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Sons and Gun Lovers

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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According to the Associated Press, the mother of the 26-year-old Oregon gunman who killed nine and injured nine "told investigators he was struggling with some mental health issues."

Yes, he was.

Neighbors have described Christopher Harper-Mercer as an anxious, alienated young man. His mother, Laurel Harper, appears to have written in online forums about his mental and social struggles.

It's a profile so familiar it's cliché. Dylann Roof, the "quiet" 21-year-old white supremacist accused of murdering nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in June, was similarly disturbed. And, of course, Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who in 2012 sprayed gunfire through the classrooms of Sandy Hook Elementary School, had all the markings of the agonized loner who seeks catharsis by making others suffer horribly in turn.

The three have something else in common, as well. Each was encouraged by a parent to relish guns.

There is perhaps no greater evidence of how deeply askew American gun culture has become than a mother taking her mentally disturbed boy to the shooting range and stocking up on firearms back at the fortress called home. Lanza went to a gun range with his mother, and used one of her weapons to kill her before embarking on the massacre of the century. Harper appears to have shared her son's fascination with guns, and made room for a tidy arsenal in the apartment they shared. According to Roof’s uncle, the alleged killer's father gave his son a .45-caliber pistol for his birthday in April.

In the alternate universe defined by the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America and the gung-ho partisans of the open-carry movement, possession of firearms is a paramount right, eclipsing all others. And guns are talismans with magical properties that protect against bad guys while posing little or no risk to good guys. They are a wholesome and practical part of this modern life. As a woman at a gun-rights rally in Texas told the New York Times, "A rifle on our back is part of our everyday life, just like a cellphone is part of our everyday life."

Of course, when you leave your cellphone on the table, not much happens. When you leave your gun there, you run the risk your 5-year-old will shoot the baby dead.

Many Americans don't treat firearms with the caution and respect that they require. They leave guns where children can access them. They take a little girl to a gun range to shoot an Uzi for amusement. They speak of a machine gun as a "toy." They take their emotionally and mentally unstable son to the range and ply him with deadly firepower. 

The gun movement is always quick to point out that a proposed legal remedy would not have stopped this or that tragedy or massacre. The critique is almost invariably correct. It's hard to stop a demented young man who makes a combat mission of the local school.

But one place to start is with a minimal dose of common sense and social approbation. First, acknowledge that guns are dangerous -- not just to the bad guys lurking on the street or in the imagination, but to anyone within range of a bullet. Once you accept that guns are dangerous, it's a small step to conclude that it's not such a great idea to take your mentally ill kid to the gun range and get him comfortable with shooting at things.

Maybe you owe the people in your town a little more concern and respect than that. And perhaps the local gun enthusiasts, instead of indiscriminately cheering every fusillade, should make it clear that as welcoming and warm as gun culture can be, the range is not the appropriate place to work out a young loner's psychological turmoil.  

The First Amendment allows freedom of religion. The Second enables Americans to worship guns if they choose. But if that's your choice, at least acknowledge that you worship an angry god. And take precautions. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net