Trying to make sense of this senseless act. Trying to explain things that cannot be explained. These were words frequently heard on Sunday from Newtown, Conn. When 20 children, aged 6 and 7, are gunned down by a disturbed man, it is impossible for emotionally stable people to comprehend what caused the horror.
Inevitably, gun-control advocates called for legislative action, seeing Newtown as the "tipping point" because of the ages of the victims. The New York Times, arguably the most influential newspaper in America, ran the page-one headline: PUPILS WERE SHOT MULTIPLE TIMES WITH A SEMIAUTOMATIC, OFFICIALS SAY. Next to it was a large black box with the names of the victims in reverse type. The emotional effect was powerful, and so was the subliminal message: Semiautomatics kill schoolchildren and should be banned.
We found ourselves agreeing with Joseph Lieberman, the independent senator from Connecticut now in his last month in office, when he called on Fox News Sunday for a panel to try to answer the overriding question: "How could this have happened, and is there anything we can do to prevent it from happening again?" Lieberman, who is in fact an advocate of gun control, nonetheless sensibly suggested an inquiry far broader than a gun debate.
He mentioned the holes in America's mental health system, which allow deranged people like Adam Lanza to float through life without anyone knowing the threat they pose. He pointed to the violence of America's entertainment culture, in which video games and movies glorify random gunplay and turn shooters into heroes. Why else do so many of these psychopaths wear black clothing or military fatigues?
And yes, if gun control laws could have prevented the Newtown massacre, Americans should at least weigh the pros and cons. There are strong signs that gun control would not have prevented it -- chiefly the fact that it did not prevent it. The killer was blocked by Connecticut's strict gun laws when he attempted to purchase a rifle the week before the attack.
So Lanza used his mother's guns instead, which raises another issue. Setting aside any Second Amendment considerations, there are nearly nine privately owned firearms in America today for every 10 people, according to the Small Arms Survey. Short of universal gun confiscation -- which even after this horrific event does not justify -- it could be decades before any new gun control laws have a noticeable effect, if even then.
Some five decades ago, D.C. public high school students kept rifles in their lockers for school-sanctioned competitive shooting. The fact that this seems absurd today is a sign of how people have changed. The guns have always been with us, but America seems to be producing a lot more silently violent people now -- think of Kip Kinkel, Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, and the boy in Oklahoma who was arrested Friday, accused of plotting a copycat crime.
A disturbing number from their generation -- many of whom have never harmed anyone -- seem to have emerged from childhood lacking in basic social skills, control of emotions, respect for authority, or any sense of clear boundaries about how to treat other people. Maybe it's too simple to blame bad parenting, family breakdown, the decline of religious faith and the robust social structure that churches create, or the increasingly amoral depiction of violence in popular films and on television. But they may all play a role.
By all means, debate guns, but the conversation cannot stop there. It needs to hit closer to home, about the responsibility of parents, teachers and Hollywood to respect the values that America once took for granted.