The shooting deaths of two police officers in Topeka Sunday evening provided a tragic local connection to the 26 shooting deaths on Friday in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
In both cases, the apparent killer also is dead. Law enforcement officials will try to piece together the circumstances of both incidents while government officials, mental health authorities and others try to come up with ways to prevent what has become an all-too-common scenario.
The horrible fact that 20 of the shooting victims in Newtown were 6 and 7 years old has provided new incentive and urgency to trying to stop the cycle of violence. One of the first reactions from government officials is to renew effort to control gun ownership across the nation. Reducing the number of guns, especially high-powered assault weapons, could have a positive impact, but the issue of gun violence in America is a complex problem that requires more than one approach.
One is to deal with the kind of mental illness that often drives horrific incidents like the one in Newtown.
After Friday’s shooting, a mother and writer from Boise, Idaho, shared a wrenching online account of life with her 13-year-old son who already is exhibiting frightening symptoms and behaviors. A few weeks ago, after she asked him to return his overdue library books, he pulled a knife and threatened to kill his mother, then himself. Police officers came and took him to the hospital emergency room but there were no beds in the mental hospital so they sent him home with a prescription designed to treat psychotic conditions.
The mother readily admits that her son’s problems are too much for her to handle, but because many state-run treatment centers and mental hospitals in Idaho have been closed, the only advice her son’s social worker could offer was to get her son charged with a crime so “the system” would “create a paper trail.” How desperate must a mother be to take that advice concerning her high-IQ, sometimes loving son?
Unfortunately, there probably are families right here in Kansas facing a similar dilemma. State hospitals have been closed in recent years, and it’s extremely difficult, especially for people with limited financial resources, to find in-patient mental health care. We can’t keep using our jails and prisons as a substitute for mental health facilities.
Many experts also wonder about the impact of our violent culture on people who may already be predisposed to violence. Video games and many movies and television shows glorify and normalize violence in a way that may make it somehow more acceptable to someone who has trouble controlling his or her emotions and discerning the difference between right and wrong. As a society, maybe we need to re-examine our “entertainment” values.
We applaud the commitment of officials in the wake of the Newtown shootings to “do something” about gun violence in America. It is a challenging issue that won’t be easy to solve, but the tragic deaths of six educators and 20 young children certainly should concentrate our attention to the task.