In December 2001, just three months after the 9/11 attacks, a man with connections to Al Qaeda attempted but failed to ignite explosive material concealed in his shoe while aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. In response to that incident, the federal Transportation Safety Administration started requiring all travelers to remove their shoes while passing through airport security checks. Air travel in the U.S. has not been the same since. The heightened security has been expensive, it has been inconvenient, and it has been intrusive, but there's no proof that it has increased air safety. What we do know is that officialdom served up a quick response.
Like the Shoe Bomber incident 11 years ago, the tragedy that occurred Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., where an obviously disturbed young gunman shot 20 school children and six adults to death, cries out for a response. This time, however, Americans don't want or need a fast, knee-jerk reaction that gives only the illusion of security.
Suggestions have run the gamut. Some have called for arming schoolteachers and principals — an idea that we, along with most law enforcement officials, find preposterous. Anyone who espouses that suggestion cannot have considered how such a scheme would be implemented. As school districts around the country grapple with outdated textbooks, inadequate facilities, parents who have to hold bake sales to provide necessities and teachers who have to buy their own supplies, where would the money come from for gun purchases, gun cabinets, ongoing firearms training and the staggering cost of liability insurance for putting loaded weapons in a room full of children and adolescents? No, arming teachers and principals is clearly not the answer.
Others say more concealed-carry permits might help. No doubt gun rights advocates like this idea, but the notion that someone with a concealed weapon could take down an armed malefactor quickly and cleanly without endangering anyone else in the area isn't realistic. Don't believe that? Ask Nick Meli, a man who was at the center of the Clackamas, Ore., mall shooting just days before Newtown. Meli, a trained shooter with a concealed-carry permit, pulled his gun when he saw what was happening. But he never fired it. "As I was going down to pull, I saw someone in the back of the Charlotte [Russe clothing store] move, and I knew if I fired and missed, I could hit them," Meli said. He told Portland's KGW-TV he didn't regret holding his fire.
Still others, including President Obama, want to tighten America's gun laws. On that front, too, the results are mixed, according to figures compiled annually by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. For example, Switzerland has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world, yet that country has only a fraction of the gun deaths that America has. Canada's gun laws, by contrast, are much tighter than America's, and Canadians, too, have a substantially lower gun death rate than we do. Even here in America, rural communities have a substantially higher rate of gun ownership than cities, yet gun violence is significantly higher in urban areas. Overall, while America leads the world — by a wide margin — in gun ownership per capita, we rank 28th among the world's 178 nations in gun violence. That's cold comfort in the aftermath of Newtown, however.
Around the world, kids and adults are exposed to the same video games, music, movies and cultural influences as American kids, yet they do not kill each other in the numbers that we Americans do. Why? Neither side of the gun-control debate has an answer.
President Barack Obama has charged Vice President Joe Biden with drafting tighter gun-control legislation by the end of January. The President promises to put the full weight of his office behind those proposals. We think a better idea is to take a long, hard look at all potential solutions, from tighter gun laws to increased availability of mental health services and more.
Many fear that America's memory of Newtown's dead children will fade and that a window of opportunity will pass if lawmakers don't seize this moment. We think Americans are better than that. We think, as President Obama noted in his memorial address two days after the shootings, that all America mourns with Newtown's parents — and that we won't forget the profound sense of loss that we all feel right now. Equally important, we believe that if our leaders react emotionally rather than rationally to this tragedy, we are doomed to repeat it.