Reflections on Newtown:
No Safe Place

An Essay

by Carol Edgarian
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"A well-regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

What a dismal, horrific, depressing scenario played out in Newtown, CT. As a former law enforcement officer until November, 2000 -- a stint of twenty-three years, the last seventeen as a Detective -- I can attest to the horror of all horrors, seeing little kids as murder victims. And as a graduate of Fairfield University, with a major in English, I can attest to the complicated syntax of the slave-owning, musket-bearing Framers in their authorship of the 2nd Amendment. That convoluted sentence is and has been the subject of ubiquitous, contentious, and unproductive debate and analysis.

First of all, the simple sentence is: A well-regulated Militia shall not be infringed (it’s the root sentence, because of the comma after "Arms"). There are two grammatical items interjected into it: a present-participial adjectival clause, being necessary for the security of a free State, which modifies the noun Militia. The syntactical temptation is to assume that infringed speaks exclusively to right, save for the comma after Arms, which negates that. The noun State is capitalized, intimating that each of the States, as they’d moved from colony-status by virtue of the Revolution, needed the empowerment of standing, regulated militias to resist reoccupation, to maintain law and order, and to insure that should the newly formed, fledgling federal government shift toward the dictatorial model of its predecessor -- the King of England, for example -- there would be a mechanism for resistance in place. Secondly, there’s the appositive subordinate clause, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, which intimates a pre-existing condition of daily life in the post-Revolutionary colonies-turned-States. It's imperative to consider the historical milieu of those times. Citizens needed guns, both for protection in the ever-evolving frontier status of life and the fact of post-revolutionary reality, and, for hunting, since most citizens procured food that way. What seems to get overlooked in nearly every analysis or argument I’ve encountered is the carefully selected phrase, necessary for the security of a free State. Can’t we extrapolate from it that the mindset of the Framers was to guarantee the continued free status, so hard won in the first place, of the new States? Nor did the Framers just throw in the dependent clause, the right of the people to keep and bear arms. It’s antecedent is the security of a free State. Logic tells the reader they omitted something that would’ve enhanced clarity: being necessary for the security of a free State, [which requires] the right of the people to keep and bear Arms [since under the King’s rule they were prevented from doing so]. My conclusion is that had the Framers intended the 2nd Amendment to be about the right of the people to keep and bear arms, the text might read: The existing right of the people to keep and bear arms cannot be infringed, and to ensure the security of a free State, each State government will maintain a well-regulated, armed Militia.

Fast-forwarding to today's milieu, in many vast parts of the country the response by law enforcement to dire circumstance might be a half hour away in rural America, meaning an emergency response by police, for such things as an armed intruder, takes a long time. More over, millions of citizens love to hunt and/or target shoot. As to so-called assault weapons, both semi-automatic and fully automatic, which are also known as "machine guns," (persons with a Federal Firearms License can, in certain cases possess them after going through myriad requirements, licensing, and paperwork), let’s strip away all of the nonsense and get to the truthful pit: some people simply enjoy firing them. But possession of these types of weapons must be more controlled.

"Gun Control" means to many the control of all weaponry so that any type doesn't fall into the hands of anyone. It’s unrealistic to think that’s going to happen since the opposite is a done deal, there are 300 million firearms already in circulation. But gun control can actually mean an effective mechanism to ensure that mentally defective people don't come to possess them, while military firearms be made off limits to anyone other than police and soldiers. Here's what I would propose:

1. End all un-researched sales of all firearms to anyone, meaning background checks as a legislated requirement for purchase (i.e. the inexplicably exempt gun shows, internet sites, and private dealers).

2. End all sales of automatic or semi-automatic assault weapons.

3. End all sales of clips or ammo-sources capable of housing more than ten rounds.

4. Anyone who possess firearms legally must secure them, in homes or any other places in which they're kept, using gun vaults or other means that make access impossible. In the cases where a gun owner's weapon falls into the hands of a person who commits a crime with the firearm, and the owner survives, that owner should face a very stern, unequivocal, nonnegotiable prison sentence and civil exposure.

5. On the background check paperwork, a declaration-section should require a gun-purchaser to declare the presence of anyone problematic, mentally ill, or otherwise troubled or diagnosed, who resides in the dwelling or business. Purchasers/owners thereby become mandated reporters. Severe penalties of law result, both criminal and civil, should they fail to do so, or, if they should do so with demonstrable ill intent to cause trouble for an innocent.

