Anything to be said at this point about the heartbreaking massacre in Newtown, Conn. last Friday has most likely already been said.
That said, there appears to be growing sentiment in favor of restricting or the outright banning of ownership of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
One reader made two points about automatic weapons: first, they are made for one specific purpose, killing people, and second, if you can’t hit your target in two or three shots, you don’t need a weapon that will fire off 40 rounds in a few seconds.
Of course, the NRA types will fall back on their tired reasoning that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. That trite expression no longer holds water. It may be people who want to kill people, but the weapon is the enabler, the tool that makes killing faster and more efficient.
But the roots of the Newtown tragedy go far deeper than the mere debate over weapons.
Clearly, something must be done to restrict the availability of automatic weapons but this country, this state, and we as a society must also address the lack of availability of care for the mentally ill among us.
To leave these people with nowhere to turn, to leave them wandering the streets wrestling with their personal demons, is nothing short of criminal.
The fact that we may have never encountered someone suffering from mental disorders does not imply that they’re not just around the next corner. In fact, if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, there probably have been times when each of us has struggled through periods of depression, insecurity and uncertainty.
In August of 2009, it was announced that the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital (NOAH), the only public hospital in the city with a dedicated mental health ward, would be closed on Sept. 1.
Gov. Piyush Jindal, through his then-secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals Alan Levine, said the facility would be integrated with Southeast Louisiana Hospital 40 miles away in Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain in a move to save $14 million.
“You don’t prevent people from committing crimes by building more jails,” Levine said. “Similarly, you don’t prevent people from having mental problems by building more beds; all it is doing is cycling people in and out of beds.”
A mere three years after the closure of NOAH, Piyush announced the closure of Southeast Louisiana Hospital, leaving residents of southeast Louisiana, the most heavily-populated area of the state, without a state mental health facility.
Jindal said Southeast patients would be transferred to East Louisiana Hospital in Jackson and Central Louisiana Hospital in Pineville.
Where, one must wonder, will they go when Jindal closes those hospitals?
When a facility is shut down, many patients refuse to move to a new location and they often cease taking their medication, which only exacerbates an already serious problem.
Take the 2008 case of Bernell Johnson. Described by relatives as paranoid schizophrenic, and recently released from a mental facility, Johnson was approached on a New Orleans street by police officer Nicola Cotton because she thought he fit the description of a wanted rape suspect.
Suddenly agitated, he turned on the 24-year-old officer who was two months pregnant. During a struggle, he grabbed her weapon and emptied it on her. Once it was over, a calmer remained by her lifeless body until other officers arrived. Should he have been released when he was? Probably not but the point is, he was wandering the streets, untreated and unmedicated.
This is not to bestow pity on those who for reasons known only to their own twisted logic, decide to go on a killing rampage. It’s difficult to get past the anger and heartache to the root cause of the carnage. That’s human nature.
But not everyone suffering from mental issues is a killer. I once saw an elderly black man walking along the side of the U.S. 190 in Denham Springs and stopped and offered him a ride. When he was in my car, I asked where he was going and he told me he was trying to get back to his halfway house in Baton Rouge.
The only problem was, we were traveling away from, not toward Baton Rouge. As I drove, I tried to get more information from the obviously confused old gentleman. During the course of his ramblings, he happened to mention that had not heard the voices in his head for several days now. For the first time, the idea that I may have made a serious mistake entered my mind.
When I reached my road, I turned off the highway and suggested he proceed back toward Baton Rouge. Instead, as I drove away, I noticed he was walking in the same direction as I so when I reached my home, I called the police and suggested they pick him up and try to get him back to where he belonged.
They told me they’d already picked him up because a nervous resident called when she spotted him wandering in her neighborhood. He was harmless, but completely disoriented and he instilled fear in certain others.
Mental illness is very real and it affects many who cannot afford treatment. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon the state and society to ensure that treatment is readily available to those who so desperately need it.
Tragically, the lack of access to mental treatment and the easy access to deadly weapons converged in Newtown last week. As horrific as it was, it could have been even more catastrophic had the killer’s rampage continued.
We can only hope that sanity will prevail on the federal and state levels and both these problems—gun control and mental treatment availability—will be addressed without the accompanying political posturing that goes with so many debates these days.
Common sense must be the new order of the day. We can accept nothing less.
And finally, next Tuesday morning, when you are watching your children squealing and laughing in the mountain of Christmas presents and wrapping paper that surround them next to the tree, take a little time to remember those 20 little angels and their six protectors who never got a chance to celebrate with their families. Take a moment to remember the anguish their parents and family members must be suffering at that very moment, knowing that presents, already bought and wrapped, will never be opened by the intended recipients.
And then take a very long moment to hold your own children just a little longer and a little tighter. And don’t forget to tell them you love them, over and over.