Sandy Hook Elementary and Rethinking Civil Liberties

By Carl M. Cannon - December 17, 2012

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All this was brought into stark relief this weekend by Liza Long, a writer in Boise, Idaho, and the mother of three children. The oldest is 13, seriously mentally ill, and both violent and potentially suicidal.

“I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” she wrote. “I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys -- and their mothers -- need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”

It’s a lethal mix, mental illness and firearms. Keeping them from combusting is a growing challenge, but it is not new. I was a young police reporter in San Diego, Calif., one January morning in 1979 when a 16-year-old loner named Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire from her living room on Cleveland Elementary School across the street.

Armed with an automatic .22-caliber rifle her father had given her a month earlier, she wounded several children. When the school’s principal, Burton Wragg, shielded the kids, she targeted him, wounding him fatally. She also killed a janitor who tried to pull Wragg to safety.

As police barricaded the house, a colleague of mine from the afternoon newspaper got Brenda Spencer on the phone. He asked her why she was doing this. “I don't like Mondays,” she replied. “This livens up the day.”

Cleveland Elementary was the first mass school shooting I was aware of. I remembered fearing it wouldn’t be the last. Most of the now-familiar trappings were there: a kid whose mental makeup ensured that she would never fit in at school; someone who craved attention; a parent who didn’t know what do about it -- and whose measures were counterproductive in the extreme.

At a parole hearing 20 years later, Spencer was less glib than she’d been on the phone that day. She recalled that the rifle was a Christmas present. “I asked for a radio and he bought me a gun,” she said. Asked how she interpreted the gift, she replied, “I felt like he wanted me to kill myself.”

We must do better. 

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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