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Man dies in Iceland: why it matters here

BUFFALO — Last week marked the first anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Another school shooting took place that same week, in Centennial, Colo. There have been more than 20 mass shootings in this country, in the past seven years. Although there have been many memorials for the victims and plenty of speculation about the perpetrators, one question remains unanswered in all of our minds: Why?

Many people say the answer is tighter gun control. As many debates in this newspaper have recognized, the New York SAFE Act, attempts to do just that. Although I am not a hunter, have never shot a gun and don’t intend to, I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer. The vast majority of shootings, at schools and elsewhere, are not carried out by legally registered guns. Is restricting the availability of ammunition and assault rifles going to stop the killing? I doubt it, unless you’re a deer or a turkey.

Others have said that mental illness is at the root of the increased number of mass shootings, lately. Dr. E. Fuller Torrey spoke to “60 Minutes” about the correlation, positing that untreated mental illness was a main factor in at least half of those shootings. Torrey said that, if those people were being treated, the killings would have been preventable.

But I think the blanket statement of “mental illness” is a dangerous one. We are quick to blame that class of diseases for everything from mass shootings to inability to pay attention in school, and it’s damaging to generalize so broadly. Does every kid who doesn’t do his homework have attention deficit disorder? Of course not. Is every teenager who listens to heavy metal music clinically depressed and likely to carry out dark impulses? Nope, although much of the media would have us think otherwise. The severity and symptoms of mental illnesses vary as widely as any class of disease, and if we lump that broad range of people under one category, we risk maligning a large portion of society.

While I don’t have the answer to what has caused an uptick in mass shootings in America, I’d like to point out a news item I saw recently, from Iceland. A police officer shot and killed a man in east Reykjavik on Dec. 2, the first time an armed police operation in that country has resulted in death. Ever.

Iceland has a very low crime rate, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation. A report from said that Iceland saw just four deaths from firearms in 2009, the last year for which data was available. In the United States, there were 31,347 deaths by firearm.

The BBC suggested that Iceland’s low crime rate is a product of “a large, stable middle class,” as well as thorough gun screening.

As a person who worked at the Erie County Clerk’s Office and saw what it takes to get a pistol permit in this state, I don’t think our screening process is the problem. Our poverty levels and attitude toward those same firearms, however, might point to the solution.

It saddens me to read about mass shootings, at what seems to be an increasing frequency. It saddens me too, to read about the shooting in Iceland. Not only because a man lost his life to a police gun, but that it wouldn’t have been newsworthy, in our country. I wonder where we went wrong. Or what’s different between our two countries, that Iceland was horrified by the death of a man that, here, would barely make the front page.

Is it gun control? Is it mental illness, or an attitude toward firearms? Is it economic, social or cultural? I don’t know, and won’t pretend to have an answer. But it’s something we should all think about, because I, for one, want to stop seeing dead children in the news.

I hope the new year brings better solutions to the problems, or that we can look further than our own backyards and our own constituencies for answers. Maybe a global attitude will help us become safer, here at home.

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