As more information comes to light concerning the Newtown massacre, it’s a fact that Mrs. Lanza legally purchased several weapons. Troublingly, she was, at the time immediately prior to the massacre and her own murder, seeking legal conservatorship over her adult son to have him committed to a psychiatric facility. She knew he was troubled and problematic. The fact of the matter is that she simply didn't take enough pains to make sure her weapons were completely secured, as her mentally ill son obviously found a way into her gun storage. Now imagine if her pre-purchase background check had required her to name her son as diagnosed-problematic, evoking an investigative response once law enforcement and the State Dept. of Mental Health received notification. What I propose would be a required inspection, whereupon the gun owner’s storage facilities could be evaluated. By order of law, society would be attaching a mighty and additional responsibility to the privilege of gun ownership.

The massacre in Newtown was indisputably the result of a mentally ill person obtaining guns. Even though it rankles the aesthetic sensibilities of Boards of Education, until meaningful and effective legislation comes to pass (the sad reality is that it probably won't), the "targets" need to be hardened, no matter what they end up looking like. "We're going to turn our schools into fortresses!" is the lame objection. How did Adam Lanza gain entry into the locked-buzzer front doors? Through glass. Make the entryways steel -- decorative if preferred -- and make sure every school has a buzzer-lock system.

So, what about legislative effort at better safety and an assault upon this steel-and-lead scourge to the country? For politically terrified elected officials, they must keep in mind that the NRA has four million members, not forty million, or four hundred million. The majority of their membership does not share many of views of the so called leadership; rather, they’re mostly law-abiding gun owners who use their possessions for sport. Because of the obstinate, insane policies of people like Lapierre (for example, helping mentally disturbed individuals, who've been disenfranchised from owning weapons, get them back through litigious means), their executive board should be considered a peripheral cacophony. Of course, only naïveté would deny that leadership’s access to vast sums of money used in furtherance of their lethal agenda in the sphere of lobbying and campaign finance, but that’s another matter.

Expanding upon the idea of requiring gun purchase applicants to report the presence of people with mental health issues, it’s a matter of legislation to designate gun-purchase applicants as mandated reporters. For example, laws currently name those in schools and/or occupations that deal with kids as mandated to report instances of abuse or suspected abuse of children. I propose that when any citizen purchases any firearm, there ought to be mandated responsibilities attached, and severe financial and penal consequences for those who don't report (notice the penalties being contemplated for Penn State University non-reporters of abuse, for instance). When one becomes a gun owner, one becomes a mandated reporter. Alternately think of it like owning a car. If a car owner allows a mentally ill person or someone who doesn't have a driver's license to use their vehicle, and something bad happens, then the owner is held accountable.

I was asked about what exactly constitutes a "problematic" person, the presence of whom a gun owner would be forced to divulge on a gun purchase application. My response was, problematic would be a cumulative estimation based upon a set of behavioral markers that a designated committee could easily articulate. Convene a panel of esteemed behavioral experts, say from the American Psychiatric Association in conjunction with the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit, and come up with a behavioral checklist. It's not rocket science. The fact that Lanza had Asperger Syndrome has nothing whatsoever to do with it. What does have to do with it, though, are these markers that are obvious (without even interviewing Mr. Lanza): antisocial behavior, i.e. no friends nor a normal social circle; at age 20, sequestration of himself in a basement for hours a day to play extremely violent video games, the object of which is to compile as high a fantasy body count as possible to win; inability to maintain even minimal conversational contact with anyone other than his mother; chronic, self-imposed unemployment; inability to function in an educational environment, despite his purported genius-level IQ; fits of rage: it is already documented that when Nancy Lanza proposed a move to the state of Washington for a "fresh start and a new school," Adam went ballistic, or, when she informed him that she was seeking conservatorship in a court of law to enable her to commit him to a psychiatric facility, he became really enraged at her and threatened to kill her; and, presenting features as articulated in DSM IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, 4th edition) of extreme Narcissistic Personality Disorder combined with prominent features of Antisocial Personality Disorder, with additional features of a psychotic level of Mood Disorder and Reality-detachment syndrome. Witnesses are on record describing his mother's expressed disillusion: "I'm at my wit's end with raising Adam. I have to commit him." If that kind of disturbed individual resides in the residence wherein firearms are to be present, it begs the question that law enforcement and mental health officials be made aware of it.

There is the question of the potential for infringement upon 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, should a gun buyer with a mentally ill occupant require a verification of safe storage. The caveat is simple to avoid: part of the responsibility of gun ownership is the acknowledgement and waiver of that right for the purpose of evaluating gun storage safety once a problematic person is named as residing in the same place as the guns. A limited and clearly defined scope accompanies the gun purchaser’s consent to inspection.

