Can We Do Anything To Reduce Gun Deaths?

Back on December 30th of 2012, after the Newtown school shooting, I published a commentary in my local newspaper, The News-Gazette, regarding gun violence, and you can find the full text in my blog archive on this website. I have excerpted a portion of my thoughts at that time below:

Inevitably, each time another group of innocents are massacred, we talk about gun control—and we have yet another opportunity to shout at one another across the political, social, and regional divides that have riven our nation for too long. 
On one side, we hear the perfectly reasonable argument that erecting barriers to gun and ammunition purchases will make it more difficult for anyone to walk into schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, and houses of worship to slaughter and maim those whose only crime is to present a target of opportunity. On the other side we have the equally reasonable argument that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who cannot understand why restrictions should be placed upon them because of the actions of the very few; many times these solid citizens land in the extremist arms of the NRA, regardless of the nuances of their beliefs about gun ownership, simply because they have no one else defending their interests.
The end result is predictable. After much hooting and hollering, our various levels of government will pass laws that make few happy and protect virtually no one.

If we put more restrictions on legal gun ownership and ammunition sales, we will create yet more expensive bureaucracies that will devote scarce resources to the task of closely monitoring the activities of those who are least likely to commit a crime with a gun. If we increase the penalties for gun-related crime, we will add more time in jail onto the sentences of those who are least likely to be deterred by the presence of a new law and give them a little more time behind bars to lift weights and become further estranged from mainstream society. If we restrict the domestic manufacture of guns and ammunition, many jobs will move to other countries, and those who are willing to import weapons into the United States—by means both legal and illegal—will become stupendously wealthy thanks to dirt cheap overseas labor and high domestic demand
.
And if government officials should seek to confiscate the hundreds of millions of weapons now in the hands of our citizens, I have only one comment to make: good luck with that.

I continued that particular commentary by discussing the need for better access to mental health care because those who commit these heinous mass shootings are simply stark raving mad—and should have long ago been confined to a secure residential treatment unit.

Now, in light of the terrible mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida by a former student, I would like to revisit this topic and, given that I am no longer restricted by a newspaper’s word limit, expand a bit regarding how our nation should respond to this problem.

Although mass shootings are certainly horrible and terrifying, they account for roughly 2% of gun deaths each year; in comparison, suicides account for about 60% of the approximately 33,000 gun deaths in the United States each year. Neither mass shootings nor suicides are, of course, acceptable or normal events, but it is easy to see how the intense media attention to a much smaller number of deaths resulting from mass shootings has skewed our perceptions and public policy discussions. Far more lives would be saved if, for example, we developed comprehensive national programs to identify and assist those at risk of committing suicide.

Nonetheless, mass shootings create far more fear and concern, particularly when children or adolescents are targeted in schools and public places. A crazed person with a gun is every parent’s worst nightmare, and we quite naturally expect solutions that will protect all from harm.

Demanding that certain types of firearms be prohibited is a common reflex. The never ending clamor to ban assault weapons, which are actually only semi-automatic rifles that sport certain cosmetic features that endow a more military appearance, is a popular but ultimately misguided response. A pump action shotgun can do far more damage in many cases, and certain types of ammunition can render a semi-automatic handgun equally as deadly as either a rifle or a shotgun.

A recent article in The New York Times confirmed that roughly 173 people have been killed in mass shootings committed with the much maligned AR-15 since 2007, which works out to roughly 10 deaths per year. This is very sad, but far more people die each year by slipping in their bathtubs. Will banning this particular weapon actually save that many lives, or has media-driven panic displaced logical thought regarding the reality of this issue?

By the same token, a more comprehensive and reliable national system of background checks may stop some who plan to use firearms to attack others, but this solution is limited by the plain fact that black markets will always spring up to supply that which government seeks to prohibit—and anyone who is criminal or crazy enough to want a gun with which to kill can simply resort to theft or subterfuge to obtain what they want. Sane and law-abiding people follow the rules; crooks and cuckoos do not.

