Last week in Omaha, a troubled 19-year-old took an AK-47 to a shopping mall and killed eight people before killing himself. His suicide note indicated he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory -- or perhaps the right word is infamy.
Whenever I hear about horrible events like that, my first thought is "What could I have done if I'd been there?" Could I have stopped him? Could I have kept myself from getting shot?
In this case -- as in the case of the Virginia Tech massacre -- my answer to those questions as an individual is "No." Sometimes you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is also the case with terrorist attacks.
Oh, maybe if I'd happened to be near him when he pulled out his gun, I could have done something. The pro-gun lobby would suggest that if someone near him had been armed, they could have shot him. I note that Omaha permits concealed carrying of weapons, so it's possible that some people in the mall were armed. If so, they apparently weren't able to respond quickly enough.
The truth is, most of us don't have the skill it takes to handle an armed person determined to kill, especially one who is basically intent on suicide. That's why I don't think concealed carry laws provide any real protection to people.
So what can we do? We can work together to develop laws and a culture that minimize the chances of such mass shootings.
For example: An AK-47 is a military weapon, not suitable for hunting or for home protection. Yet it is legal to purchase them in Nebraska. While the killer in this case had a felony conviction and therefore could not -- I hope -- have bought any kind of gun, he apparently stole it from his stepfather, who I assume purchased it legally.
We should certainly be discussing whether such weapons should be legal for anyone outside the military. This is a separate question from whether people should be allowed to own guns at all. After all, military assault weapons are a different category from hunting rifles and even handguns. I realize the Second Amendment purists will fight this idea tooth and nail, but I suspect many responsible gun owners would be willing to discuss what weapons are appropriate for individuals.
But there's another issue here, and it is probably more important to our collective safety than the gun issue: The killer in this case was a troubled young man and, as the Kansas City Star notes, he apparently wasn't receiving the kind of treatment he needed.
In this particular case -- unlike in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter -- it seems as if there was some effort to help this young man, but it wasn't enough.
Now I know it's difficult to assess mental illness -- there are many troubled people who are not dangerous to others. But we clearly need to pay more attention to the issue. There are rarely enough resources devoted to treating those with mental illness. Even families with good health insurance often don't get coverage for mental health treatment. The rules for getting government coverage often require families to cut their ties to the ill person. Many state and local governments don't have all the resources they need to take care of people.
We usually think of taking care of the troubled and vulnerable among us as a humanitarian issue -- something we do because we're good people. That makes it the sort of program that gets cut quick in a budget crisis.
Perhaps if we start to think of it as a public safety issue, we'll get better results.