Guns are not going to be removed from society, there are simply too many of them, and the will of too many people prevails. Gun manufacturers continue to produce them at an increasing rate. The George W. Bush administration ensured the dis-attachment of liability to those manufacturers whenever a civil tort is pursued by families of murder victims slaughtered by their products. In fact, it’s an indisputable fact that assault weapons have the sole purpose of killing people. In 2005, Mr. Bush signed into law The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, also known as the Gun Protection Act or The Gun Shield Act. It summarily dismissed all ongoing claims against gun manufacturers in both the federal and state courts. More astoundingly, it pre-empted future claims, and it even extends protection from civil liability to gun store owners. The law was passed by Congress that year, with an incredible fifteen yes votes from Democratic Senators, after what could only be described as a ferocious lobbying effort by the NRA.

Therein lies another strategy. Aside from citizen-voters boycotting any chain store (i.e., the WalMarts of the world) that sell assault weapons, support of such organizations as The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which pursues reinstatement of civil liability for the makers and/or sellers of the instruments of murder, is key. Once Bushmaster has to pay twenty-six settlements in Newtown, for starters, perhaps an end to firearms availability would ensue.

"Asinine" is a word infused with even newer meaning lately. I refer to the cacophony generated by not a few Congressmen and Governors who actually trumpet the proposal of arming teachers. That is really asinine. Young folks smitten with an avocation to teach go to college, obtain a degree in Education, and enter the work force as, usually, dedicated educators. It never occurs to them to learn how to handle and shoot a firearm. It boggles the mind to envision an addition to the college curriculum that reads, "Introduction to Firearms," followed by "Advanced Combat/Firearm Tactics." It stretches the imagination, it is self-defeating.

Furthermore, what that stratagem intimates is even more doleful: arming teachers implies that society at large must simply accept de facto the presence of armed lunatics, and resolve to deal with them with confrontational violence of the most deadly order. Incredible. It's one thing to learn how to safely and effectively use a gun, it's an entirely different matter to use one to take another's life. Not everyone can bring themselves to shoot someone, regardless the circumstance. As police learn during extensive and ongoing rigorous training, in those moments when combat occurs, a change happens to the mind. It's a severely traumatic, highly pressurized moment. It's not a routine matter of training someone very periodically, then assuming the trained carrier will efficiently take out his or her weapon and dispose of a threat, no problem, should they even happen to be in the immediate vicinity of the murderer (at Columbine the two armed protectors were not).

Why not deal with the problem by limiting the access to weapons? Teachers teach, why expect them to become law enforcers?

I spoke to four gun-owner friends: a lawyer, a bank manager, a retired police detective, and a store owner. The score was: more restrictive-gun-laws 4, no changes 0. The bank branch manager had the most interesting take. He has a severely depressed adult child who moved back home. Here's what he does with his weapons (he's a hunter and target shooter, and doesn't keep guns readily accessible for self protection in light of who lives in the house): in the basement, he built a small room, the door to which has two locks. Inside it, he has a Mosler gun vault with a double-entry: a digital keypad plus a combination tumbler. The door of the vault is wired into his home security system. The combinations, entry codes and spare keys are in a safety deposit box at the bank, and no one else, including his wife, has authority to access it. Extraordinary? Not really. Extraordinary is an adjective more appropriately applied to describe the damage a .223 round fired at close range does to human tissue and bone.

I watched Lapierre's news conference-sham. I was depressingly impressed with his level of commitment to a specious agenda. It got me thinking about election finance reform. The question is, how can such a crazy, self-important, pontificating demon exert any influence whatsoever on a would-be Congressman running for office? Why are Congressmen so afraid of him and his association’s influence? Simple: he's a lobbyist, and given the despicable status of our current financial free-flow for election committees, he has access to tens of millions of dollars to throw against any candidate who might proffer a platform plank of gun-law reform. As Connecticut voters recently learned, access to and use of unlimited money to run for election to the Senate is out of control. Nor does it doesn’t jive with the intent of free, ethical, voice-of-the-people democratic election principles. It’s devolved rather into the voice of the moneyed.

Our most recent national election warrants scrutiny for the vast amount of money pissed away to also influence the general electorate's votes through mass media. More over, does one contemplate that the Founders (so nauseatingly, tirelessly cited in the 2nd Amendment debate) intended that money and lobbying become the absolute core as to how a member of Congress votes on any law? The unfettered flow of money-to-influence unflaggingly besmirches the concept of pure democracy. Perhaps even greater a sham than Lapierre’s stance is the purported purpose of "super-PAC's" as being anything but advocacy money-pools. Such a money-money-money environment facilitates the corruption of moral principle, opens the door to uninhibited lobbyists, and creates a milieu in which many candidates for election make decisions and cast votes as they are influenced, or, told to do.