Proposals to ban the sale and manufacture of high-capacity ammunition clips and bump stocks, which can turn some semi-automatic weapons into ones capable of continuous fire—until their ammunition clips are exhausted after a few seconds—also crash into the issue of encouraging black market sales that will be impossible to either regulate or halt entirely.

Moreover, none of the gun control ideas that resurface every time a mass shooting happens adequately address the plain fact that the vast majority of gun owners are reasonable individuals who take the responsibilities inherent in possessing a firearm quite seriously and derive great personal satisfaction and security from exercising their 2nd Amendment rights.

So what are we to do?

I suggest that we stop chasing the chimera of gun control as a solution. I believe we should instead re-examine our understandable emotional responses and investigate targeted interventions designed to address different facets of the problem of firearm-related deaths and injuries.

More and better-funded crisis hotlines could be a good start to reducing the startling number of gun suicides. In addition, we need more programs in schools, workplaces, and places of worship to help identify and help those who are considering self-harm. We also need to develop resources to address the epidemic of crushing loneliness that afflicts our society. If we can help rebuild the frayed social connections that leave so many without someone to turn to for support and basic human interaction, we can perhaps begin to make a dent in the misery that makes so many believe that the only way to relieve their pain is to put a gun to their heads.

In addition, we need to reconsider a half century of progressive dogma that has expanded the “rights” of the mentally ill. Making it infinitely more difficult to commit those who pose a danger to themselves or others to mental hospitals, allowing those who could be helped by medication to refuse to take it, and leaving law enforcement virtually powerless to deal with threatening behaviors until those threats become actual harm to others that results in arrest is beyond foolish—these are criminally negligent abdications of our duty to protect our neighbors and communities. We must have both the tools and the power to save our citizens from the violently (or potentially violent) mentally ill—unless we want to keep reading the same horrible headlines again and again and again.

Finally, we need to reconsider to the level of violence in so much of our mass entertainment today. Exposure to the cruelty and outright sadism baked into so many television shows and movies is not healthy for anyone—but these constant violent images and ideas only serve to stoke the twisted fantasies of those who are emotionally unstable.

If you have any doubt that our standards have changed dramatically over the past fifty years or so, I encourage you to visit YouTube and watch a few episodes of the television series, Wild Wild West. This program was cancelled despite high audience ratings in 1969 because it was considered far too violent for a broadcast audience. Those who watch it now and compare it to our daily entertainment diet of death and dysfunction will find it as quaint as a doily in grandma’s front parlor. Our societal standards have dropped rather dramatically—and we are surprisingly blind to the corrosive effects that are evident wherever we look. It is unintentionally hilarious to remember that back in the 1950’s the U.S. Congress was busy crusading against the corrupting influence of comic books upon our children. What would those elected officials from our nation’s past think of our nation’s “entertainment” today?

I would be remiss regarding this issue were I not to address President Trump’s idea of arming trained and carefully selected teachers, administrators, and staff, who will respond immediately to active shooters inside of a school building. Although some rural schools have already taken this step because of the prohibitively long time it would take law enforcement to respond in an emergency, my belief is that this is not a policy we should implement on a national basis at this time.

I can easily imagine that students would be overly distracted by the knowledge that some in the building are armed. The inevitable guessing games regarding who it might be carrying a gun—for the identities of those who are armed would obviously need to be kept secret to protect them from becoming the first victims of an actual school shooter—could be more than distracting. Moreover, it is not too difficult to conjure up scenarios where accidents, neglect, or poor judgements could result in tragedy. Although—as we have recently learned from the tragic inaction of law enforcement in Parkland, FL—the professionals sometimes behave unprofessionally, we are still likely better off allowing local police and deputies to respond to a shooting at a school.

We have many challenges ahead of us regarding the plague of gun violence that afflicts our nation, and I hope we can work through them—reasonably, thoughtfully, and with a minimum of rancor. I would prefer that, rather than policymaking by sound bite, we convene a bi-partisan task force to evaluate all the potential solutions and make thoughtful recommendations. That which is done in haste and confusion can waste valuable time, finite resources, and have a great many unintended consequences. We owe it to ourselves and our country’s future to get it right this time.

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