Stricter gun controls aren't the answer

There have been some horrific mass shootings in recent years, including the Sandy Hook Elementary School (Newtown, CT) attack that ended 26 lives in 2012. The typical public reaction: let’s determine his (there have been very few female mass shooters) motive, review all the circumstances, and ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. The typical result: the massacre fades from the headlines with little if any action being taken - until demands for action are reignited by another massacre.

SAFE noted with some skepticism the drumbeat of demands for tighter gun controls after Sandy Hook. Five whoppers: a sampling of misleading statements that are currently making the rounds,
1/21/13.

As soon as the Sandy Hook shootings were reported, gun control advocates leapt to the conclusion that it was time for tough new gun controls – and spoke out accordingly. Nothing wrong with that, we would expect them to speak their minds, and as a matter of fact we are not convinced that some tightening of gun controls may not be appropriate.

It is disappointing, however, that gun control advocates seem more intent on scoring a political win than reducing the risk of random mass shootings. One clue is their use of emotional images [“it’s for the children”] and poll-tested language [prevent “gun violence” versus impose “gun controls”]. Another is their apparent lack of interest in other approaches [e.g., improved school security] that might help solve the problem. Why are you opposed to ending violence? Derek Hunter, Townhall.com,
1/13/13.

Five years on, a troubled young man with an AR-15 went on a shooting rampage at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. 17 dead in Florida high school shooting; former student in custody, Christal Hayes & Emily Bohatch, usatoday.com,
2/14/18; Step by step: How the Parkland school shooting unfolded, Wayne Price & John McCarthy, floridadaily.com, 2/17/18.

The public reaction was somewhat similar after the Sandy Hook shooting, but this time demands for stricter gun controls gained more traction. The vaunted clout of the National Rifle Association (NRA) seemed to be fading, students from Douglas were accorded instant celebrity, and student demonstrations and marches erupted across the country.

There wasn’t much discussion of other ways to reduce vulnerability to mass shootings in schools, etc., despite clear indications that law enforcement had dropped the ball in the Parkland massacre at both the federal and local levels. And gun rights advocates sensed that liberals aspired to do a lot more than make some technical tweaks to the laws for owning and using firearms.

SAFE has never advocated policies re gun controls and we don’t plan to start now. But this case provides an instructive example of how policy decisions tend to get made based on political considerations. Two basic mistakes were made: (1) failing to ferret out the root causes of the problem, and (2) not having an honest conversation about the best solution(s).

A. Root causes - Mass shootings have been going on for a long time, as is shown by research of the LA Times, but the incidence of and death toll from these events seems to be escalating (assuming the LA Times didn’t overlook some mass shootings in earlier years). Consider this recap by decades. Deadliest mass shootings, 1984-2017, latimes.com, 10/1/17.

Screen Shot 2018-03-31 at 2.57.07 PM

It should be added that many deadly shootings don’t fit in the mass shooting category. The national toll is reportedly on the order of 10,000 per year (and we’ve seen higher estimates). Comparing gun deaths by country: The US is in a different world, New York Times, 6/13/16.

In the United States, the death rate from gun homicides is about 31 per million people — the equivalent of 27 people shot dead every day of the year. The homicides include losses from mass shootings, like Sunday’s Las Vegas attack, the Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooting in June 2016, or the San Bernandino, Calif., shooting in December 2015. And of course, they also include the country’s vastly more common single-victim killings.

#GUNS ARE THE PROBLEM - Turning to causation, an obvious suspect is the availability of guns to carry out these attacks. The logic is simple: no guns – no shootings. Guns were readily available, however, long before the apparent spike in mass shootings began.

Also, people commit these crimes – guns are merely a device they use – and if there were no guns available they might use other devices (knives, explosives, motor vehicles, etc.). The largest school massacre on record was a
1927 school bombing in Bath Township, MI, which took 45 lives.

#MENTAL ILLNESS - Another theory is that mass shootings are carried out by people who are mentally ill. Given the warning signs that typically exist, it is argued, our society could prevent such people from owning guns or other dangerous devices. And while some mass killings can be explained as terrorism, the majority reflect the personal issues of troubled individuals. Secret Service: 64 percent of attackers in mass attacks had mental health problems, Matt Vespa, townhall.com,
3/29/18.

