By Dave Kopel
National Review Online. April 19, 2013.
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." So said Winston Churchill after the Second Battle of El Alamein, the turning point of World War II in the Africa theater. Churchill predicted that the British victory in Egypt, coupled with American victories in northwest Africa, provided "a new hope for the whole world."
Yesterday, the Bloomberg-Obama anti-gun agenda was routed like the Axis troops in 1942. The last time the U.S. Senate voted on an "assault weapons" ban, in 2004, the measure received 52 votes. This time, the proposed ban received only 40 votes.
Congress has decisively rejected the politics of cynicism and exploitation, the use of Newtown as a political opportunity to crack down on law-abiding gun owners. Congress has rejected the malicious demonization of the National Rifle Association and Second Amendment supporters. Attempts to teach civil society that continued resistance to Obamaism is futile, so everyone might as well begin negotiating terms of surrender, have failed.
Today is a good day to begin what should have begun on December 15, 2012: the search for genuine reforms that could help prevent another Newtown.
Contrary to the claims of the gun-control axis, opponents of gun-rights restrictions are not callous about the dead children and teachers. Everyone across the political spectrum was deeply affected emotionally by Newtown. Some of them turned that emotion into demanding that the government “do something” about guns, which typically meant passing the most repressive anti-gun laws that looked politically possible in any given jurisdiction, regardless of whether such laws had the slightest thing to do with Newtown. In this way of thinking, the real perpetrator of Newtown was America’s four-century history as a gun culture; whatever could be done to suppress that culture would be the proper memorial to the Newtown victims.
To others, however, the right response would mean fewer deaths of innocents in the future. Such measures can include legitimate, constitutional gun-control laws that reduce the number of guns in the wrong hands, including those of the mentally ill. The federal laws enacted after Virginia Tech were a start in this process, but there is plenty of room for improvement.
Because only a very small percentage of people who are mentally ill are dangerously violent, it is essential that dialogue about reforms not stigmatize the mentally ill as a general class. As with the deprivation of any constitutional right, there must be strong protections for due process, including fair hearings where both sides can present evidence, and a neutral decision-maker. Especially with regard to America’s veterans, such reforms are long overdue, and Senator Richard Burr’s reform amendment on this issue got 56 votes yesterday.
But mental-health reforms must go far beyond the issue of gun possession. Some of the violent mentally ill, like the Aurora murderer, can build sophisticated bombs. Anyone who is severely mentally ill and violent can run over a crowd of people with a car.
The murderers in Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown were all people who should have been civilly committed for treatment. Half a century ago, they could have been. State-level reforms should strengthen civil-commitment laws while fully respecting due process. States’ funding for mental -health treatment needs to be greatly increased. Over the past months, I have received many e-mails from people who know someone who is mentally ill and violent; again and again, they are told that the state or local government has no resources to help the individual — until the individual is caught perpetrating a violent felony, and then the individual will be imprisoned. In fact, more spending on mental health now would pay for itself in the long run with reduced prison costs.
Now is the time for state legislatures’ study committees to take a comprehensive look at mental-health issues, and make sure to receive extensive input from mental-health professionals and other experts. Providing the resources for a strong mental-health system that protects both public safety and individual rights will never get the media attention anti-gun laws do. Reformers will probably reap few political benefits, since mental-health providers and advocates, unlike Michael Bloomberg, cannot buy millions of dollars of political advertising at the drop of a hat.
There will be only one benefit for all the hard work: making a future Newtown less likely by providing prompt and proper treatment to people who are a danger to themselves and others.
— Dave Kopel is an adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law at Denver University’s Sturm College of Law and research director at the Independence Institute in Denver.