Blow, Nocera and Collins

In “A Tragedy of Silence” Mr. Blow has a question:  When will our elected officials and lawmakers finally confront the gun lobby?  When pigs fly, Charles, when pigs fly.  Mr. Nocera also has a question:  “Should Kids Play Football?”  He says with brain researchers continuing to study the effect of concussions, the answer to parents is … maybe.  In “Looking for America” Ms. Collins says we have to make ourselves better. Otherwise, the story from Connecticut is too unspeakable to bear.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Another day, another mass shooting in America. When, and how, will this end? In fact, will it ever end?

On Friday, a gunman identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed 26 people, including 20 children between the ages 5 and 10, at a Connecticut elementary school. He is reported to have also killed his mother, a kindergarten teacher at the school, and committed suicide.

This comes after Jacob Roberts, a 22-year-old man, armed with a semiautomatic AR-15, carrying extra magazines and wearing a hockey mask walked into a shopping mall in Oregon filled with 10,000 people and began shooting. He killed two people, and then took his own life.

A visibly shaken President Obama said after the shooting at the school, “As a country, we have been through this too many times.” He continued, “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

I agree. I only hope that in coming days we flesh out what “meaningful action” means in policy terms. If not now, when? After the next shooting?

How many more deaths and mass shootings will it take for Washington to begin to lead the country in a deeper conversation about sensible gun controls? What will it take for our politicians to take firm and principled positions on gun policies and stand up to the gun lobby in this country? Surely this is a moment that calls all of us to reckoning.

In the vacuum of strong advocacy, too many Americans respond to tragedies like these in undesirable ways.

According to an August report from Bloomberg News, “background checks for gun purchases spiked 41 percent in Colorado after 12 people were killed inside a suburban Denver movie theater, according to state data.”

And while gun control advocates grow more quiet, the gun lobby grows stronger and louder. According to a report issued Friday by the Center for Responsive Politics’, “For gun rights groups, 2012 was the most active election cycle since 2000. They contributed a total of $3 million to candidates, 96 percent of them Republicans.” By contrast, the group pointed out that “gun control groups contributed less in this election cycle than in any cycle as far back as OpenSecrets has data (1990).”

According to the Web site ThinkProgress, Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, wasted no time trying to pin Friday’s shooting on gun control advocates. ThinkProgress quoted a statement of his that read, in part: “Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands. Federal and state laws combined to ensure that no teacher, no administrator, no adult had a gun at the Newtown school where the children were murdered. This tragedy underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones.”


This is a sad, sad state of affairs.

No wonder public opinion is shifting away from gun control. Gallup found that the number of Americans who believe that these laws should be stricter fell more than 40 percent from 1991 to 2011.

Gallup also found, for the first time last year, “greater opposition to than support for a ban on semiautomatic guns or assault rifles, 53 percent to 43 percent. In the initial asking of this question in 1996, the numbers were nearly reversed, with 57 percent for and 42 percent against an assault rifle ban.”

Both the Oregon and Connecticut shooters had semiautomatic weapons.

And screening prospective gun buyers for criminal records and for mental illness is helpful, but it is not enough and isn’t always done.

And mass shooters don’t necessarily have criminal records and seem to have no problem obtaining legal guns.

An analysis published earlier this year by Mother Jones of the 61 mass shootings in America over the last 30 years found that: “Of the 139 guns possessed by the killers, more than three-quarters were obtained legally.”

(The Oregon shooter stole his gun. The Connecticut shooter’s guns are reported to have been legally purchased in his mother’s name.)

We must reinstate the assault weapons ban. Military-style guns belong in the hands of military personnel, and maybe police officers, but not in the hands of civilians.

A vast majority of mass shootings in the last three decades involved assault weapons and semiautomatic handguns, according to Mother Jones.

Even if you believe, as most Americans do, that the Second Amendment grants Americans the right to bear arms, one must also acknowledge the right of other Americans to not bear arms and be safe.

Where are the voices for those who choose not to — or are not old enough to — own guns? Are the gunless to have no advocate? Will our politicians forever cower before the gun lobby?

Yes.  This has been another episode of SASQ.  Here’s Mr. Nocera, writing from Chapel Hill, NC:

“Do your children play football?” I asked Kevin Guskiewicz the other day over breakfast. “Yes,” he replied, as I nearly fell off my chair. “My 16-year-old and my 12-year-old played football this year. They had a great experience.”

Guskiewicz is, among other things, the chairman of the department of exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina here. His primary area of study is the connection between recurring concussions, depression and cognitive impairment. At their worst, these are symptoms of a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. Guskeiwicz’s research on the lasting damage repeated concussions can do to a football player’s brain helped convince the National Football League to tinker with the rules to make the game’s most dangerous play — the kickoff — a little less dangerous. He has been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant and has been profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.

Which is why I had naturally assumed that he would be opposed to children playing full-contact football. C.T.E. is a disease that used to be associated solely with boxers. (Indeed, it used to be called “dementia pugilistica.”) But over the past eight or nine years, researchers like Guskiewicz have been studying its effect on other athletes, especially football players.

Thanks not only to their work, but also to a rash of suicides by former (and in several cases, current) football players, as well as lawsuits that have been filed against both the N.F.L. and the N.C.A.A., the issue has gotten enormous visibility. Picking up on the news, many parents now don’t let their children play football because, after all, we all know it is too dangerous. Don’t we?

As I discovered after talking to a number of brain researchers who are studying C.T.E., the science really isn’t able to make that definitive claim — at least not yet. What we know for sure is that multiple concussions can lead to C.T.E. Dr. Ann McKee, a co-director at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, recently published a study with colleagues that examined, posthumously, brain samples of 85 people who had repeated mild brain trauma as opposed to concussions. Some 80 percent of them, the study found, showed evidence of C.T.E.

