After 31 years in local law enforcement, I'd often tell myself that I had seen and experienced every act of cruelty man can inflict.
In light of the despicable act of violence this month in Newtown, Conn., I was clearly wrong. We are learning more, day by agonizing day, of the details of the crime, the history of Adam Lanza, the heroism of the school staff, and the stolen wonder of 20 beautiful little children. An incredible and horrible tragedy — but one that perhaps could have been averted had we reacted to the outrages of the past.
In April 1999, two mentally disturbed teenagers turned assault weapons on their classmates in a Littleton, Colo. high school, killing 13 and wounding 21. In the days and weeks following, there was a cry across our country for tougher gun controls and more mental health services. And yet little was done.
In March 2005, another mentally disturbed teenager killed two family members before going to a high school in Red Lake, Minn., armed with two handguns and a shotgun. He killed nine and wounded five. More public outcry and calls for reform followed. And yet little was done.
In October 2006, a deranged man took over an Amish schoolhouse in nearby Lancaster, Pa. He used a semi-automatic handgun and shotgun to kill five girls and wound five others. The horror was unimaginable, and yet little was done.
In April 2007, a mentally disturbed student attacked his college campus in Blacksburg, Va., killing 30 students and faculty and wounding 23 others. He was armed with two semi-automatic weapons and had demonstrated clear signs of mental illness. The political outcry and media coverage gave many of us hope that perhaps, finally, something would be done. Again the tragedy devolved into debates on what mental health professionals can and can't do and a baffling concern about the sensibilities of National Rifle Association members.
And on it went. In February 2008, a mentally disturbed man entered a college lecture hall in Dekalb, Ill., armed with three semi-automatic handguns and a shotgun. He killed five and wounded 21. In January 2011, many of us believed that finally our elected officials would summon the courage to do something meaningful in the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. That maniac was armed with a semi-automatic handgun and took six innocent lives. He wounded 13 others. And yet little was done.
And just this year in Chardon, Ohio; Oakland, Calif.; Aurora, Colo.; Oak Creek, Wis.; Minneapolis, Minn. and Clackamas, Ore. — in a high school, a college, a movie theater, a religious temple, a manufacturing site, and a shopping mall — mentally disturbed men using assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns killed 35 and wounded more than 60.
And still, little has been done.
When will our collective outrage — especially in places like Baltimore that endure yearly death tolls of about 200 — compel our elected officials to stop talking, stop debating, stop grandstanding and get something real done? Surely the current nightmare will get bogged down in all the predictable excuses. Already "experts" are telling us how safe schools are, how random these attacks are, how powerful the NRA lobby is, and how complicated mental health diagnosis and treatment is.
We heard very similar arguments in the summer of 2007 in Baltimore, when I became police commissioner. Fortunately, we didn't listen. By 2011, we succeeded in lowering gun violence and homicides to levels not seen since the late 1970s.
Our strategy was not complicated. We focused on violent individuals, identified through their previous conduct. We infused that identification process with prevention by creating a gun offender registry featuring regular home visitations and timely intelligence to track and prioritize offenders posing the most risk. We held ourselves accountable through a "gun stat" process that allowed us to monitor our results, and we worked to secure maximum jail time for those that didn't get the message: "bad guys with guns" were our top priority.
If we want to be serious about preventing acts of cowardly rage, there are some basic steps that we must insist that our elected officials act upon:
•Ban the sale of assault weapons.
•Ban the sale of high-capacity magazines.
•Provide licensed medical professionals with access to gun registration data to assist in determining the danger of harm by their mental health patients.
•Hold criminals accountable for gun crimes in the strictest terms possible.
•Invest mental health treatment dollars in elementary schools, where signs of illness and future aggression problems often are apparent but go undiagnosed and, sadly, untreated.
Our job at home is to reach out to family members and neighbors who are suffering from these mental illnesses, so that their isolation doesn't manifest into violence. And while we are at it, we can enter into real discussions in our kitchens, classrooms and churches about our fixation on and support of violence in this country. People will summarily dismiss the role of films, games, and publications in contributing to our obsessions. The police on crime scenes know otherwise. This is where debates about the First Amendment smother efforts to become the civilized communities that we imagine ourselves to be.
And before all the gun advocates get cranked up, this isn't about the Second Amendment either. People can still hunt rabbits and go target shooting. We need to stop allowing criminals and mentally disturbed people to confuse us for the former.