Looking for answers


The slaughter of 26 people, including 20 children, at a school in Newtown, Conn., this month has delivered a wake-up call to the nation. President Obama has urged Congress to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and named Vice President Joe Biden to lead an effort to stem an epidemic of gun violence.

Mr. Obama’s call for broad solutions offers great promise, as well as some peril. Until now, most of the debate on violence after the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School has centered, properly, on gun control.

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Weapons meant for war give shooters the ability to kill many people quickly. Easy access to military-style assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips has contributed to a plague of mass murders in America, and it must end.

That said, alleviating violence entails far more than controlling guns. The group led by Mr. Biden — scheduled to deliver its recommendations next month — also will look at, among other things, mental-health care and violence in popular culture.

In tackling this complex problem, Mr. Biden’s group should avoid simplistic answers, such as blaming gun violence on video games, movies, or rap music. It’s encouraging that the group will look at access to mental-health care, which in most states, including Ohio and Michigan, is woefully inadequate.

But even an overdue debate on mental-health care could become counterproductive if it stigmatizes mentally ill people. The shooter in the Connecticut killings, Adam Lanza, reportedly had Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, but researchers have found no connection between autism and violence.

Domestic gun violence is killing far more of us than any foreign enemy, but its causes are less clear than its consequences. Experts have cited such diverse influences as America’s frontier history, the media, a proliferation of guns, turf wars and retaliatory shootings linked to the drug trade, a quick-fix materialistic culture, and the despair and decay found in the core of America’s older industrial cities such as Toledo and Detroit.

Sadly, young people have become central players in this epidemic, often as perpetrators and victims. Still, they didn’t invent the culture of violence.

The O.G. T-shirts some wear, showing off original gangsters from the 1920s and 1930s such as Lucky Luciano and Al Capone, remind us that violence has deep cultural roots. It is, as activist H. Rap Brown once said, as American as cherry pie.

To be effective, Mr. Obama’s initiative must involve young people and others who are directly affected by the culture of violence, not just members of the President’s cabinet, out-of-touch bureaucrats, and insulated academics.

The group should seek input from people with criminal records who have rehabilitated themselves. It should also involve the hip-hop community, which has enormous influence over young people.

With a violence-weary public ready to act, Mr. Obama has wisely called for comprehensive solutions. Those efforts, however, will fail if they stigmatize mentally ill people, or shun the voices of young people and those inside the culture of violence.