In 1927 when so called assault weapons and high capacity magazines were not even a glimmer in the eye of Smith and Wesson, Colt or Bushmaster, Andrew Kehoe needed only a single rifle shot to kill 38 elementary students, six adults and injure 58 others.
He also needed a little dynamite mixed with a heavy dose of mental illness to lay claim to our nation’s still most deadly school massacre. It wasn’t about guns, it wasn’t about explosives it was about the mental illness of one individual determined to act.
But the sorrows of the parents, friends and families that made up the greater Bath, Michigan Consolidated School District community at the time didn’t know the difference and didn’t care.
While the weapons of such evil may my vary from terrifying event to wholesale senseless tragedy our focus never does. When the shooting stops blaming guns is the easy out for those who are either afraid or unwilling to do the heavy lifting of refocusing a nation on real policy and solutions with a sustained and unwavering funding commitment to keep our kids safe .
Addressing guns in specific proposals may be unavoidable. It may also be well advised. But in a vacuum, in this void where we are deprived of why someone takes a weapon and kills people, a fearful nation reminds one of the definition of insanity. Politically expedient in sound bites but public policy lite in results.
Addressing the mental health delivery system in our states is not a point of debate it is clearly a public policy travesty to a moral certainty. The discussion begins and ends with the abandonment of our mentally ill on the streets of our communities.
And those who blame guns for our national tragedies are the same great thinkers that deconstructed the very centralized system that often gave those troubled by life a safe place to find structure and a safe place find inner peace.
When the money got tough they ran out of ideas; worse yet they ran out commitment to protect our mentally ill and, as a result, the rest of us. All in the name of a kinder, gentler way to put guns in hands of those whose mental health slowly dissolves and their ability to make rational choices disappear. They have made the police often the final arbiter in deciding who goes to jail to get what help there is and–worse– whose mental illness ends in that life and death moment.
Over the last two decades the slowly evolving evil associated lack of a real mental health system in this country has reached into our juvenile and adolescent population with a vengeance in measurable ways.It’s told in anecdotal tales from NewTown, Columbine, and Clackamas Town Center. Not old enough to be poisoned by life experience, but mentally ill enough to have a new deadly surreal reality take control in a mind’s eye out of balance.
If we are really serious about protecting our kids, then in a broad sense let’s start here :
1) If reconstructing a real mental health system across the entire spectrum is too heavy to lift , then fund a centralized juvenile mental health referral, diagnosis and treatment as the top public safety health priority at both the state and federal level. This does not mean just more money thrown at of the same ineffective public policy that has brought us to this crisis.
2) Make the purchase of high capacity semi-automatic long guns, associated supplemental and magazines (with careful definition such as muzzle velocity) subject to the same purchase and possession federal requirements as is currently part of the purchasing,possessing, securing and transporting of automatic weapons and supplemental. Implement a gun/identity check process for sale of any weapon between individuals.
3) Funds ATF accordingly at the federal level. Make associated funding for local law enforcement assistance a no cut funding priority and back it with legislation that provides clear enforcement connection between the two levels of enforcement.
4) Enact legislation that forces the individual to accept criminal responsibility for a weapon which if otherwise secured would not have been associated with another criminal act. Let’s start with parental/ statutory language.
5) Enact federal code and state statutory language that creates a no exception irrevocable “No Buy List” that is backed up by clearly defined criminal act and mental health criteria which gives courts clear guidance for uniform application including a restricted due process for appeals. The list should be initially distributed to federally licensed dealers and eventually extended to an all gun(s) check prior to sale/transfer.
And by the way Oregon does not have to wait to implement most of the above on the state level. So instead of again chasing the ghosts of gun violence let’s try to show a real intellect in attacking the most lethal systemic problem in our society, not guns but mental illness. Beginning now.
Over the last two decades the creators of our nations worst moments in our schools did not resemble a Andrew Kehoe 53 year old disgruntled School Board Treasurer who believed he was overtaxed, lost a local election for County Clerk and was facing foreclosure. He killed his dog, his horse and his wife, none with an “assault weapon”.
What they do have in common with Andrew Kehoe is that they deployed their mental illness in the hallways and classrooms of our schools destroying the lives of countless families.
There is no easy answer here but along the way we are making too many excuses for our lack of policy insight and our ability to make law and fund programs that really work.
Still in all that there is one a indisputable fact with or without a gun, evil will always find a way, always, nearly a century later just ask Bath Michigan.
Bernie Giusto is the former Multnomah County Sheriff, former Gresham Police Chief and City Council member, former Oregon State Patrol Trooper and is a member of the Victoria Taft Blogforce.
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