Reshaping America's response to Sandy Hook

By Brian Cox
Legal News

If I dwell too long on trying to imagine the horrific last minutes of the 20 children and six adults killed Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., my chest constricts, my hands start to tremble, and my eyes water with checked tears.

Months after the shooting, I remain affected. Contemplating those children’s final moments of absolute terror conjures up the same raw emotions of hammering grief and impotent fury that I felt while watching news accounts the day of the massacre. The reaction is visceral and clear evidence that I remain traumatized by the violence and the heart-shattering loss.

I develop an irrational urge to reach back in time and change what happened.

In his remarks at a prayer vigil two days after the shooting, President Barack Obama expressed the same simple conclusion I and many other Americans had reached. “We can’t tolerate this anymore,” he said. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”

Americans may have changed, according to some polls, but as evidenced this week by the failure of an assault weapons ban to gain sufficient support in the U.S. Senate for it to be even brought to the floor, Congress and the influence the National Rifle Association holds over it has not.

What’s more, the debate over the regulation of firearms shows that how we talk about the issue hasn’t changed at all. Both sides are using the same over-chewed arguments, the same sad and startling statistics.  The debate reveals zero change in our perspective on the deviant acts of violence that have occurred in our country at places like an elementary school in Newtown, a high school in Columbine, a theater in Aurora, a university in Blacksburg, a strip mall in Tucson, a temple in Oak Creek, and far too many others.

Our perspective hasn’t changed because our language for tragedies of this scope hasn’t changed.

We still characterize these acts of gun violence as “mass shootings,” “rampages,” “massacres,” “shooting sprees” or “slaughters.”

In light of the devastating loss of 20 sweet schoolchildren whose violent deaths traumatized a nation, surely it is finally time to start calling what happened at Newtown precisely what it was: an act of terrorism. Surely it is time to call Adam Lanza not a “shooter” or even a “mass murderer,” but exactly what he was: a terrorist.

Just as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were terrorists at Columbine. Just as James Holmes was a terrorist in an Aurora theater. Just as Wade Michael Page was a terrorist at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek.

Would our response to Newtown be different if while Lanza riddled with bullets the bodies of the Newtown first-graders he had shouted, “Allahu Akbar”? Or if he had left a manifesto declaring his intent to avenge the death of Osama Bin Laden? Or if it was later learned that he had received training at a terrorist camp run by al-qaeda?

You bet it would.

If the attack on the Newtown elementary school had been perceived as an act of terror rather than an “aberrant” mass shooting, the gut-wrenching outcome would not have changed, but the country’s reaction would have been very different indeed.

Would there be much debate today over whether we should keep semi-automatic weapons out of the hands of terrorists?

You bet there wouldn’t. Would even the NRA be able to take the position that American terrorists should have easy access to assault weapons? How could they dare?

In response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, America has expended blood and treasure to combat terrorism. The government went so far as to create a new cabinet-level agency, the Department of Homeland Security, which from 2001-2011 has cost taxpayers close to $650 billion just to operate. That amount doesn’t include the national fortune spent on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which reaches into the trillions.

And yet, Americans are more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub than by the hands of terrorists. According to a risk benefit analysis published in Foreign Affairs in April 2010, a total of 3,292 Americans (excluding those in war zones) were killed by terrorists from 1970-2007, resulting in a one in 3.5 million chance of an American dying in a terrorist attack. The odds of dying in a bathtub accident are one in 950,000.

We are even more likely to be killed by a firearm, in fact. In 2011 alone, more than 6,000 people were killed by handguns, nearly twice the number of Americans killed by terrorism over a span of almost 40 years.
But the epidemic of gun violence in this country is a separate issue from the terrorist acts that have turned Newtown, Columbine, Aurora, Oak Creek and so many others into memorials of national grief.

In the current debate over the federal regulation of firearms, the NRA and other pro-gun activists want to clump the robbery of a jewelry store in with the terrorist attack in Newtown. They want to say gang violence in Chicago is the same as the terrorist attacks in Aurora and Oak Creek. They want to convince Americans that Columbine was nothing more really than a home invasion on a grand scale. They want to paint the debate in terms of crime, self-defense and 2nd Amendment rights. In that way, they can argue on comfortable ground and offer safe cover to politicians willing to oppose any new weapons regulations.

But there isn’t safe cover when we recognize that what happened at Newtown is not the same as a robbery or a home invasion and we recognize it for what it truly was: an act of domestic terror perpetrated by a terrorist. For surely no politician or even the NRA would dare argue that the government cannot take measures to keep terrorists from killing American children.

Toward the goal of keeping our children safe from terror, we can certainly have the expectation that our government will work to keep assault weapons out of the hands of terrorists. In fact, we should demand it.
No guns for terrorists should be a position every American can rally around.

To paraphrase President George W. Bush when he declared, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” the NRA and other gun supporters can either join the effort in keeping weapons out of the hands of domestic terrorists or they can abet them in perpetrating acts of terror against America’s children. It’s their choice.