NASHVILLE, Ind. – A couple times a year, I invite friends to come down to my cabin here for some target practice in the valley below. We shoot into the base of a ridge.
Most of the guns brought were shotguns, .22s and pistols. But one friend brought a Chinese assault rifle with a clip and at one point, squeezed off a succession of 30 shots. After about the 10th shot, I found the sequence unnerving. The fire power was – choose a word here: awesome, spectacular, overwhelming, catastrophic . . . .
My Friday morning last week seemed normal until I caught an initial, brief CNN report of a school shooting in Connecticut. Returning to the cabin about an hour later, the scope of the horror was only beginning to emerge. By Sunday, we would learn that the shooter, Adam Lanza, had used a Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle to gun down 20 children ages 6 and 7, along with the school principal, five teachers and his own mother. The kids suffered three to 11 gunshots each.
So this is the first set of thoughts I've deeply pondered, taking personal experience with the utter tragedy in Sandy Hook. The assault rifle is a military weapon, designed for battlefields. It really has no civilian application. I don't know any deer or turkey hunters who would take to the field with one. You don't need firepower of that magnitude to protect your home or property. On that front, an Elkhart police chief once told me that a pump action shotgun would be best for protecting home and self. "Anyone who hears you pump that will think twice about proceeding," he said.
I was struck that as of this writing, no Indiana elected official had weighed in on the massacre in a policy sense, though U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita commented on Facebook that he and his wife were "deeply saddened" and that he would "pray for their comfort and peace."
Indiana is described as a "God, guns and guts" state. Many officials from both parties earn "A" National Rifle Association ratings. In the past two sessions of the Indiana General Assembly, we've watched legislation pass and be signed into law by Gov. Mitch Daniels allowing people to take guns into the workplace (which was opposed by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce), into state parks, and now Indiana gun laws supersede any local ordinances like the one in Hammond, which was passed by its city council a couple decades ago in response to a City Hall shooting. President Obama has signed bills into law allowing guns into national parks.
The National Rifle Association has a big political footprint in Indiana. It spent more than $500,000 on behalf of Indiana Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock in his race against U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, whose support of the Brady Bill in 1993, a semi-automatic weapon ban in 1993 and a reinstatement of the repealed ban in 2004 (which failed), and a regulation of gun shows in 2004 were too much for the association.
In the 2010 U.S. Senate race, the NRA endorsed both Republican Sen. Dan Coats and Democratic opponent Brad Ellsworth, the former sheriff of Vanderburgh County.
But it's worth pondering the Indiana gun culture. The Violence Policy Center in Washington observed that in 2009, Indiana was one of 10 states were gun deaths (homicides and suicides) surpassed auto traffic deaths. In Indiana, there were 735 gun deaths in 2009, compared to 715 dying in traffic accidents. The other states are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington. Nationally, there were 31,236 firearm deaths and 36,361 motor vehicle deaths in 2009.
As a society, legislatures and Congress and even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have done a great deal to ensure greater auto safety. My Ford Escape has eight air bags, including those on the side. We've watched Indiana erect cable barriers on many miles of interstate highways to prevent crossover traffic head-ons. There are efforts to expand the state's trauma center networks.
There have been minimal efforts to address gun safety.
In March, 2011, NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, released "State Mental Health Cuts: A National Crisis," a report documenting deep cuts to state spending on services for children and adults living with serious mental illness. Indiana spent $270.3 million in 2011 on mental health services, but that was cut $24.7 million (or 9.1%) to $245.6 million in fiscal year 2012. It was the second largest percentage cut in the nation. On a per capita basis, with the national average at $122.90 per person, Indiana spends $87.65 per resident.
Indiana, however, is in the process of sending surplus revenue back to taxpayers, $111 per individual and $222 per couple. So our priority in the state is tax refunds, as opposed to making sure there are mental health resources available for people slipping away in mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, or in their own cases of acute psychosis. This is a state that doesn't mandate that students on school buses wear seat belts.
Prior to the election of President Obama in 2008 and again this year, there were reported spikes in gun sales as weapons advocates predicted he would seek to curtail gun rights. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others in Congress, on the other hand, have been sharply critical of the president for not pushing for gun control measures.
On Sunday night in Newtown, Obama made his fourth speech after a massacre. There were common threads: a disturbed young male – isolated with few friends, often immersed in a video game culture where gunning down people is a painless and sanction-free behavior – loads up high powered weapons and preys on the innocent in places like schools, movie theaters and malls.
“Whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide,” Obama vowed, addressing a grief-stricken audience of hundreds in the auditorium of the town’s high school. As he named the 20 child victims of the assault, sobs could be heard. “Whatever portion of sadness we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear,” Obama said. “Newtown, you are not alone.” He vowed to “use whatever power this office holds . . . in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” saying, “No single law, no set of laws, can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”
Earlier in the day, not a single gun rights advocate appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows. The NRA said it was still seeking facts and assessing the situation.
In Indiana, a Cedar Lake man was arrested Saturday for threatening to "kill as many people" as he could at a nearby school. On Monday, a local police chief said that Von I. Meyer, the man arrested, was only joking. He is being held without bond at the Lake County Jail.
But on MSNBC Monday morning, "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough, a former four-term Republican congressman from Florida who was rated highly by the NRA, said, "Friday changed everything." He said that his "long held beliefs" on gun rights were "the ideologies of my past career" and were "no longer relevant."
Scarborough added, "Our bill of rights does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-style, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want" and explained, "It is time for Congress to put children before deadly dogmas."
So President Obama and a leading conservative commentator have put society on notice that changes are necessary.
Here in Indiana, which to date has not been scene to a killing field, there is plenty of soul searching ahead. The only safe thing to say is that on Friday, America heaved and cried and things are different now.