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Editorial: Challenge Ahead 

The shock has subsided since the Newtown, Conn., shootings, but fortunately the outrage has not. Marshaling that anger to prevent future gun tragedies will be a challenge, however, and not just because so many high-powered weapons remain in circulation. Several news stories published since the shootings indicate just how difficult it will be.

When not advancing the preposterous notion that schoolyards would be safer with more guns, Second Amendment absolutists have taken to preaching their newfound faith in the value of good mental health services. This is largely a tactical position, of course, and reflects their preference for countering gun violence by just about any measure that doesn’t focus on the role of guns.

On the other hand, mental illness is clearly a factor in many of the most horrific acts of gun violence. And the patchwork system of mental health care is in such dire need of additional resources, we welcome any call to strengthen it, even if propelled by questionable motives. But the challenge of reducing gun violence through improved mental health treatment is daunting, judging by an interview with Benjamin Nordstrom, assistant professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, published in the Dec. 30 Sunday Valley News. On the encouraging side, Nordstrom cited a study that found that less than a quarter of mass murderers had had any formal contact with the mental health system. But even if a concerted effort resulted in more of those people receiving treatment, “psychiatrists are not able to see into the future any better than anybody else,” Nordstrom told staff writer Diane Taylor. Psychiatrists often can predict assaultive behavior within a treatment facility in the short term, Nordstrom said, but “historically we have been very poor at predicting who will become violent in the community.” Getting more treatment for mentally ill individuals is a place to start, but we should be cautious in our expectations about its immediate impact.

Those who favor curbing gun violence in the more conventional way ­— through controls passed legislatively — received some encouraging news in a story published in the Dec. 28 Valley News about a recent Gallup Poll. That survey found nearly 60 percent support for stricter gun controls — a 14 percent increase from the prior year and the highest percentage in eight years. But that support is spotty, at best. While more than 90 percent favor requiring background checks of buyers at gun shows and more than 60 percent support banning high-capacity ammunition clips, 74 percent oppose a handgun ban and 51 percent are against a ban on semi-automatic assault-style rifles. The opposition to a handgun ban isn’t that surprising, but what to make of Americans’ attachment to assault weapons? What perceived need do they fill?

If ever there was a lobby capable of taking full advantage of that ambivalence, it’s the group that favors an extremist reading of the Second Amendment. The gun lobby’s role in diluting and eventually repealing the previous federal assault-weapons ban was well-known, as were the various exemptions it carved out for gun-owners in homeland security law. But who knew the lobby had worked its will during the writing of the Affordable Care Act to limit doctors’ ability to collect information about gun ownership — data that, of course, could be useful in formulating public health policy?

And who knew about its malign influence in judicial appointments? According to Linda Greenhouse, a former New York Times reporter who covered the Supreme Court for many years, the National Rifle Association opposed the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the high court in 2009 not because of her rulings on gun ownership ­ — she didn’t really have any significant ones ­— but as a favor to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who was seeking ways to unite his caucus. At his request, the NRA opposed Sotomayor and warned senators that it was going to use the confirmation vote in its annual scoring of their voting records. Sure enough, all but seven Republicans opposed her. And with the NRA placing itself at the disposal of the Republican Party, it won’t be shy about demanding return favors. Greenhouse reports that the organization is becoming increasingly active in less-prominent lower-court appointments.

So keep that sense of outrage burnished. We’re going to need it.