In the days after the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn., I made it clear that I believe it is time for us to move from rhetoric to action to prevent future acts of senseless mass violence.
Since then, much has been made of those comments — some of it accurately reflecting what I said, some not. Because I am an A-rated, lifelong member of the National Rifle Association and a proud defender of the Second Amendment, some people viewed my comments as a tipping point in the debate about guns in America.
The true tipping point, of course, is what happened in that elementary school on Dec. 14 — the unimaginable slaughter of 20 children and the teachers and staff members who were defending them.
When children die tragically, it rips at our very hearts. Even in our grief, we demand a reckoning.
That reckoning is now upon us, and we owe it to those children and their families to take it seriously. As a nation, we must reconsider the treatment of the mentally ill. We must challenge a popular culture that accepts stomach-churning violence in our movies and video games. We must look at the use of high-capacity ammunition magazines and military-style assault weapons.
Committed gun owners like me can and must listen to reasonable ideas about preventing mass violence. But whatever steps we take must be comprehensive — and must bring the entertainment industry and mental health community to the table. We cannot snap our fingers, push one-track legislation that focuses exclusively on guns and pat ourselves on the back. Such an approach certainly won’t fare well in Congress. More important, it won’t fully address the problem.
I truly appreciate President Obama’s intentions to “push without delay” a set of recommendations to address the kind of madness we witnessed in Newtown. However, an administration-led approach, without significant input from the entertainment, gun and mental health communities, will not meet the crucial test of credibility. It excludes too many of the voices that must be heard if we’re going to get this right after so many decades of bitter stalemate.
If the administration fails this credibility test, and if it takes a guns-first approach without addressing the other factors at play, we will be no closer to resolving this problem than we were in the days before Newtown.
No matter how strongly any one of us holds our positions, we all must be willing to respectfully hear each other out — elected leaders must hear recommendations from the mental health community; gun-control advocates must listen to gun rights supporters; the entertainment community must listen to those who want to see less violence on their screens. And vice versa.
If we let irrational fear and antagonism control the debate, then we will continue to be a nation of violence. We need leaders who can be open-minded. We can’t villainize those who disagree with us, and we can’t dismiss their legitimate concerns outright. We cannot pay lip service to those perspectives; they must be the driving force of change.
At the same time, as a proud gun owner and a member of the NRA, I will continue to urge the organization’s leadership to come to the table because I would like to see a more meaningful discussion — because every group with a role to play in this conversation should contribute. I’m open to a discussion about whether we need more security in our schools, as the NRA proposed in Friday’s news conference, but that can’t be the only measure that comes out of this. An all-or-nothing approach from any of these parties won’t result in the changes we need to keep our children safe.
Because if you think the problem of mass violence in our country is about just guns, you’re wrong. If you think it’s about just an entertainment industry that markets violence to kids, you’re wrong. If you it’s about just insufficient security at our schools, you’re wrong. If you think it’s about just the lack of mental health services for troubled young people and adults, you’re wrong. We need to address all of them. I, for one, simply cannot support any proposal that doesn’t address all aspects of this problem.
So, I propose an alternate path: a national commission on mass violence. Such a commission could lead the national conversation that is desperately needed in the wake of Newtown. It could hold public hearings, after which it would issue a report and recommendations based on facts, not emotions or preconceived notions of what it takes to end mass violence in America.
When the president announced his task force this past week, he said it would not be one more Washington commission, “studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside.” That is certainly not what I envision for this group. The worst possible outcome would be another Simpson-Bowles commission, whose excellent blueprint has languished despite bipartisan support. Instead, this panel would have teeth — more like the 9/11 Commission.
For the sake of our children, we need to call a time out from politics as usual so that guilt by association doesn’t become guilt by conversation. No one should be branded a traitor for being willing to talk with others who see the world differently.
The Newtown tragedy has changed our nation forever. And as we are changed, so must our thinking be changed. We must act in such a way that those beautiful children and courageous adults who tried to save them from unspeakable horror shall not have died in vain.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., served as governor of West Virginia from 2005 to 2010.