Mass murders in Newtown spark wider debate on violence

Congressional debate in the wake of the murder of 20 children in Newtown, Conn., has gone far beyond gun control to include a focus on mental health programs and pervasive violence in popular culture.

Lawmaker calls for an examination of those issues echo President Obama, who wants a comprehensive approach to violence prevention that would instate tougher gun laws, but also examine gaps in the mental-health system and take on a culture of violence that many fear is encroaching on too much of American life.

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“We need to move beyond dialogue — we need to take a sensible, reasonable approach to the issue of mass violence,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a gun-rights advocate and member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), said Monday.

“I ask all of my colleagues to sit down with a seriousness of purpose to address the causes of these tragic crimes, including mental-health treatment, military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and our culture, which seems to glorify violence more than ever in our video games and movies.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman is another vocal proponent of an all-of-the-above approach. The Connecticut Independent will soon introduce legislation establishing a national Commission on Mass Violence to study the causes of tragedies like the one that struck his home state on Friday. 



“That includes looking at violence in the entertainment culture, mental-health services and, of course, gun laws,” Lieberman said Sunday at a vigil for the victims.


The issue of gun violence was thrust into the national spotlight on Friday, when a 20-year-old gunman named Adam Lanza stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 people before taking his own life. Twenty of the victims were schoolchildren between the ages of 5 and 10; the other six were schoolteachers or administrators, all of them women. Lanza also shot and killed his mother at their home before driving to the school.

The first young victims of the rampage were buried on Monday.

There are some signs that Friday’s Sandy Hook shooting is causing the public to agree that a more comprehensive approach to violence prevention is needed. A Washington Post poll released Monday found that 52 percent of respondents think the massacre is an indication of some deeper-rooted problem with the country, versus 43 percent who see it as an isolated event. 

Those figures mark a dramatic shift from just a few months ago, when 24 percent of Americans said the Aurora, Colo., movie-theater shooting in July  was symptomatic of a broader societal problem, while 67 percent considered it an isolated case.

The Newtown incident is just the latest in a long string of mass shootings that have plagued the country in recent years, including an assassination attempt on former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in January 2011. 

While the earlier mass-murder scenes did not meaningfully shift the debate in Washington, the tender ages of the Sandy Hook victims — killed two weeks before Christmas — has thumbed a national heartstring that the earlier massacres did not. 

“I have been largely silent on the issue of gun violence over the past six years,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said Monday, “and I am now as sorry for that as I am for what happened to the families who lost so much in this most recent, but sadly not isolated, tragedy.”

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Asked what makes the Newtown tragedy different from the others, Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said simply, “The loss of innocence and the age of the children.” 

The mass killings over the past several years have followed a disturbing pattern — the killers have been young men described as loners who lacked normal socializing skills, prompting many lawmakers to argue for a dialogue on mental health. 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said Monday that cuts to state and federal budgets have downgraded inpatient and community services for children and adults living with serious mental illnesses. “There is an incredible shortage of mental health providers across the country,” he said. “This is yet another area where action is necessary.”

Violent entertainment — particularly “first-person-shooter” video games, wherein the player assumes a gunman’s perspective and scores points by killing people — are also coming under Washington’s microscope. 

After seeing an ad for such a game on Sunday night, Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod tweeted, “All for curbing weapons of war. But shouldn’t we also quit marketing murder as a game?”

Larson said an examination of violent entertainment is “appropriate” as the nation debates the fine line “between our liberties and their ramifications.” 

“We know as sure as we’re sitting here that this will happen again,” Larson said Monday by phone. “To do nothing is to be complicit.”

He said Democratic leaders will talk to their troops at Wednesday’s caucus meeting about a “three-pronged approach” to reducing gun violence, including gun reform, improvements to the mental-health system and a strategy for tackling youth violence that’s practically endemic in certain pockets of the country. 

Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist who heads The Forensic Panel, a national group that consults on sensitive homicide cases, said the lawmakers are correct to scrutinize things like violent movies and video games in searching for ways to prevent mass shootings. While such cultural ubiquities can be harmless for most, he warned that they can have a profoundly dangerous influence on the most impressionable. 

“The line between moral and amoral violence is completely eroded for artistic merit, but it is presented in a larger-than-life medium in which the vulnerable draw their own inspiration,” Welner said Monday in an email. 

“When, in my case experience, a killer watches ‘Natural Born Killers’ as a means of inspiration before embarking on a mass shooting, I don’t need a research study to tell me the relationship between larger-than-life motion picture media and spectacle violence.”

In an emotional speech in Newtown on Sunday night, Obama vowed to “use whatever power” he has “in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”

“We’re not doing enough,” he said. “And we will have to change.”


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