Newtown’s Moral Authority for Action
By Ralph Nader
Po Murray, a mother of four children in Newtown, Connecticut, the location of the shooting rampage that took the lives of 20 youngsters and six adults, met with about forty of her townspeople in the local public library to take their grieving to a new level of resolve that they call Newtown United.
The PBS NewsHour carried the conversation. “This catastrophe happened in our town,” Murray said, “this is an opportunity for us to do something really good from a very tragic event that happened. This is a watershed for meaningful change. And I think that we could do something big. And I want to be defining our town by that, not by the tragic event that happened.”
Others agreed. James Belden, who runs an environmental nonprofit, said that Newtown, finding itself in “an unfortunate place right now,” has “a little more of a voice than we did on Thursday.” Tom Bittman, a technology consultant, added: “And if nothing else, if we can get a good national discussion going, and keep it going and get to a resolution, then we win.”
From such horrible tragedies emerge the beginnings of a national movement that moves sanctimonious politicians from talking to acting. Newtown has a moral authority to be heard and respected in Washington, D.C. and around the country. It is an authority born of a determination that these children and brave adults shall not have perished in vain. Imagine 12,000 human beings in the U.S. who, in columnist Richard Cohen’s words, annually succumb “to the routine mayhem caused by guns,” not counting thousands of suicides.
In other countries where such rampages have occurred – Australia and Norway – legislative reforms followed quickly and they worked not to eliminate but to reduce risks and harms. Drawing on his experience as Chief of Staff to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. provided President Obama with important advice in The Washington Post, “Demand action on comprehensive gun control immediately from this Congress or lose the opportunity during your presidency.”
In Japan, with a third of the U.S.’s population, eleven people lost their lives to guns in 2008, a tiny fraction of one percent of the casualties of the same kind in the United States. Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has organized hundreds of Mayors in a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns said: “We are the only industrialized country that has this problem. In the whole world, the only one.”
The problems are numerous, some more tractable than others. The greatest consensus starts with requiring stricter criminal background checks on gun sellers and gun buyers. This receives majority support among NRA (National Rifle Association) members. Next in public support would be the renewal and strengthening of the ban on assault weapons and other military hardware, followed by limits on high-capacity magazines and certain kinds of ammunition.
There are, of course, more controversial measures, including two proposed by President Johnson – licensing all gun owners, suitably trained, as we do with those wanting to drive, and registering firearms, as we do with motor vehicles. Also, as noted by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and Doris A. Fuller in The Wall Street Journal that there would be fewer mass shootings “if individuals with severe mental illnesses received proper treatment.”
Officially, the NRA continues to urge stronger enforcement of existing laws. Yet its Congressional lobbyists and those of the gun industry have worked hard to keep the budget of the enforcement agency in the Justice Department inadequate to the task. And they’re succeeding, there are fewer enforcers now than there were forty years ago. In the Senate, these advocates are even blocking President Obama’s nominee for director of the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives).
Now, back to Newtown United. Tom Bittman, sensing that the current public shock and outrage may soon atrophy, declared “But now is the time where we can do the most. So, we have to do it now.”
Who is we? “We the people,” that is who, led by the abiding mourning of Newtowners, in sympathy with the daily fatalities on the streets and the same tragedies in Tucson, Aurora, Columbine and other places of slaughter. For the president and the members of Congress are susceptible to “bogging down” and being otherwise predisposed. It’s happened many times before.
Joe Nocera, columnist for The New York Times, found an apt precedent with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.), started by Candy Lightner, who lost her 13-year-old daughter to a drunk driver. She and other grieving mothers raised funds, hired staff and lobbyists and toughened many of the drunk driving laws and penalties around the country with a salutary though obviously not perfect effect. “Minimize risk and reduce harm” are the pathways to addressing the gun problem, sourced in multiple causations and conditions.
The Wall Street Journal devoted an entire page in color to pictures of the Newtown children. That page or its likeness should be sent to the White House and your representatives in Congress again and again, to remind them of those innocent little ones and of the nearly 3,000 children every year who are killed by guns in this country.
People across the nation and especially from the surrounding, affluent towns – such as Greenwich, Darien and Wilton – should help provide the resources to Newton United so that its sorrowful determination is solidly based with enough resources to catapult its effort into an America United.