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President starts discussion nation needs

Published December 21. 2012 4:00AM

It is encouraging to see a dialogue has begun into how changes in gun laws, mental health policies and addressing the prevelance of violent images in our culture can reduce the potential for more mass killings, such as that witnessed at a Newtown elementary school one week ago.

Some have criticized this rush to tackle these issues, particularly concerning gun control, as exploitation of a horrible tragedy. Yet the political reality is that if the emotions of the moment are not brought to the debate the forces against change will almost certainly prevail. Time is on their side.

This is most true when it comes to the gun issue and debating limits on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, but it is also a reality that it will be difficult as time goes on to muster support for better mental health treatment in a time of budget limitations and large deficits.

Trying to measure how violence in video games and movies may contribute to the increase in such despicable acts, and then place reasonable limits on access to the images among young, impressionable minds, is another complex challenge and brings into play another constitutional amendment - the First.

When something goes terribly wrong it is appropriate to ask questions, investigate and make changes. After the nation witnessed the failure in preparedness and emergency response to Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, the federal government moved quickly to examine what went wrong and what needed to change. So too did Connecticut when it experienced two major storms in 2011 that caused prolonged power outages. No one claimed it was exploitive to move quickly to examine and address the shortcomings in those instances.

We applaud President Obama for assigning Vice President Joe Biden to lead an interagency examination of possible changes that could reduce the chances of more mass shootings. This would form the basis for legislation or, in some instances, changes in executive policy. The vice president will report to the president next month.

Here in Connecticut, home to the horror that shook a nation, a discussion has also begun among lawmakers on issues of gun control and mental health services. The fact that the weapon used in the attack was apparently purchased legally is reason to question whether state laws on assault weapons, already among the toughest in the country, need to be tightened.

This newspaper sees no constitutional guarantee that citizens have access to assault weapons designed for battlefields and law enforcement, or to large capacity magazines that have only one purpose - allowing someone to keep shooting and killing without interruption. Thorough background checks, including of other family members who may have access, should be required of anyone obtaining a weapon. And loopholes that make gun purchases too easy at gun shows need to be closed.

The last time Congress passed a law limiting access to assault weapons, in 1994, it was so full of exceptions it was largely ineffective, and then allowed to sunset in 2004 without further debate.

We recognize that others have a far different perspective on the issue of gun rights. Achieving any legislation on gun control will take compromise.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in D.C. v. Heller struck down the District of Columbia's handgun ban, finding that the Second Amendment prohibits governments from banning access to a handgun for self-defense. But the ruling also allowed for reasonable limitations on the Second Amendment. Many in the public now seek such reasonable limitations.

Some gun advocates will argue that reducing access to assault weapons by law-abiding citizens will not reduce gun crimes or mass killings because criminals will get the guns. But the experience in Australia, where assault weapons were banned after a gunman killed 35 people using semi-automatic weapons, suggests otherwise. Firearm homicides dropped 59 percent in the decade after the tough gun laws passed and there have been no gun massacres.

After a week of silence since the Newtown tragedy the National Rifle Association comments today. We urge them to bring something useful to the discussion, other than its typical response of - "no, nothing should change."

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What is your reaction to the way the media have covered the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown?
Generally speaking, it's been respectful, appropriate and poignant.
14%
It varies. Some organizations have covered this tragedy with class, others have been too sensationalistic.
23%
I'm outraged. These news outlets are not giving the victims' families and Newtown residents the space they need to grieve.
24%
I think the coverage has been respectful to the victims and their families, but I was alarmed by the amount of erroneous information put out by the mainstream media on the day of the shooting.
38%
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