After Newtown: America needs a panel on guns and mental health

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Most Americans spent part of last weekend reflecting on and talking about the unbearable tragedy of the children and their protectors murdered in Newtown, Conn., on Friday.

The little ones' parents, and parents in general, were hit hardest. How can someone get over such a loss?

For those who didn't know any of the 6- and 7-year-olds, except through press reports, there are two chief reactions. The first is shame and the sense that something is wrong in a society where such slaughters repeatedly occur. The second is that something must be done and can be done to prevent this from happening again.

That's where it gets tough.

There is reason to believe that Barack Obama, based on what he said in Newtown Sunday night and his being an adoring father and a president just reelected, will take action. His first step should be to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to examine the problem and propose options.

It is far too easy to blame the National Rifle Association. Still, it is critical to remember that they represent far more than law-abiding gun owners, hunters and people who fear home invasion. They also stand for an aggressive arms industry that wants to continue to sell guns of all sorts with as few limits as possible.

Therefore, one part of a reasonable response by the president and Congress would be to ban the sale of high-powered, military-style weapons and large ammunition clips -- like those used in the Newtown carnage. Americans who want weapons for self-defense, sport and other legitimate purposes do not need the equivalent of an M-16.

How to properly balance competing rights -- of gun ownership and of fundamental security, whether in a classrooom, a movie theater or a college campus -- should be an objective of the president's blue-ribbon panel.

A related problem is the questionable performance of America's mental health system. The nation needs more sophisticated ways to identify, treat and contain those who are a threat to society well before they can unleash the kind of damage that took its toll over the weekend. Without a more effective approach to the ticking time bombs living among us, laws that curb high-powered weapons will be only half-measures that struggle to keep society half-safe. To address the other half, the president's commission must thoroughly scrutinize the nation's mental health system.

All this will take time and require hard choices, many of them political. But Americans and their elected leaders must be up to it, or else we must be prepared to bury more 6-year-olds and the other innocents caught in a crossfire of too much firepower and too little sanity.



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