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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The anguish of Richard Martinez in the wake of the Santa Barbara, California, shootings that killed his 20-year-old son last year was almost unbearable. Now he is an old hand. “You are not alone,” Martinez told Andy Parker, father of slain Virginia journalist Alison Parker, in a recent USA Today column.

“Welcome to the heartbreaking club that no one wants to be a part of.”

If only we could fix this by keeping better tabs on disturbed young men and erratic co-workers. If only we could avoid more daunting political warfare over guns.

But let’s get real. There isn’t enough money in the world to train every cop, teacher, social worker, and family member in America to detect mental illness and predict its course. And cash is the least of the problem.

That’s because mental illness is the most mysterious, complicated, and uncontrollable element of the gun violence equation. There are many types of illnesses, not just one. Their symptoms, by definition, involve irrational behavior. Some people hide their difficulties. Some refuse help. Medication doesn’t always work. And even when it does, people often decide they don’t need their pills.

If you don’t treat mental illness or live with it, it is difficult to convey its force and magnitude, and how opaque it remains while in plain sight. Even the experts can’t foresee catastrophes in the making. A young man in Virginia, sent home by authorities who could not find him a hospital bed, killed himself after stabbing his father, state Sen. Creigh Deeds. Elliot Rodger’s mother, alerted to alarming videos he posted online, asked sheriff’s deputies to check on him — and they took his word that he was fine.

As for the politics of mental illness, there’s no tighter, more tangled Gordian knot in our age than the expanding right of the individual to bear arms; the right of society to be protected from troubled, armed individuals; and the rights of people who might or might not be troubled enough to warrant involuntary treatment. Sure, we should keep studying mental illness and train more people on the front lines, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves. Guns are much easier to manage than human behavior.

In writing this column, I stumbled on an eye-opening piece I did for the Associated Press in December 1993. President Bill Clinton was pushing an assault weapons ban, which he eventually won and which was later allowed to expire. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wanted a large tax hike on ammunition to pay for health care reform.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder had proposed a “firearm fatality reporting system” modeled on a federal database of traffic fatalities that had led to safer vehicles. Pediatricians were hoping that unsafe, easy-to-acquire guns would become as unacceptable as driving drunk or failing to fasten your child’s seatbelt.

The doctors never imagined politicians so intimidated that even after 20 children were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, they would refuse to plug holes in the background-check system for prospective buyers. They never envisioned a lobby so powerful it could prevent gun registration, research and even the collection of data invaluable to law enforcement and public health personnel.

If we treated cars that way, they wouldn’t be registered or insured. Turn signals would not have been introduced in 1937, and computerized warning systems would not be emerging today. We would not have saved 300,000 lives in 40 years, thanks to seat belts and air bags.

We study and regulate cars in the interest of keeping people alive. We do the same with cribs, food, airplanes, medication, practically everything except guns, even as they continue to kill and maim. More than 30,000 people in the United States died in suicides and homicides involving firearms in 2010, according to federal statistics. Hundreds more die and thousands are injured each year in gun accidents.

But the numbers don’t matter to Second Amendment disciples. I’m not sure they’d budge even if the Founding Fathers personally assured them that they were good with expanded background checks and bans on certain types of weapons and magazines.

There may never be consensus, but there is a growing community of bereaved families determined to spare others their agony. They are embodied by Parker, who says his mission and Alison’s legacy will be tighter gun laws, and Martinez, who went from public anger and pain to working with Everytown for Gun Safety and getting results, state by state by state.

The only appropriate response for all of us, not just for the relatives of the dead, is to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to get guns off the pedestal and treat them like the dangerous merchandise they are.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

This piece is an updated and revised version of a column from May 29, 2014.

Photo: Roo Reynolds via Flickr