Does this mean that football players are more likely to get C.T.E., just because of the relentless pounding they take? Yes, says McKee: “Exposure to the sport itself is associated with this disease.”

Guskiewicz, however, is not yet convinced. “Studies like that clearly show that C.T.E. exists in players without a history of concussions, but they haven’t completely connected the dots. It’s a little like saying that if there are a rash of ankle sprains on a tennis team, and they all wear Nike tennis shoes, then the tennis shoes must be the culprit.”

“I always use the word ‘recognized’ when I talk about concussions,” said a third researcher, Dr. Robert Cantu, who is also a co-director of the Boston University center. After all, he says, in the bad old days — which is really just a few years ago — team doctors often missed signs of a concussion. “If you are convinced that players without a history of concussions really didn’t have concussions, then yes: repetitive head-banging alone can cause C.T.E.,” he says. “But we also know that some 80 percent of mild concussions go unrealized.” Still, he said, “Our data is showing that it is not just recognized concussions but total brain trauma that counts.”

When I asked Cantu if he believed that kids should be allowed to play football, he practically growled at me. “Haven’t you read my book?” he asked. Entitled “Concussions and Our Kids,” and published just a few months ago, it argues that children should be confined to touch football until they turn 14. “The young brain is more vulnerable,” he said. “Besides there is just too much that we don’t know yet.”

So why does Guskiewicz disagree with Cantu — a man with whom he has co-authored many a paper on C.T.E.? Like many people who study C.T.E., Guskiewicz is a football fan. Although there are those who now advocate abolishing football altogether — a pipe dream if ever there was one — his goal is to help make the game safer. Part of that, in his view, is teaching proper techniques that protect the head. “I worry that if we don’t teach the right way to block and tackle early, by the time they get to high school — which is when the physics of the game really changes — it will be too late,” he says.

And what does McKee think about children playing football? When I posed it to her, I could hear her sighing over the phone.

“I’m really conflicted about that,” she replied. Aren’t we all?

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

“I’m sorry,” said Representative Carolyn McCarthy, her voice breaking. “I’m having a really tough time.”

She’s the former nurse from Long Island who ran for Congress in 1996 as a crusader against gun violence after her husband and son were victims of a mass shooting on a commuter train. On Friday morning, McCarthy said, she began her day by giving an interview to a journalist who was writing a general story about “how victims feel when a tragedy happens.”

“And then 15 minutes later, a tragedy happens.”

McCarthy, whose husband died and son was critically wounded, is by now a practiced hand at speaking out when a deranged man with a lot of firepower runs amok. But the slaughter of 20 small children and seven adults in Connecticut left her choked up and speechless.

“I just don’t know what this country’s coming to. I don’t know who we are any more,” she said.

President Obama was overwhelmed as well, when he attempted to comfort the nation. It was his third such address in the wake of a soul-wrenching mass shooting. “They had their entire lives ahead of them,” he said, and he had trouble saying anything more.

It was, of course, a tragedy. Yet tragedies happen all the time. Terrible storms strike. Cars crash. Random violence occurs. As long as we’re human, we’ll never be invulnerable.

But when a gunman takes out kindergartners in a bucolic Connecticut suburb, three days after a gunman shot up a mall in Oregon, in the same year as fatal mass shootings in Minneapolis, in Tulsa, in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, in a theater in Colorado, a coffee bar in Seattle and a college in California — then we’re doing this to ourselves.

We know the story. The shooter is a man, usually a young man, often with a history of mental illness. Sometimes in a rage over a lost job, sometimes just completely unhinged. In the wake of the Newtown shootings, the air was full of experts discussing the importance of psychological counseling. “We need to look at what drives a crazy person to do these kind of actions,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the House.

Every country has a sizable contingent of mentally ill citizens. We’re the one that gives them the technological power to play god.

This is all about guns — access to guns and the ever-increasing firepower of guns. Over the past few years we’ve seen one shooting after another in which the killer was wielding weapons holding 30, 50, 100 bullets. I’m tired of hearing fellow citizens argue that you need that kind of firepower because it’s a pain to reload when you’re shooting clay pigeons. Or that the founding fathers specifically wanted to make sure Americans retained their right to carry rifles capable of mowing down dozens of people in a couple of minutes.

Recently the Michigan House of Representatives passed and sent to the governor a bill that, among other things, makes it easy for people to carry concealed weapons in schools. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday, a spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger said that it might have meant “the difference between life and death for many innocent bystanders.” This is a popular theory of civic self-defense that discounts endless evidence that in a sudden crisis, civilians with guns either fail to respond or respond by firing at the wrong target.

It was perhaps the second-most awful remark on one of the worst days in American history, coming up behind Mike Huckabee’s asking that since prayer is banned from public schools, “should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

We will undoubtedly have arguments about whether tougher regulation on gun sales or extra bullet capacity would have made a difference in Connecticut. In a way it doesn’t matter. America needs to tackle gun violence because we need to redefine who we are. We have come to regard ourselves — and the world has come to regard us — as a country that’s so gun happy that the right to traffic freely in the most obscene quantities of weapons is regarded as far more precious than an American’s right to health care or a good education.

We have to make ourselves better. Otherwise, the story from Connecticut is too unspeakable to bear.

Nearly two years ago, after Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in a mass shooting in Arizona, the White House sent up signals that Obama was preparing to do something. “I wouldn’t rule out that at some point the president talks about the issues surrounding gun violence,” said his press secretary at the time, Robert Gibbs.

On Friday, the president said: “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

Time passes. And here we are.


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