The new Secret Service review builds on a lengthy, prior examination issued by the agency in 2015, which found that more than half of suspects involved in 43 attacks targeting government facilities or federal officials between 2001 and 2013 suffered symptoms of mental illness, including paranoia, delusions and suicidal thoughts. In the new report, authorities found that 64% of suspects suffered from symptoms of mental illness. And in 25% of the cases, attackers had been "hospitalized or prescribed psychiatric medications" prior to the assaults.

OK, but mental illness has been around for a long time, so this theory sheds no light on the “why now” question. Also, the distinction between people who are mentally ill and those who simply have anti-social tendencies is pretty fuzzy. What difference does it make which side of the line a mass shooter is deemed to fall on?

A variation of the mental illness theory is that the growing use of anti-depressants may be pushing troubled individuals over the edge. Correlation does not demonstrate causation, but it’s been found that quite a few mass shooters had been taking Prozac, Zoloft, etc., which can trigger violent episodes in some instances. Mass shootings & psychiatric drugs, Ben Swan, freedomoutpost.com,
3/14/18.

The use [of] these antidepressants in America has skyrocketed. As of 2013, 12 percent of Americans were filling prescriptions for them. And while millions of people do not suffer violent episodes, the drug makers warn that some people may… and do.

#SOCIAL DECAY – There are several points under this heading, which might be viewed as subsets of the overall theme.

*Bearing in mind that the Parkland shooter was a former student at the school that he attacked, ponder whether the same result would have been likely 60 years ago and, if not, whether the change reflects the different views being instilled in students nowadays. School shootings: Are today’s schools the cause? David Whitney, freedomoutpost.com,
3/3/18.

So then, compare our schools from 60 years ago with the schools we have today. What has happened in those 60 years, since 1958? No more public prayer or bible reading - no Ten Commandments (including #6 against murder) – moral relativism – evolution (survival of the fittest) – abortion (the taking of a life) is a sacred and honored right of any pregnant woman.

*Boys have been getting distinctly mixed messages about the place they are supposed to occupy in our society – and remember that almost all of the mass shooters are male. Men are getting weaker – because we’re not raising men, David French, nationalreview.com, 8
/16/16.

Our culture strips its young men of their created purpose and then wonders why they struggle. It wonders why men — who are built to be distinctive from women — flail in modern schools and workplaces designed from the ground-up for the feminine experience. Men were meant to be strong. Yet we excuse and enable their weakness. It’s but one marker of cultural decay, to be sure, but it’s a telling marker indeed. There is no virtue in physical decline.

*The cohesive social ethos of yesteryear has been discarded, and now the inmates (students) are running the asylum (schools). Let’s hope it’s not too late to turn around. The America I grew up with only exists on our founding documents, D.W. Wilber, townhall.com,
3/20/18.

I remember a time when if you looked out on any high school parking lot you saw pick-up trucks with a rifle rack hanging in the back window, and a shotgun or .22 rifle clearly visible. After all, "Firearms Safety and Marksmanship" were actually subjects taught in school! No one feared that a student was going to go out to their truck and bring their rifle in and start killing their classmates.

*There has been an erosion of the moral fiber of this nation, not just in schools but throughout society. The real reason we have mass shootings, Walter E. Williams, dailysignal.com,
3/21/18.

Gun ownership is not our problem. Our problem is a widespread decline in moral values that has nothing to do with guns. That decline includes disrespect for those in authority, disrespect for oneself, little accountability for anti-social behavior, and a scuttling of religious teachings that reinforced moral values.

#SCHOOL SECURITY – Given young men with guns and the impulse to use them for evil purposes, “gun free zones” are a magnet for would-be shooters. This suggests a need to limit access, install entry checkpoints, have armed personnel on the premises, etc. Enhancing school access control, Dawn Reiss, districtadministration.com,
10/12/12. (scroll down and click right hand corner of blocking ad).

