about 50 gun-control activists clustered on the pavement outside the White House for a candlelight vigil to urge action from the President after a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school left 27 dead. There will be an appropriate time for chewing over national gun policy, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters earlier Friday, “but I don’t think today is that day.” The activists disagreed. Many toted placards reading “#todayIStheday.” Another hand-scrawled sign bore a fatalistic warning: “Today: Sandy Hook. Tomorrow: ?”

The vigil had a slapdash feel; it was assembled on the fly earlier Friday by a coalition of anti-gun advocates already in Washington for meetings. Preachers, professional activists and sympathetic passers-by offered prayers for the President, testified to how gun violence had impacted their lives, or simply joined in chants of “We Shall Overcome.”

Many praised the tone of Obama’s tearful call for “meaningful action” earlier Friday, during brief remarks delivered in the White House briefing room named for a shooting victim. But they said the sentiments alone were insufficient. “It’s not enough, Mr. President,” said Toby Hoover, the the executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. “It’s just not enough.” Leroy Duncan, an activist from Minnesota, spoke movingly of the 86 Americans who die of gun violence each day. “These people need heroes,” he said. “President Obama, you can be that hero.”

Writing at Common Dreams, Ira Chernus, professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, put focus on the mental health aspects of the violence in Connecticut and the troubling fact that the "mental health problem" in the US is not a problem simply because some individuals are afflicted with mental and emotional illness, but because the nation—as a communal whole—has a problem it has for too long ignored.

Chernus writes:

When we talk about mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals, our society puts the emphasis on “individuals.” Without really thinking about it, most of us assume that we’re dealing with peculiar cases, each one caused by some unique set of problems encased in one individual’s brain.

We just don’t have many cultural resources at all to think about mental/emotional disturbance as a societal problem. Oh, there’s shelves full of books in university libraries which can teach us to see it that way. But that academic perspective has not percolated through to our shared public myths. We still tend, as a society, rather reflexively to see troubled people as individual “weirdos,” unique outliers from the norm. [...]

What we have here, to some degree that’s impossible to quantify, is a living legacy of the days when mental and emotional disturbance were interpreted as signs of sin. (“Evil visited this community today,” said Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, as if the the tragedy were caused by some distant, utterly alien metaphysical force.) Just as sin was seen to be the responsibility of the individual, so mental/emotional disturbance is still seen to be, if not the individual’s responsibility, at least an individual problem. The proud American tradition of individualism is also, I suspect, at the root of the popular resistance to gun control.

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