Posts Tagged ‘Mass Shootings’

Stop Gun Violence

December 22, 2012

Like many others, the members of the Weston Democratic Town Committee are shocked, stunned, and immeasurably saddened by the senseless murder of 20 children ages six and seven, as well as seven adults, in nearby Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December14, 2012.

There is a range of issues raised by the Sandy Hook Massacre, the Aurora (CO) Massacre, the mass shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and constituents as well as members of her staff, the Virginia Tech shootings, the Columbine (CO) High School Massacre.  These tragedies get nationwide headlines, but the sad fact is that there are more than 30,000 individual deaths due to guns every year in this country.

The government has a responsibility to protect school children. It may be the fault of the parents of the shooter that Adam Lanza murdered 20 little school children. However, that obviously does not provide solace to the parents who lost their children or to anyone else. No-one can absolve the government from blame because some parents don’t properly train their children to stay away from guns.

The proposal of the National Rifle Association to post armed guards at every school is not the answer to these tragedies.  However, the NRA response does not surprise us.  Despite its effort to portray itself as a grass-roots organization, the NRA is the tool of gun manufacturers.  The gun industry “has contributed between $14.7 million and $38.9 million to an N.R.A.-corporate-giving campaign since 2005, according to a report published last year by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group that advocates greater gun control. The estimate is based on a study of the N.R.A.’s “Ring of Freedom” program and very likely understates the industry’s total financial support for the association, which does not publicly disclose a comprehensive list of its donors and how much they have given.”[i]

The Weston DTC has been discussing what should be done to reduce the incidence of mass shootings in America.  How can we protect our school children?  How can we change the gun culture in this country?  How can we prevent the mentally deranged from obtaining such lethal weapons?  No one law, no one ban, is by itself going to make everyone safe, but that cannot be an excuse to do nothing.

Here are a couple of facts[ii] about guns:

  1. More guns tend to mean more homicide.[iii]
  2. States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.[iv]

Issue 1 — Federal ban on sale of assault-style weapons,

Senator Diane Feinstein has proposed an updated version of the law written by her staff, banning the sale of assault weapons, which was enacted and in effect from 1994 to 2004.  Hopefully, the new statute will have no expiration date and will be worded so it is more difficult for gun manufacturers to get around it.  However, the earlier ban did not make a statistically significant difference in the gun death rate in the U.S. while it was law. Furthermore, unless effectively worded, this would not prevent Glock-22 massacres, nor would it apply to weapons purchased before enactment.

Issue 2 – Limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines for both handguns and long guns.

No hunter needs a magazine with more than ten bullets for his gun.  No homeowner needs a clip with more than ten bullets for his handgun that was intended for personal protection.  Thirty-round magazines were originally developed for soldiers to use in combat, and they should be restricted to that.

Issue 3 – Federal regulation of ammunition sales for handguns, long guns and assault weapons, including a national database of all ammunition sales.

Monitoring of ammunition sales is crucial. The legislation should specifically allow the ATF to analyze the database to determine who is engaged in suspicious activity in the purchase of ammunition.  Anyone can figure out how to buy ten bullets at a time over the internet until he has accumulated 100 rounds of ammunition. Computer software should be able to track ammunition sales, given the advertising industry ability to track web users and determine what they have been buying for everything from socks to automobiles.

Issue 4 – Improved background checks and registration of gun sales, both at licensed dealers and at gun shows

Background checks have a dubious record in keeping guns away from those who should not have them.  The law requiring background checks only applies to licensed dealers, not to the sale of a gun by a private owner.  We also know that gun shows do not always do background checks before proceeding with a gun sale.  But that is not the only problem.

The database used for background checks is full of holes.  Psychiatrists are reluctant to disclose what they consider to be confidential information about patients.  According to the New York Times, “the background check system still looks like Swiss cheese,” said Mark Glaze. The gaps exist because the system is voluntary; the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the federal government cannot force state officials to participate in the federal background check system. As a result, “when a gun dealer asks the F.B.I. to check a buyer’s history, the bureau sometimes allows the sale to proceed, even though the purchaser should have been prohibited from acquiring a weapon, because its database is missing the relevant records.”[v]

The weapons used in the Sandy Hook massacre were acquired legally by Nancy Lanza, the mother of Adam Lanza, the murderer.  She apparently passed the background check.  However, the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre resulted from the holes in the background database.  “A Virginia state judge had declared the gunman mentally ill, but the record of that proceeding was not submitted to the F.B.I. He was able to pass a background check and buy the weapons he used to kill 32 people and wound 17 others.”

After the Virginia Tech massacre, the Congress passed only a feeble amendment to the law requiring background checks, still relying mostly on voluntary compliance of the states in using the background check database.