Enough about causes, what about solutions?

B. Gun controls proposed – The president’s initial proposals after the Parkland attack emphasized the mental health angle, and he subsequently backed off from several gun control ideas (e.g., raising the minimum purchase age for long guns from 18 to 21). Trump steers conversation from guns to mental health, Sarah Westwood, Washington Examiner, 2/16/18.

The only item currently in play is a proposed Department of Justice regulation to ban “bump stocks” – a device used to achieve a faster firing rate for semi-automatic weapons. (The shooter in the Las Vegas massacre on 10/1/17 had weapons fitted with bump stocks in his arsenal, although it’s not clear if he used them.) Justice Department proposes bump stock ban, Jeff Mordock, Washington Times,
3/23/18.

Many gun control proposals have been offered at the state level. Here for example is a report about four bills being considered by the Delaware General Assembly. Outlaw bump stocks – impose heavier penalties on “straw purchasers” of guns – raise minimum purchase age for rifles from 18 to 21- authorize police to preemptively seize weapons owned by a person identified as a risk by a mental health professional. Legislature advances gun control measures, Scott Goss, News Journal
3/14/18.

Several of these measures were supported by the testimony of a series of high school students, who had participated in school walkouts around the state earlier in the day. They are being strongly pushed by Democratic legislators, with little resistance from Republicans, to the obvious approval of the News Journal.
Ibid.

A fifth Delaware bill would impose an “assault weapons” ban in the state. A group of pro-gun advocates appeared at Legislative Hall, primarily to oppose this bill, but to little apparent avail since the assault weapons bill wasn’t taken up that day and the News Journal downplayed their efforts in its coverage. Equal rights and pro-gun folks rally at Legislative Hall, Scott Goss, NJ,
3/28/18.

Although a case could be made for each of these bills, we doubt that any of them would materially reduce the risk of gun violence in Delaware. Take the proposed assault weapons ban. The real reason we have mass shootings,
op. cit.

What about the calls for bans on the AR-15 so-called assault rifle [technically, “AR” stands for ArmaLite Rifle]? It turns out that, according to 2016 FBI statistics, rifles accounted for 368 of the 17,250 homicides in the U.S. that year. That means restrictions on the purchase of rifles would do little or nothing for the homicide rate.

Gun advocates believe that gun opponents are simply trying to get their foot in the door and that their true goal is to outlaw the ownership and use of guns by the general population. Why? Because the anti-gun crowd thinks everyone should be dependent on the state for security rather than being prepared, if they choose, to defend themselves. Every word liberals say about guns is a lie, Kurt Schlichter, townhall.com,
3/29/18.

What about the Second Amendment?
A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the rights of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Perhaps this arcane provision could be interpreted out of existence, and if the courts weren’t willing to go along then a constitutional amendment might be in order. Former Supreme Court justice [John Paul Stevens]: Repeal the Second Amendment, Tim Brown, freedomoutpost.com,
3/27/18.

One could argue for confiscating the public’s guns, in that many countries with strict limits on gun ownership have a lower incidence of shooting deaths. The US is in a different world,
op. cit.

Note however that the US homicide rate has been decisively trending down even as gun ownership was soaring, which belies the notion that the availability of guns automatically results in more gun violence. Furthermore, the murder rate in Mexico (strict gun laws) is far higher than in neighboring Texas (lenient gun laws). FBI: US homicide rate at 51-year low, Ryan McMaken, mises.org,
6/15/16.

In any case, tinkering with the existing gun laws won’t make much of a difference and public support for a sweeping change in the status quo doesn’t exist in most areas of the country. So if Americans are truly concerned about the victims of mass shootings, as both sides profess to be, they might do well to consider other approaches to the problem as well.

C. Alternative approaches – Although availability of guns is a factor in the mass shootings equation, several other causes were identified earlier. Some of them could be expeditiously addressed by “common sense” measures; others don’t have a short-term solution.

#MENTAL HEALTH – A consensus probably exists that troubled individuals should not be permitted to own and use guns, and they don’t typically have the right to do so under existing laws. But enforcement of such laws is often erratic, as became dramatically apparent when the Parkland attack was deconstructed.

