In response to this month's mass shooting at Fort Hood, Speaker of the House John Boehner said mentally disturbed people should not be allowed to get their hands on firearms. But don't hold your breath waiting for legislation to emerge from Congress to keep that from happening.
"There's no question that those with mental health issues should be prevented from owning weapons or being able to purchase weapons." That is what Boehner said. Yet, last year, when a bipartisan bill to set up a system of background checks for gun purchases was put forward, Mr. Boehner showed no enthusiasm for bringing it up for a vote in the House. (As it turned out, the bill fell four votes short of evading a filibuster in the Senate, so the speaker found it easy to do nothing.)
So, what do Mr. Boehner's words really mean? Was he just expressing a sympathetic-sounding abstraction at a moment of tragedy? Apparently so, since the only legislation he talked about in his comments was a recently passed Medicare reimbursement bill that included funding for a pilot program to study the link between mental illness and gun violence.
A study? What is it exactly that we need to know? We already have real life test cases from places such as Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; and Tucson, Ariz. that have shown the horrors that can happen when sick-minded men get their hands on guns. And now we have another test case from Fort Hood where a disturbed soldier went on a shooting spree, killing three people and wounding 16 before he shot himself.
What needs to be studied is how to get members of Mr. Boehner's Republican caucus to put aside their fear of the NRA and other gun-rights groups and vote for an effective background checks program.
Admittedly, it would be no easy thing to identify potential killers among the millions of Americans who struggle with some form of diagnosed mental problems. Spc. Ivan Lopez, the Fort Hood shooter, was dealing with depression and anxiety, according to Army records, but no one seems to have seen any indication he would take a sudden turn toward murder. A tragically large number of soldiers have returned home from our nation's recent wars with post-traumatic stress disorder. It is inconceivable that anyone would propose legislation that says these service members who carried guns on behalf of the USA in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be trusted with firearms now that they are back among us.
Besides, the last time there was a massacre at Fort Hood, back in 2009, the perpetrator was a provider of psychiatric care, not a patient. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan was not clinically insane, unless the religious zealotry that drove him to kill 13 people can be classified as lunacy. And, given that much of the Republican Party base is made up of religious zealots with guns, no Republican will be tempted to make that diagnosis.
The reality is that no background checks system can be drawn so narrowly that it only catches those few truly sick people who plan to use their guns for random, mass mayhem. We either follow the lead of the rest of the civilized world and make gun ownership a "well regulated" activity for everyone, as our Constitution says it should be, or we accept that we have become a country akin to Somalia or Iraq where massacres are just part of the scenery.
As we ponder that choice can we at least post a guard at Guns Galore in Killeen, Texas? That's the gun shop where both Mr. Lopez and Mr. Hasan bought their weapons. Apparently it's a great place to pick up whatever you need for a massacre, although the notoriety does not seem to be welcome. A Guns Galore employee told NBC News the shop owners "just didn't want all that attention all over again."
They shouldn't worry. When it comes to gun violence, Americans -- and especially American politicians -- have a short attention span.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.