Daniel Gallington is the Senior Policy and Program Adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
America is not the only place in the world with violence perpetrated by people with serious mental illness. It happens everywhere—and comparing incidents serves primarily to highlight the reality and ever increasing severity of those with untreated mental illness in modern society. And, they do their twisted violence with guns, knives, bombs, arson, and vehicles driven into crowds of innocent people. However, what Americans can or will actually do about gun violence from the mentally ill is a far more complex issue than it is for the rest of the world—this for a number of reasons not understood by most foreigners and some Americans.
To begin with, if you're an American, how you think about guns is usually related to three basic factors: what part of our country you grew up in; what you learned from your parents, relatives and friends; and whether you served in the military. Whether you or your family may have also been a victim of violence can have "pro" or "con" effect on your view on guns, and it's easy to understand either reaction.
Perhaps ironically, our two largest political parties haven't had much to do with it, especially over the past few years; however, this is not without some major internal intricacies and oddities. For example: Far more Republicans are "pro gun" than Democrats, but many Democrats from the South and West are also "pro gun." And, far more Democrats from the East and West coasts (and the big cities) are "anti gun," as are some notable "big city" Republicans.
And, Democrats remember—painfully—1994, when, during the Clinton administration, the "assault weapons ban" was passed by Congress. The national political reaction was dramatic—a 54-seat "swing" to the Republicans in Congress—this after Democrats had enjoyed the majority in the House for 40 years!
This "political lesson" also explains: 1) why substantive gun-related legislation has not been passed since, 2) why the liberal Obama administration totally avoided "gun issues" during its first term, and 3) why Democrats didn't raise gun control issues during the 2012 campaign.
While they will probably not admit it, Democrats simply knew better. And, had the Connecticut shooting not happened, it's exactly where we would be on the gun issue today. This in spite of the 2011 shooting of a Democratic congresswoman—and the killing and wounding of several others—by a lunatic with a "high-capacity" handgun, as the congresswoman spoke in public and in her home district!
In fact, the legislative and judicial mood of the country was clearly headed in the opposite direction—propelled by a steadily enlarging popular consensus—with "right to carry" and "castle doctrine" legislation passing in many more states. And, the Supreme Court ruled against the Washington, D.C. gun ban, while other federal courts ruled against the Illinois gun ban. "Gun bans," by the way, simply don't work to control urban gang violence, such as we have in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles. Violent criminals, especially drug-centered ones, will always have guns, while the law-abiding citizenry comply with bans. Finally, so-called "mass shootings in America"—perpetrated mostly by the mentally ill—actually increased slightly during the 10 year assault weapons ban, destroying the basic "cause and effect" assumption of the sponsors of the ban. The lesson here? Simple: Taking guns away from honest people doesn't keep them away from criminals or crazy people—that's a whole different problem.
A whole new ball game?
Enter the Connecticut tragedy: As a result, do we actually have what gun control advocates are calling "a whole new ball game"? Despite the totally understandable public outrage and anguish of the event, most of us know otherwise. This pragmatic consensus is based on the following reasons, which go much deeper into the fabric of American life and society than are realized or understood by most foreign critics.
Where to now?
So, this is where we "really are"—and always have been—on gun control in America: It's not "a whole new ball game" and won't be unless we change our Constitution. And, while we might be able to "beat around the margins" of the issue with some new gun regulations and procedures, hopefully we will—instead—concentrate our real focus, frustrations, resources, and political energies on aggressive and effective new public (mental) health initiatives. Meanwhile, Americans will continue to enjoy their constitutional right to bear arms, just as our forefathers knew we should—as a basic guarantee of our safety and security—and one constitutionally defined as a protection from oppressive government. This is a fundamental part of who we are and where we came from. And, unlike the political evolution of many others in the world, our approach has worked pretty well—it continues to work because of the basic assurances for each of us that were originally intended.