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By columnist - TRB - Last Friday when twenty children and six adults were massacred by a mentally disturbed young man with a semi automatic rifle at an elementary school in Newtown Conn. - all of them six or seven years old - it was nearly impossible to be without an opinion of the incident. Everyone was, naturally, outraged. Most looked at it through a political lens - the stupidity of Congress in allowing the Assault Weapons Ban to lapse, the gun lobby's (NRA) insistence that they do so, the ever-increasing number of mass murders occurring in the U.S. and the apparent lack of political will to do anything about them. At times it seemed as though everyone was preaching to the choir. And that choir and those preachers were convinced that stricter gun laws were the answer.     

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But gun laws were not important to the parents and the various loved ones of the victims. Not this past week. They had other things to think about. Horrible things. Conversations with funeral home directors, availability of grave lots at the local burying ground, deciding the size and style and price of the casket in which to place forever the body of a beloved and cherished little girl - and most terrible, the final unspeakably awful moments of the life of their brother or sister or mother or neice, aunt, friend. Who could think about that?

All of the dead had received three to eleven bullets to their bodies from the muzzle of a .223 assault rifle similar to the type used by the police and military. The semi-automatic assault rifle with extended ammunition clip had been registered legally at the local police station and was in the hands last Friday of a deranged 20-year old man, who had begun the day by murdering his mother, who owned the weapon. He had shot her in the face. Moments later, arriving at the school, he forced his way in murdering the principal and the school psychologist, his first victims at the school. Then he murdered 4 teachers and 20 students. All of this occurred within ten minutes or less. He had the firepower.

His name is no longer relevant. He had been called "mentally disturbed" by "experts" many times. And yet here he was in Newtown, living with his mother, not receiving any help from a psycholgist, not having regular visits in an outpatient  program. No job. No friends. The police paint a picture of a young man sitting around the house, occasionally playing violent video games and sometimes appearing at the local target range with his mother, who apparently liked guns and enjoyed shooting them. He shot them too - at the target range.

Still, the shooter was basically on his own. Like so many people with emotional problems in the U.S., it was as if he had disappeared. He was invisible, so unknown and uncharted that even today, after committing one of the largest mass murders in U.S. history, authorities know practically nothing about him. The U.S closed its federally-funded hospitals for the mentally ill and defunded its outreach and out-patient programs for them back during the Carter Administration. The lack of even private insurance-funded programs for the mentally ill in the U.S. is astonishing. Many wind up in prison because there is no other place to put them. Countless others are homeless.    

Or they live with their parents. Or single parent. It is tough for these parents. They are simply not equipped or educated to deal with the needs of a mentally disturbed person. But when that person is your child, you try. Sometimes you fail. A significant number of the homeless are mentally ill young adults who have been thrown out of the house by their parents or a parent. Homeless shelter workers in several cities have complained that these younger homeless people "prey upon" the older homeless population, robbing them when they get the opportunity, or commiting acts of violence against them. Several years ago, The Boston Globe reported that local shelters were having problems with this increasingly younger population.

Still you have to wonder why the shooter's mother had so many (3) guns in the home. Perhaps she was totally unaware of the potential for violence her son posed. Taking him to the local target range where he could familiarize himself with the use of these weapons would indicate that she did not feel threatened by him. It just so happens however that young adulthood is a period when various forms of mental illness can either appear for the first time or worsen in their degree. This appears to have been the case in some other mass shootings. The mother might have seen this coming or feared violence recently. We might never know.    

So this isn't only a story about weapons technology and the gun lobby, about the design of more lethal bullets, about politicians who would rather not talk about multiple gun shot victims at a movie theater, or a Congressperson shot in the head while speaking to her constituents, or the many school shootings over the past decades. It is also a story about drive-by shootings and the impact of more lethal weapons on crime. It is a story about the many thousands of gun deaths in the U.S. every year - far exceeding that of any other nation on this earth.

It is also a story about mental illness and a nation's failure to do anything to assist or even to identify the mentally ill among us. The shooter had at least been identified as mentally ill. But apparently not mentally ill enough to prevent him from using a local gun range for target practice.

For many this will remain a story about the 26 people who lost their lives last Friday at the Newtown Elementary School. The school principal. The school psychologist. The four teachers.

The twenty children.


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