Editorial: Small, steady steps can cut gun violence
The massacre of 27 people in Newtown, Conn., 20 of them small children, will stay with us for some time, as it should. It will likely become a permanent part of our collective consciousness.
The slayings of two upstate firefighters, allegedly by a convicted killer who set a blaze to lure them, will fade from national memory more quickly.
And the late-night shooting death of a young man embroiled in a fight over drugs or money or love? A small child caught in the crossfire of a gang war? A suicide who grabbed a gun on impulse and ended it?
We won't remember these very long, if we notice them at all.
The tragedy of gun deaths in the United States isn't, for the most part, embodied by the rare slaughters by maniacs. Most of the nation's 11,000 gun homicides a year spring from much more ordinary circumstances. And that tragedy includes nearly 20,000 people per year who use a gun to commit suicide. The Constitution allows private gun ownership, and that right isn't going away. But gun deaths can be reduced, and each with the same recipe: multiple, incremental steps to slow and stop the availability of guns to those who would use them to create mayhem, stricter sentencing of people who commit gun crimes, harsh penalties against those who help others circumvent gun-ownership restrictions, and an increased ability to treat mental illness before it erupts into violence.
Nationally, we also need to deal with the fact that while most guns are at first obtained legitimately by law-abiding owners, they often become illegally held after being stolen or through sale in private transactions, at gun shows or by shady dealers. Such sales can allow new gun owners to avoid background checks, permits and training requirements that otherwise might disqualify them from ownership.
Last of all, we'll need patience. Reducing gun violence is much like reducing smoking or automobile accidents: Steady effort over a long period can create improved, if imperfect, results. Naysayers who point out the limitations of the strategy must be steadily opposed.
In New York State, we may soon see a political dance that gives us all these changes. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants more gun restrictions, and Republicans in the State Senate appear unlikely to give them to him without getting tougher sentencing on gun crimes and an increased ability to get people who suffer dangerous mental illness off the streets.
All these steps are needed. There were 774 murders in the state in 2011 (55 on Long Island) and about 60 percent of the deaths were caused by guns.
So New York's elected officials, as they report back to Albany, may be able to lead the nation in creating a most unusual compromise. There is the potential for a deal on guns and mental health that satisfies all constituencies and gives us what we need to keep everyone safer. But we need to get the details right, and be patient and dogged in instituting change.