LOCK, STOCK, AND BARREL: In the gun trade, it turns out, the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle — the weapon of choice among disturbed young white guys who’ve come to regard suicide as a mass event — is known as the “Barbie Doll.” The gun’s potential to be accessorized, it seems, is near infinite. “Bling potential,” they call it. Depending on the occasion, the AR-15 can be equipped with a bayonet, a grenade launcher, or a new customized grip. To maintain the element of surprise during nighttime use, a “flash suppressor” can be screwed to the rifle’s barrel to eliminate tell-tale red flames that would otherwise issue forth. Pink models are even available for shooters intent on demonstrating their solidarity with breast-cancer survivors while blasting away at targets laced with chemicals that make the bull’s-eye explode — with great gratifying volume — upon impact. Thanks to Adam Lanza and his pray-and-spray killing spree last week, there will be a lot fewer Barbies under America’s Christmas trees this year. What Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Arizona, and Aurora, Colorado, couldn’t do, Newtown, Connecticut, seemingly has. Our numb-dumb wall of almost zen paralysis has finally been breached. Even in a land where 20 mass shootings a year — the average since 1980 — are written off as the price of doing business, our hibernating capacity for outrage just got woken up. You can’t kill 20 1 st-grade kids in an affluent community and expect that nothing will be done. The question, of course, is what? Bad facts, the scolds famously tell us, make for bad law. But sometimes that’s the best you can do. Certainly in Newtown, all facts — such as they are — appear bad. Nancy Lanza — the shooter’s mom — was an avid gun collector; all her weapons appear to have been legally obtained and registered. Her son was disturbed far beyond what his autism diagnosis would indicate, and by all accounts, she was a devoted parent. With alimony payments of around $300,000 a year, Lanza’s mom could afford to get her son mental-health treatment; initial accounts indicate he’d been prescribed some medication. If Nancy Lanza qualified as a “helicopter mom,” she would become Black Hawk Down. She and her son visited shooting ranges together. She may have also been a “prepper,” a term to describe those preparing for the economic collapse of Western civilization. It remains unclear what triggered her son’s eventual collapse, but Nancy Lanza would be his first victim.
The quick solution, of course, is tougher laws and more restrictive gun-ownership rules. That makes obvious sense. Gun ownership is protected in the constitution, but I missed the passage endowing us with an inalienable right to purchase ammo clips containing 30 armor-piercing bullets. Equally obvious is the need to mandate rigorous background checks on gun buyers and new laws requiring that firearms come equipped with the micro-stamping technology that marks the gun’s make and serial number on all cartridges fired. The National Rifle Association’s (NRA) days may not be numbered, but they just got a whole lot shorter, as has our collective tolerance for that organization’s obscenely self-serving mantra: “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” The same day Adam Lanza went calmly berserk, a 36-year-old Chinese man armed only with a knife attacked a school in his village, slashing 22 preteen students and one elderly woman. He was upset the world might end this Friday because that’s when the ancient Maya calendar ran out of dates. Bottom line? Twenty-three victims, zero fatalities. No gun.
Even so, the gun nuts make some powerful points. With more than 3.8 million semiautomatics already in circulation, it may be a little late to get the horses back in the proverbial barn. By all means, pass a ban. But don’t pretend the problem is solved. Of the 12,664 people killed by guns last year, semiautomatic accounted for 323. That’s more than all the combined gun deaths a year in Switzerland — the most heavily armed nation (per capita) and one of the most peaceful nations on the planet. But it still leaves 12,300 handgun deaths unaccounted for. Most occur in heavily urbanized areas, in the South, and involve nonwhites. Blacks and Hispanics, it turns out, are five times more prone to be killed in a gun-related homicide than whites. By contrast, 80 percent of white gun deaths are self-inflicted. Who knew?
The hardest nut to crack, of course, is mental health care. It’s also the most impossible. Ignoring it hasn’t helped. Nor has cutting funding. The breadth of need is vast, and effective treatment — even on a good day — is still a crapshoot. Civil libertarians object to criminal-profiling the mentally ill or a return to the good old days of psych-ward gulags. And they are absolutely right to do so. But for parents coping with the flamboyant self-destruction wrought by their out-of-control teens, the options range from null to nil. In Santa Barbara, you can park people who pose a danger to themselves or others in a county-run psychiatric facility that has six beds, or in Ventura’s Vista del Mar facility for a three-day involuntary hold. But that’s parking, not treatment. The other option, of course, is County Jail. Thus far, our grand jury has been decidedly unimpressed with the care provided the mentally ill warehoused there. And once you’re there, you’re criminally profiled. What’s needed is some sort of in-between holding/treatment space. That infrastructure does not exist. Funding for it does not exist. Worse yet, it hasn’t even been imagined. To date, the only people to try can be — and usually are — dismissed as self-appointed crackpots looking for a long rope to piss up on a windy day.
In the short term, the good news is that teachers are getting revenge for the school shooting. The managers of teacher pension funds — vast pools of investment capital — are threatening to pull their money from companies making the sort of weapons Adam Lanza used last week. Stock in these companies is dropping. And sporting-goods stores that used to prominently display such weapons are now thinking twice. In the meantime, have a great Christmas. Here’s hoping the only Barbie Dolls under the tree don’t come equipped with a trigger.