First, local law enforcement (the Broward County Sheriff’s Department) had received numerous complaints about the shooter but failed to either bring charges or have him committed to a mental health facility. And an armed sheriff’s deputy at the scene failed to go inside the school while the massacre was in process. The government repeatedly failed to stop the Parkland shooter, Peter Hassan, dailycaller.com,
2/22/18.

Second, the FBI had received specific and chilling information about the shooter but failed to refer the matter to their local office for investigation. FBI acknowledges it received a tip on the Florida school shooter last month, but failed to act on it, Kelly Cohen, Washington Examiner,
2/16/18.

Perhaps legislation could be helpful in addressing this problem, such as the mental health bill under consideration in Delaware. Legislature advances gun control measures,
op. cit.

Under the bill, armed with a report from a mental health professional, the police could go to a Justice of the Peace court and get permission to seize a subject’s guns for 60 days. Meanwhile, DOJ could petition Superior Court to keep the guns longer. NRA rep. called this “a good bill,” although the ACLU has complained that the gun owner should be entitled to attend the initial hearing.

Another view would be that law enforcement officials should be held accountable for failures in this area, e.g., why haven’t the Broward County sheriff and whoever is responsible for the FBI tip line been relieved of their duties? It seems ironic that the response to a government failure like this should be to give the government even more power.

Also, as a practical matter, how likely is it that mental health professionals would be disposed to file reports about their clients that would result in the confiscation of their guns?

#ENHANCED SECURITY – Access to courthouses and office buildings is typically secured in a variety of ways, e.g., sign-in sheets, visitor badges, metal detector checkpoints, etc. Such measures are far from foolproof, but they reduce the risks involved in allowing unfettered access. Many schools have been adopting or considering similar precautions. Enhancing school access control,
op. cit.

Subject to cost considerations, the idea of enhancing school security is probably not very controversial – with one exception. The idea of having armed personnel on the premises, which could include a few teachers (on a volunteer basis, and with the appropriate training), is viewed by some as an absolute non-starter. Why the Left opposes arming teachers, Dennis Prager, townhall.com,
2/27/18.

. . . the left rarely, if ever, explains why allowing some teachers and other adults in a school to be armed is a crazy idea. They merely assert it as a self-evident truth.

But why wouldn’t armed security in schools be a good idea? One does see armed guards in courthouses, etc. after all. And by the time police officers can be called to a school that is under attack, it may be too late – as it was at Sandy Hook for example. Why we must arm teachers now! Kevin McCullough, townhall.com,
2/15/18.

Here’s a case in which armed security clearly made a difference, potentially saving the two shooting victims and preventing additional students from being targeted. Lone school resource officer who engaged gunman may have saved lives, Emily Shapiro, abcnews.com,
3/20/18.

Austin Rollins, 17, allegedly shot and injured two other teenagers at Great Mills High School in Great Mills this morning, authorities said. The school's sole resource officer, Deputy Blaine Gaskill, responded immediately, engaging the suspect and firing a round, authorities said. The shooter fired a round, too, nearly simultaneously, authorities said. The suspect was injured and has since died at a hospital, police said. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said it appears the shooting was handled "exactly the way it should have been handled."

# SOCIAL DECAY – The issues previously identified under this heading are crucial, in our view, but changing minds and social expectations is a long-term undertaking – with no assurances of success. Here’s an essay that powerfully makes that point. Sheriff [in Wisconsin] slams participation awards, lack of discipline in addressing “root cause” of mass shootings, Jessica Chasmar, Washington Times,
3/5/18.

“My point in writing this is not to place blame but rather to start conversations on what truly is the root cause of violence in society,” he wrote. “Many have strong opinions about gun control but realistically gun control will do nothing more than place a very small band aid on a much bigger problem. It is imperative that we have serious discussions on what we can do to change the norms of our society and positively impact the decisions our youth make. It’s time to refocus our energy to affect long lasting change so that we can keep Dodge County a safe and enjoyable place to live, work and visit.”

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