Editor’s Note: Mark Weinberg, a communications consultant and public speaker, served as special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary in the Reagan White House, and as director of public affairs in the office of former President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Movie Nights with the Reagans (Simon & Schuster). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Over the last several days, our nation has had to thank the brave men and women of law enforcement for truly heroic and selfless acts in preventing, and responding to, unspeakable acts of violence motivated by deranged haters.
In one instance, the breathtakingly quick and truly brilliant detective work of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies led to the arrest of a man who had mailed pipe bombs to two former presidents, sitting members of Congress, a national news organization and other former senior government officials who had been critical of the Trump Administration. In the other instance, sadly, law enforcement could only retaliate against, and apprehend, a heavily armed man at a synagogue who, it appears, killed people for no other reason than that they were Jewish.
As we grapple with these horrors, as well as the gunman who killed two African Americans at a grocery store in Kentucky after failing to enter a predominantly black church, we naturally seek to understand how the human mind snaps to the point where one person is capable of such violence against others. While both suspects in the mailing of bombs nationwide and the murders in Pittsburgh were caught alive and are therefore able to be examined and questioned – perhaps leading to some understanding of how they got to the point of wanting to kill others – it may ultimately be a fool’s errand for rational human beings to seek to understand the irrational mind. We should try of course, but perhaps a better use of our time would be discussing ways to prevent recurrence, because this could easily happen again.
Here are three ideas to get the conversation started:
1) Our President should address the nation and call for civility, tolerance and non-violence, unambiguously reject extremism and tell his supporters in no uncertain terms that violence against his political opponents is not what he seeks and is not something he will accept. He should do so in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, behind the Resolute Desk, to show the seriousness with which he takes this matter, rather than as an off-hand comment on the lawn as he walks to a waiting helicopter. President Donald Trump should call for people to respect one another, even if they vigorously disagree on political issues, and say that no nation can be “great” when violence creeps into everyday life. He should speak aspirationally of a nation in which men and women of all races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations and the like value one another and live together peacefully. Doing so will not constitute accepting “blame” for anything any of his supporters may have done. As the President has said, this is not about blame. If such a speech causes even one person to abandon plans to harm others, it will be well worth it. The President has an historic opportunity – and I would argue, an obligation – to lead on this issue and to make a permanent and fundamental difference for the long-term betterment of our country. Woe be unto to him if he ignores it.
2) Have a serious, solutions-oriented national discussion on mental health issues in our country. The President should appoint a bi-partisan commission to examine what needs exist and how they can be met in short order. The commission should be required to present specific ideas to him and the Congress, within a limited period of time, and the President and Congress should commit – in advance – to fund whatever the commission recommends, within reason. Yes, in advance. Otherwise, the recommendations will be bogged down in debate forever in Washington and nothing will get done. Doing this may be expensive – very expensive. But the cost of not doing anything is far greater.
3) Talk about gun control with common sense and maturity. The mere mention of that phrase is a non-starter for some, and that’s the problem. The President has suggested that one way to deal with incidents that occurred in Pittsburgh would be to have armed guards in places of worship. He may have a point. A potential harm-doer might be deterred if he or she knows that they will face return fire if they show up at a church, synagogue or mosque with guns blazing. But maybe not. Indeed, many mass killers expect or even hope to die in a hail of gunfire. But the President is right in suggesting that an armed guard could at least take out a shooter before law enforcement arrives. Whether having security guards at every place of worship in the country is practical is an open question, but it is certainly worth a discussion by every congregation.
The question of security guards is only part of the issue. As a society, we need to address the issue of individuals owning automatic weapons. The Second Amendment to the Constitution grants to people the right to bear arms, but there is no way the Founding Fathers could have possibly anticipated automatic weapons. Having a gun in your house to protect your family, or having a rifle for sport shooting is one thing, but having dozens of guns, some of which can kill hundreds in minutes, hardly seems consistent with “a well-regulated militia.” Even my former boss, Ronald Reagan, believed that.
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Those who oppose more controls on private gun ownership say that any limits would be a “slippery slope” to taking away all weapons. Why? It would be so only if we allow it to be. There is no inevitability to that. Further, they argue that criminals will always be able to get guns and that stronger laws will punish innocent people. By that way of thinking, there should be no laws at all. People will always speed, so why have speed limits? We control speeds (and license drivers) because there are public safety issues at stake. Why do less for items designed to kill?
Next week’s news will be dominated by coverage of funerals in Pittsburgh, and we will all shake our heads ruefully. If history is any indicator, we will then go back to business as usual. And that would be a shame. We have gotten to the point where going to worship, to school, to the mall, to a movie theater, to the mailbox and just plain living is scary. That needs to change.