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What Can We Do to Stop Massacres?

The massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, has caused many people, including people at the White House, to say that this is not the day to talk about gun policy. This day is obviously for mourning the dead, but I don't understand why we shouldn't talk about the conditions that lead to these sorts of shootings. I wrote about this issue in the current issue of The Atlantic (you can read the story here), and I want to quickly make a few points drawn from that longer article.

1) This is a gun country. We are saturated with guns. There are as many as 300 million guns in circulation today (the majority owned legally, but many not) and more than 4 million new guns come onto the market each year. To talk about eradicating guns, especially given what the Supreme Court has said about the individual right to gun-ownership, is futile.

2) There are, however, some gun control laws that could be strengthened. The so-called gun-show loophole (which is not a loophole at all -- 40 percent of all guns sold in America legally are sold without benefit of a federal background check) should be closed. Background checks are no panacea -- many of our country's recent mass-shooters had no previous criminal records, and had not been previously adjudicated mentally ill -- but they would certainly stop some people from buying weapons.

3) We must find a way to make it more difficult for the non-adjudicated mentally ill to come into possession of weapons. This is crucially important, but very difficult, because it would require the cooperation of the medical community -- of psychiatrists, therapists, school counselors and the like -- and the privacy issues (among other issues) are enormous. But: It has to be made more difficult for sociopaths, psychopaths and the otherwise violently mentally-ill (who, in total, make up a small portion of the mentally ill population) to buy weapons.

4) People should have the ability to defend themselves. Mass shootings take many lives in part because no one is firing back at the shooters. The shooters in recent massacres have had many minutes to complete their evil work, while their victims cower under desks or in closets. One response to the tragic reality that we are a gun-saturated country is to understand that law-abiding, well-trained, non-criminal, wholly sane citizens who are screened by the government have a role to play in their own self-defense, and in the defense of others (read my print article to see how one armed school administrator stopped a mass shooting in Pearl Mississippi). I don't know anything more than anyone else about the shooting in Connecticut at the moment, but it seems fairly obvious that there was no one at or near the school who could have tried to fight back.

5) All of this is tragic. As I wrote in the magazine, Canada, which has a low-rate of gun ownership and strict gun laws, seems like a pretty nice place sometimes.

UPDATE: It's worth noting what President Obama said during the October 16 debate: "We're a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment. We've got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves."

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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