While Lapierre's press conference - delivered in tone, posture, and mannerism indicative of a man who thinks of himself as an all-knowing voice of authority here to lecture lesser minds - also brought to mind Shakespeare and Faulkner, my citations of which fell short. To be sure, it indeed was the wailing of an idiot, a sound and a fury . . . But the rest of the line, "signifying nothing," sadly doesn't apply. The tremendous amount of money and venom available to so reckless an individual and his Association, funds to be used in furtherance of a lethal agenda and in tragic, anti-democratic influence of those who would legislate and govern, is so unchecked that it allows lunatics easy access to death machines.

I reflected upon the act of using a firearm to kill a human being, a prospect for which every police officer/law enforcer must mentally prepare in the Academies of the country. I remember vividly the face of our 1978 class firearms instructor, a retired Lieutenant I'll call "Mr. T." A compact, short, dapper man, he taught, right out of the gate, the seriousness we should assign to "the firearm," because society has "declared that we are privileged to carry one in pursuit of the public's safety." He imbedded the concept of safety first, and the overwhelming importance of the oftentimes split-second decision to use deadly force. We studied the laws cumulatively called, "Use of Deadly Force." Then we trained outdoors and indoors for hours upon hours upon hours. Mr. T articulated the post-incident trauma we could each count on facing, should the horrendous necessity to shoot to kill arise. Throughout the course of the ensuing twenty-four years of my career, I can't count the number of times I was trained and re-trained with guns, like everyone else in police. What Mr. T additionally taught was correct, that in a moment of true crisis, "your training will take over automatically."

I remember an horrific afternoon when my best buddy on the force encountered a lunatic burglar in a stolen car, parked in the woods. He approached the vehicle and was attacked by the occupant who was feigning sleep. With his gouged eyes bleeding to blind him, he fought the man, who'd gained control of my buddy's weapon. He ended up in a life-or-death struggle and somehow managed to turn his own weapon on the man and shoot him. At that moment I arrived as his backup, thinking he'd been shot, given the blood present. Over the next weeks, his focus wasn't on what had befallen him by virtue of his injuries, it was the fact that he'd taken a human life.

Which brings me back to Lapierre's rant. Never having been in combat nor killed another person, it's no wonder he presents his "good guy with a gun" prescription for school security. Just put a person with gun in a school, and he'll simply dispose of any armed threat. So many of the millions who watched his press conference are victims of the sanitized TV/film' version of good guys with guns, i.e. the Dirty Harry types. A bad guys kills innocents, whereupon a good guy arrives, and after uttering something like "Make my day," unemotionally and calmly disposes of the bad guy. Holster the weapon, accept pats on the back, and go back to work . . . it's an ever present scenario, portrayed day in and day out. In the real world, during entire careers it happens to few cops that they are forced to use deadly force.

I am not given to insist upon nuanced interpretation of 2nd Amendment. The intent of the authors could not have contemplated the technological advancements in weaponry, nor that the thrust of their thinking spoke to anything but the preservation of individual state militias in a environment of political uncertainty attached to the newborn democracy, I concede that the gun-possession culture evolved as the boundaries of the nation expanded into frontiers unknown. In 1787 (the Constitution’s signing year), perilous turmoil existed; in fact, the Framers had no way of knowing that the Union would grow as they hoped, that democracy would function and prevail. After all, they were tyranny-sensitized, they’d risen up heroically from suppression of freedom. They accomplished a noble separation, armed with muskets, not AR-15’s. Indeed, in less that a hundred years, the Union would suffer what is arguably our greatest national tragedy, the Civil War.

Given all of that historical foil, the entrenched mindset that possession of firearms is an inherent right is no surprise. Personal protection of one’s home and property, hunting, and sport shooting all evolved inextricably from the colonial, Revolutionary experience. To argue that all guns should be confiscated and that police/military be designated as the sole possessors is an unrealistic goal, however sensible it might be. But to argue that a free flow of firearms into the populace, a flow unfettered by regulation, is so immoral and dangerous that it screams for thoughtful, effective legislation. In fact, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ‘right to bear arms,’ but undoubtedly left the door open to sensible regulation. McDonald v. Chicago simply extended the 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, as of course you would know. While laws exist to prevent the mentally ill and felons from purchasing or owning weapons, my concern is for the dearth of regulations as to what gun owners do to ensure their weapons’ security and safekeeping, so that those same restricted persons don’t get their hands on them in spite of laws.

I sincerely hope that the newly elected Congress enacts effective legislation, just as I hope and pray that the concept of mandated reporters attaches to the phenomenon of gun ownership, which should be looked upon as not only a right, but a privilege.

Your reflections on the pace and scale of life today really hit home. Thank you for an insightful piece.

Thank you, Carol Egarian, for the sanity of your piece on Newtown. Your play on words--how the names would be too obvious in fiction; the heroic first-grader who played dead, who witnessed something way too horrific at way too young an age. This is what I needed now.

It's good to hear your voice and your even-keeled words on Newtown.