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Editorial: Massacre makes safety issues unavoidable

Dec. 18, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

As a still-stunned nation mourns the killing of 26 people at a Connecticut school, including 20 young children, it also is confronted with serious questions about what should be done to counter such horrific mass murders in the future.

The circumstances of a 20-year-old man's assault on the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Friday raises some obvious questions for which there are no easy answers. But, as U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in the wake of the deadly shooting, the carnage of 6- and 7-year-olds being gunned down in their school means that issues too long pushed into the background cannot be ignored any longer.

Those include taking a look at the nation's gun laws and lack of restrictions on assault-style weapons, treatment of the mentally ill and their access to weapons, and the level of security at our schools.

In recent years, the gun control issue has been relatively dormant as politicians have shied away from it because of the public's leanings and the persuasion of gun-rights lobbyists. Assault-style weapons, apparently of the kind that was used to kill the Sandy Hook students and staff members, were banned for a 10-year period ending in 2004, and there has been little effort to reinstate that prohibition.

But Manchin, an avid hunter and member of the National Rifle Association, and other lawmakers are calling for taking a fresh look at placing restrictions on owning such weapons and expanded ammunition arsenals that go with them. "I don't know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle, I don't know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting," Manchin said.

The killer at Sandy Hook had such weaponry, and was able to shoot each of his victims as many as 11 times in a span of 10 minutes before he decided to kill himself as police closed in on him. Investigators said Sunday the gunman was carrying an arsenal of hundreds of rounds of especially deadly ammunition -- enough to kill just about every student in the school if given enough time.

Although investigators have not yet said whether the killer was believed to have a mental illness, he has been described as having a personality disorder. That has prompted calls for making it harder for mentally ill individuals to obtain weapons, and an examination of mental health resources to treat people. A piece of that is getting all mental health records into the national instant-check database used for approving gun sales. Although that's already required by law, experts say the courts can't keep up to date with placing current information.

Another gun-policy issue that merits revisiting is requiring criminal background checks for the guns sold at gun shows, flea markets, private sales or online. None is required for those types of sales now, although the reasoning for such a double standard isn't clear.

The other overriding question is what more can be done about security at our schools. In the wake of the Columbine, Colo., school massacre much has been done to make schools more secure, yet the Sandy Hook killer was able to enter the locked school and start shooting after breaking a glass. This begs the question about whether schools must be designed to further limit entry and, perhaps more important, whether we have reached a point where at least one armed guard should be present at every school any time school is in session. Gun-rights advocates make a point that if the prinicipal at Sandy Hook had been armed when she tried to stop the killer, perhaps she could have ended the slaughter rather than be killed herself. We doubt that arming school personnel is the answer, but having armed security guards may be part of the solution.

As stated before, there are no easy answers to these questions, and any steps do need to be balanced against the rights of individuals. But, as the massacre in Newtown shows, the cost is simply too dear to do nothing.

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