Just 11 days before Christmas, a young man broke into an elementary school in Connecticut and fired the shots heard round the world.He killed 26 people, most of them children.
The shots were said to have come from an AR-15 rifle.
Echoes of those gunshots continue to reverberate throughout the United States, as the nation tries to figure out how to keep such slaughters from happening again.
Not long after the shootings, President Barack Obama proposed his idea — a stiff set of new gun laws.
But gun owners were already protesting more restrictions. Among their powerful arguments, they note that the right to bear arms is guaranteed not to be infringed under the U.S. Constitution.
The debate intensifies.
As of Thursday, 90 sheriffs, many from rural counties, had pledged not to enforce laws they deem unconstitutional, according to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a Texas-based group that vows "to uphold and defend the Constitution against Obama's unlawful gun control measures."
On Saturday, about 6,000 protestors marched near the White House, urging stricter gun laws. Many of the protestors were women -- mothers.
Responses from each coast of the U.S. are strikingly different. On Jan. 14, exactly one month after the Connecticut shootings, New York became the first state in the country to enact new restrictions.
Two days earlier in California, a mental health official told a crowd that spilled out of a town hall meeting that steps are being taken to find mentally ill young students, such as the shooters in Connecticut and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and get them some help.
“In the last year and a half, we’ve been able to hospitalize about 10 young people, get them stabilized and they have been able to stay in school,” Sonoma County Mental Health Board Chair Mike Kennedy told the crowd.
Sonoma County is near San Francisco. Kennedy has a “crisis prevention assessment team” that works in a community college as well as nine high schools. The team is comprised of teachers, administrators and increasing numbers of students.
“We provide what we call Question-Persuade-Refer training,” Kennedy said. "It’s an evidence-based model that teaches individuals the signs of mental illness, depression and suicide, and teaches them what questions to ask, and how to persuade somebody to get help, and how to access help.”
The program is so successful that other schools are training entire incoming freshmen classes in QPR, as well as teachers, Kennedy said.
The town hall forum where Kennedy spoke lasted more than two hours. Members of the public received two minutes to make statements. The majority opposed more gun restrictions.
The forum was broadcast nationally on C-SPAN.
Kennedy said the crisis prevention team “gives us the ability to do aggressive outreach and target young people between the ages of 16 and their mid-20s that are having either first psychotic breaks or serious mental illness.”
“It’s one of the programs that could be extremely helpful and prevent some of these tragedies,” he said.
Meanwhile, new gun restrictions were quickly proceeding through the New York state legislature, passing by wide margins.
New law in New York
The New York laws ban semi-automatic pistols, rifles with detachable magazines and one military-style feature, as well as semiautomatic shotguns with one military-style feature.
New York state will require background checks of ammunition buyers. Law enforcement will be automatically notified of high-volume purchases of ammo, under the new law.
Gun owners will be required to register on a statewide database.
And, mental health professionals will be required to tell local mental health officials when they believe patients are likely to harm themselves or others, the New York Times reported.
Critics of the mental-health-reporting provision said it breaks the privacy of counselor-patient conversations, so patients will be less likely to speak freely with counselors, and counselors will be less able to help.
The facts of the Connecticut shooting are still disputed, including the exact guns that were used. Early reports said the shooter left an AR-15 in the car and used handguns, but police said two days later that he definitely used the AR-15, firing rounds from magazines that each contained 30 shots, then shot himself with a handgun.
National Rifle Association President David Keene, and others, say the AR-15 is not an assault weapon designed to wreak havoc in battle, but just a semi-automatic commercial rifle that fires only when the trigger is pulled.
The gun is hugely popular, owned by millions of people across the United States, commonly used on firing ranges and kept in case it is ever needed to defend oneself, one’s family or property.
The AR-15 was designed for the military and was re-branded the M16 during the Vietnam War years, according to Talking Points Memo, a digital political news organization that issued a report on the gun a week after the Connecticut school shooting.
The gun is lightweight, air-cooled, gas-operated and magazine-fed. Its .223 caliber bullet was developed at the request of the military, capable of striking and penetrating a steel helmet at 500 yards.
AR-15s are used, according to the Talking Points Memo report, by “hundreds of police departments and law enforcement organizations nationwide, (and) by the military of more than 50 countries worldwide.”
The AR-15 is in higher demand than ever now, as consumers fear the gun will be outlawed and they will be unable to buy it. The gun cost about $400 a year ago. Prices have tripled since then.
NRA: Focus on mental illness
NRA President Keene voices powerful pro-gun arguments, especially that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed.
He notes that automatic weapons are already banned and background checks are conducted before licensed dealers sell guns. He said that it’s a crime to illegally try to buy a gun, but people who do are hardly ever prosecuted – about 47 out of 77,000 last year.
If existing laws are not enforced, more won’t help, Keene said.
Keene and other gun proponents also note that the government could go bad in the United States. He said founding father Thomas Jefferson said individuals owning guns is a requirement in a free nation.
Jefferson once said, “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
Keene wants more focus on mental illness.
“We have proposed over time that those who’ve been adjudicated to be potentially violently mentally ill should be included on the list that is checked when someone tries to buy a gun,” Keene said in an interview with Newsmax.
That's what we need to fix, he said.
“Almost every one of these mass shootings have involved not a criminal, but somebody who’s literally crazy, somebody who’s a violent schizophrenic,” he said.
Keene said in one of the most famous early mass shootings, the fellow who climbed onto the clock tower at the University of Texas (in 1966) told his psychiatrist what he was going to do: climb up onto the clock tower and shoot students.
Meanwhile, when it comes to more gun control, emails are circulating on both sides of the issue -- with pointed, pithy messages.
“Saw a really good movie last night where only the police and the military had guns,” one of them says. “It was called Schindler’s List (about the killing of millions of people by the Nazis who had guns.)”
Keene said our national priorities are wrong.
“(After the Connecticut shooting) the question they asked was not how do we protect our kids, (or) what do we do to prevent or minimize the chances of this happening again,” Keene said. “The question they asked was what can we do about guns.”
This report was first published in the Jan. 16 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin, your non-corporate newspaper.