WASHINGTON -- They've begun burying the 20 children in the bucolic New England town of Newtown, Conn., this week, beautiful, innocent kids killed by a psychotic 20-year-old gunman.
Adam Lanza, a troubled, apparently medicated youth -- whose mother, an avid gun enthusiast, taught him how to shoot firearms of all calibers -- also fatally shot six others, teachers and staff, at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The school, equipped with a brand-new security system that was in "lockdown," was considered by parents to be one of the safest anywhere. Nevertheless, Lanza shot his way inside the building as easily as if he was breaking into a one-room schoolhouse.
A grief-stricken community, along with a stunned nation, is seeking answers, once again, to a battery of questions, some of which may be unknowable. How could this have happened? Why did Lanza -- who began his rampage by shooting his mother in her bed as she slept, then killed himself before police arrived at the school -- commit this insane act of carnage? And the hardest question: How can we prevent this from happening again?
We've been through mass shootings many times before, but it seems they're happening far too frequently lately. Surveys conducted in the aftermath of previous shootings found a majority of Americans saw the killings as an "isolated act" of a single enraged individual.
But this one struck a deeper chord in the psyche of the nation's citizenry. A Washington Post poll reported that a 52 percent majority believes that the elementary school shooting "reflects broader problems in American society."
Many see a pervasive media culture of violence throughout our society that is poisoning the minds of our children. The Parents Television Council reports that when an average kid graduates from elementary school, he or she will have seen 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 acts of violence on TV. By age 18, the murders climb to 40,000. The council says this leads troubled youths to commit aggressive acts in adulthood.
Others say the problem is a lack of stricter gun control laws in our country, states and communities. According to available FBI statistics, there were 12,664 murders in the United States last year, 8,583 of them caused by guns.
From the moment the Newtown story broke last week, the cry from the national news media and Congress has been all about increased gun control laws. But this issue is a great deal more complicated than just the availability of guns. In Lanza's case, he used his mother's firearms, all of which were legally obtained.
Connecticut has one of the strictest gun control laws in the country. Adam Lanza's mother had to go to the police station to register her handguns and rifles and to be fingerprinted and have a thorough background check.
Seven states and the District of Columbia now prohibit ownership of assault weapons. Eleven states have waiting periods for firearm purchases. Thirty states require that the prospective gun purchaser's mental health be included in the FBI's background-check system.
The drive for new nationwide gun control measures will no doubt intensify in the weeks and months to come. Bills are being drafted in the Senate, and President Obama is drawing up legislative proposals that will be unveiled soon.
But if more gun controls were the answer, how does one explain more than 400 fatal shootings in Chicago over the past year -- turning it into the crime capital of the country? Illinois has tough gun control laws, including waiting periods for new gun purchasers and FBI criminal background checks that require mental health reports.
Yet the carnage in Chicago alone, where a dozen or more people have been shot to death on some recent weekends, continues. This is a problem of impotent law enforcement, not gun control.
But the tragedy in Newtown raises other long-ignored critical issues that need to be a key part of the national discussion about how we can stop these mass killings.
Let's start with school safety and making our learning centers far more secure. Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett says we need to think about security personnel in our schools or on the grounds during classroom hours.
"I'm not so sure ... I wouldn't want one person in a school armed, ready for this kind of thing," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "It has to be someone who is trained. It has to be someone who is responsible," he said.
There were reports of school administrator meetings in localities across the country in the wake of last week's shootings. No doubt parents were bombarding their local schools, asking about existing security measures and how vulnerable they were to a copycat attack.
And while we're at it, let's re-examine how easy it is to enter our elementary, middle and senior high schools. Are stronger lockdown measures needed? Can a gunman just shoot his way in with ease?
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, security has been reinforced in office buildings across our country. The U.S. Capitol has been fortified with the best security and obstacle technology money can buy. What about our kids?
Somewhere in the $68 billion federal education budget there should be enough money to help make our schools safer than they are now.
Perhaps the most pivotal issue that has been ignored in the ensuing discussion of the Newtown killings is mental illness and identifying people who need treatment before they become a danger to themselves or their community.
The common denominator throughout the mass killings at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Sandy Hook and others is that they were carried out by sick people. In most cases, their illnesses were belatedly brought to the attention of medical and judicial authorities when it was too late.
There were clues and danger signals everywhere, but no one related them to higher-ups. We need to reconsider the maddening medical privacy rules that cloak the lives of mentally troubled youths if we are to prevent the horrors of Newtown from happening again at a school near you.
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