In the days after the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn., I made it clear that I believe it is time for us to move from rhetoric to action to prevent future acts of senseless mass violence.
Since then, much has been made of those comments — some of it accurately reflecting what I said, some not. Because I am an A-rated, lifelong member of the National Rifle Association and a proud defender of the Second Amendment, some people viewed my comments as a tipping point in the debate about guns in America.
The true tipping point, of course, is what happened in that elementary school on Dec. 14 — the unimaginable slaughter of 20 children and the teachers and staff members who were defending them. When children die tragically, it rips at our very hearts. Even in our grief, we demand a reckoning.
That reckoning is now upon us, and we owe it to those children and their families to take it seriously. As a nation, we must reconsider the treatment of the mentally ill. We must challenge a popular culture that accepts stomach-churning violence in our movies and video games. We must look at the use of high-capacity ammunition magazines and military-style assault weapons.
Committed gun owners like me can and must listen to reasonable ideas about preventing mass violence. But whatever steps we take must be comprehensive — and must bring the entertainment industry and mental health community to the table. We cannot snap our fingers, push one-track legislation that focuses exclusively on guns and pat ourselves on the back. Such an approach certainly won’t fare well in Congress. More important, it won’t fully address the problem.
I truly appreciate President Obama’s intentions to “push without delay” a set of recommendations to address the kind of madness we witnessed in Newtown. However, an administration-led approach, without significant input from the entertainment, gun and mental health communities, will not meet the crucial test of credibility. It excludes too many of the voices that must be heard if we’re going to get this right after so many decades of bitter stalemate.
If the administration fails this credibility test, and if it takes a guns-first approach without addressing the other factors at play, we will be no closer to resolving this problem than we were in the days before the horror in Newtown.
No matter how strongly any one of us holds our positions, we all must be willing to respectfully hear each other out — elected leaders must hear recommendations from the mental health community; gun-control advocates must listen to gun rights supporters; the entertainment community must listen to those who want to see less violence on their screens. And vice versa.
If we let irrational fear and antagonism control the debate, then we will continue to be a nation of violence. We need leaders who can be open-minded. We can’t villainize those who disagree with us, and we can’t dismiss their legitimate concerns outright. We cannot pay lip service to those perspectives; they must be the driving force of change.
At the same time, as a proud gun owner and a member of the NRA, I will continue to urge the organization’s leadership to come to the table because I would like to see a more meaningful discussion — because every group with a role to play in this conversation should contribute. I’m open to a discussion about whether we need more security in our schools, as the NRA proposed in Friday’s news conference, but that can’t be the only measure that comes out of this. An all-or-nothing approach from any of these parties won’t result in the changes we need to keep our children safe.
Because if you think the problem of mass violence in our country is about just guns, you’re wrong. If you think it’s about just an entertainment industry that markets violence to kids, you’re wrong. If you it’s about just insufficient security at our schools, you’re wrong. If you think it’s about just the lack of mental health services for troubled young people and adults, you’re wrong. We need to address all of them. I, for one, simply cannot support any proposal that doesn’t address all aspects of this problem.
So, I propose an alternate path: a national commission on mass violence. Such a commission could lead the national conversation that is desperately needed in the wake of Newtown. It could hold public hearings, after which it would issue a report and recommendations based on facts, not emotions or preconceived notions of what it takes to end mass violence in America.
When the president announced his task force this past week, he said it would not be one more Washington commission, “studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside.” That is certainly not what I envision for this group. The worst possible outcome would be another Simpson-Bowles commission, whose excellent blueprint has languished despite bipartisan support. Instead, this panel would have teeth — more like the 9/11 Commission.
I am not the first to suggest this approach. My friends Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. John McCain of Arizona have advocated a similar effort for years. And I believe that such a commission could go well beyond the work of the president’s task force and help provide a fuller understanding of the root causes of senseless acts of violence.
That’s because finding a comprehensive solution will take effort — the effort to talk with experts from a variety of fields, including mental health and entertainment; the effort to carefully craft recommendations that seek to avert unintended consequences; and, most important, the effort to build a consensus to move forward on a matter that has divided our country for far too long. Putting forth this effort doesn’t mean it would have to take forever — but it certainly means it would take more than a few weeks.
We cannot have this conversation without gun owners and groups like the NRA. Sportsmen, hunters and gun owners must have a seat at the table. They’ve been vilified for so much of the mass violence in America, and that’s just wrong. They’re hurting about Newtown as much as the rest of us.
If you blame the NRA for what happened there, you’re blaming 4 million law-abiding Americans who tuck their children safely into bed every night and who teach them to respect firearms and to use them safely. And if you blame them, you’re also blaming me, because I’m one of those 4 million NRA members.
Responsible gun owners should be at the forefront of any effort to find a balance between rights and responsibilities to make America safer for our children. We understand better than most that guns made this country free and are an important part of our culture and heritage.
I make this solemn pledge to all my friends who are proud, law-abiding members of the NRA: I will defend the Second Amendment with every fiber of my being. And I make this solemn pledge to all my friends in the media and entertainment industry: I will defend the First Amendment just as vigorously.
I’m never going to give up my guns — that will not happen. I support a sensible, comprehensive process that can lead to reasonable solutions regarding mass violence. I will weigh the evidence for any proposals put before me, including ways to address high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons, improve mental health treatment, and transform a culture that glorifies violence.
We cannot take a single-issue approach to this problem. The causes of mass violence run deeper than that. Any solution that doesn’t take all concerned parties into account will lack the credibility it needs to become a reality. But we should all be looking for a comprehensive fix. We owe that to Newtown.
This is the way we responded to challenges in West Virginia when I was governor. After tragic mine disasters, we called a brief time out, huddled up and created a plan to protect our miners. We didn’t quit mining; we made the mines safer. That’s similar to what this country did after Sept. 11, 2001: We didn’t quit flying; we made flying safer.
For the sake of our children, we need to call a time out from politics as usual so that guilt by association doesn’t become guilt by conversation. No one should be branded a traitor for being willing to talk with others who see the world differently.
The Newtown tragedy has changed our nation forever. And as we are changed, so must our thinking be changed. We must act in such a way that those beautiful children and courageous adults who tried to save them from unspeakable horror shall not have died in vain.
— Joe Manchin III is the junior U.S. senator from West Virginia. A Democrat, he served as governor of West Virginia from 2005 to 2010. This article was originally published in the Dec. 23 edition of the Washington Post.