“Since then, Virginia has increased its submissions to the F.B.I. But other states have not taken similar steps because of lack of political will, technical obstacles and state privacy laws, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which conducted a survey of states last year about their compliance.”[vi]

Background checks are further hampered by the requirement that the check be completed within three days. The buyer may have a common name, and the background check cannot distinguish between many people with the same name.  The arrest record may not say whether the accused was convicted.  These questions may not be resolved before the maximum three day waiting period has ended.

“Since 2005, 22,162 firearms — including nearly 3,000 this year — have been bought after the waiting period by people later determined to have been disqualified because of their criminal and mental histories, according to an examination of F.B.I. data. [vii]

Perhaps the most shocking fact from a policy perspective is that Congress passed a rider (to another law) forbidding the tracking the people who should have been disqualified to determine how many were subsequently convicted of violent crimes using those weapons that that they bought.

Issue 5 – Mental health

The responsibility of town and state government does not end when parents withdraw a disturbed child from school. Think about it. People could not find a picture of Adam Lanza in school year books, but no-one thought anything of it at the time. The Aurora shooter, James Eagan Holmes, was being treated by the school psychiatrist, but when he withdrew from grad school, the school administration considered that, except to ban Holmes from non-public parts of its campus, its responsibilities had ended. I suspect a more thorough study would reveal many cases where deaths could have been prevented if mental health treatment were not so scattered, fragmented and incomplete.

In K-12, home schooling should not be the right of any family. We have laws requiring that children should be educated, and home schooling should only be allowed when the tutor (parent or other) can prove that he/she is properly qualified to teach all of the required subjects. When Ms. Lanza withdrew her son from high school, presumably because he had no friends and could not relate to others, that should have been a red flag that he needed help, not a simple “goodbye”.

Mental health services are severely underfunded in this country, and there is a stigma involved in using them. Who is responsible for the identification and treatment of school children with mental health problems? Do we rely only on classroom teachers? I suspect in many school districts, that is the case, but it is the wrong approach. Children with mental health problems should receive appropriate counseling and treatment from mental health professionals. And we are not talking about ADD.

Tight school budgets have been mentioned as a reason for cutting psychological counseling, as well as anti-bullying campaigns and student sensitivity training. There is acknowledged failure to identify and help extremely shy students like Adam Lanza who don’t have friends. People shrug their shoulders and mention tight school budgets. And yet, after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the elementary school survivors were offered an unoccupied school in nearby Monroe. Here in Weston, we also have unoccupied classroom space because of unrealistic school population projections ten years ago.

Does the emphasis on reducing class size, and offering advanced placement classes, contribute to cutting positions for specialists such as school psychologists? Is it reasonable to expect a classroom teacher to be able to identify and provide appropriate counseling in the absence of a school psychologist?  How do we destigmatize mental health treatment and provide the funding to make a difference in troubled lives, as well as protect young children?

These are important questions, but we must be cautious.  Brain scientists have found it difficult to explain the behavior of mass murderers, and it is almost impossible to predict in advance that any particular individual is prone to violence.

The National Council on Disability has counseled against trying to predict that people with certain disabilities are more likely than others to commit violent acts.  Its letter to President Obama follows.

Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency, and in response to your recent national call to action, I write to offer the commitment of our Presidentially-appointed Council Members and professional staff as a trusted advisor to the Administration and the newly announced interagency task force in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. As a national voice within the federal government for the nation’s 56 million people with disabilities, including people with psychiatric disabilities (people with mental illness), we are eager and willing to provide advice and counsel to the efforts of the task force and the actions of leaders within the Administration and Congress.

We agree with you wholeheartedly that something needs to change. As you identified in your recent public addresses in the wake of the tragedy, NCD further agrees that finding solutions to stemming such tragic violence requires thoughtful examination of multiple policies and systems. While a disability diagnosis of the perpetrator of the violence in Newtown remains unconfirmed, media coverage and national dialogue has increasingly focused on issues related to mental health, often portraying, intentionally or not, a correlation between certain mental or developmental disabilities and violence. On the contrary, research consistently documents that people with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.

Accordingly, in addition to offering our wealth of policy knowledge from over three decades of engaging in discussion and advancing recommendations regarding community-based health services, supportive housing, and peer supports for people with diverse disabilities, NCD is particularly interested in ensuring that fears, myths, and stereotypes about people with disabilities are not perpetuated. It is important that the policy proposals considered and advanced by the task force do not, even inadvertently, reinforce stigma and confound existing and future efforts to encourage utilization of mental health services. We encourage you to charge the task force with considering strategies to combat such misinformation in the course of its work and within the Administration’s messaging on the Newtown tragedy more generally.

NCD is ready to assist the interagency task force, the rest of your Administration, and leaders of Congress as we move forward in a spirit of unity to address this latest tragedy and bring healing that can only come from our collective sober resolve.

Very Respectfully,

Jonathan M. Young, Ph.D., J.D.
Chairman, National Council on Disability

A subsequent blog post will discuss Second Amendment issues.

[vi] Ibid.