I woke up this morning and heard the tragic news from Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. My first thought was, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Seriously, another one?” America has seen more than enough mass murders. We all can agree that something needs to be done about the seemingly more and more frequent “senseless acts of violence” in this country. There’s no getting around it: it’s a freaking epidemic. No one can deny that our current system is not working when it comes to preventing [gun] violence. Side note: this conversation should be about preventing all violence, but let’s focus on the gun issue, since it tends to be the focal point in most debates [steps off soap box]. Now, there are many variables at work when it comes to our current efforts to curb gun violence. Here, we will look at the following facets of our current system: law enforcement, current gun laws, mental health, media violence, and responsible armed citizens. We will examine each of these facets—the pros, cons, and potential for improvement.
First, we will dive into law enforcement. The national average police response time is estimated to be 10 minutes, with the fastest cities clocking 9 minutes and the slowest clocking between 11-12 minutes1. For the sake of this argument, let’s be optimistic and call it 9 minutes. Now, 9 minutes might seem pretty quick, but a whole hell of a lot can happen in 9 minutes. Those 9 minutes feel like an eternity for anyone involved in an emergency situation. For example, the Aurora theater massacre began at 12:38 am on July 20, 2012. Police were on scene in about 2 minutes, and Holmes was arrested at 12:45—just 7 minutes after he began murdering unsuspecting movie patrons (keep in mind he had stopped shooting several minutes before his arrest). One of the worst massacres in history began and ended in roughly 5 minutes2. Here’s what we can take away from this example: even responding in record time, police officers cannot effectively prevent crimes like this from happening. Now that we have established the shortcomings of law enforcement, let’s look at the effectiveness they have in the community. In crime hot spots, police patrol stops between 14-15 minutes have proved to be the best deterrent, with officers moving between hot spots in an unpredictable order3. Though hot spot policing has proven to be effective in reducing crime in rough neighborhoods, the massacres that we have become too familiar with seldom happen in those neighborhoods. How can we determine which events are likely targets for perpetrators like Holmes? And who foots the bill for officers or security personnel at venues like movie theaters? In my opinion, more police presence is a good thing; however, police presence is subject to budget cuts and government bureaucracy, so it cannot be the only solution.
Let’s move on to the most controversial part of this discussion: gun control legislation. Liberal politicians are constantly preaching the importance of “common sense” gun laws. The biggest problem with that is that we have already covered the vast majority of what falls under the “common sense” umbrella. A felon or domestic criminal cannot buy a gun due to the instant background check system that every gun retailer is required to use. The instant background check system also bans gun purchases by someone who has been treated for certain mental illnesses. Colorado goes a bit beyond what the Federal law states, and requires background checks on private gun sales as well. For law-abiding citizens, it’s inconvenient at best. For criminals, it’s one more thing to be ignored, and it is completely unenforceable. The biggest shortcoming with background checks is that they cannot stop people from buying guns if they have never been treated for mental illness or have never committed a violent crime. Going back to the Aurora example, James Holmes passed not one, not two, but at least three background checks to purchase the weapons used in the theater massacre. What laws could have stopped him? What laws could have minimized casualties? High capacity magazine bans? These laws are feeble attempts at appearing to make progress on gun safety, when in fact no progress is made. High capacity magazines (e.g. Beta mags for AR-15’s) are LESS reliable than standard capacity magazines. Holmes was using a Beta mag and it caused a malfunction in his weapon. Malfunctions take a lot more time to clear than reloading an empty gun. If you don’t believe me, look for “speed reloads” on YouTube. You’ll see how fast a mag change can be. It doesn’t take a whole lot of practice to get good at it either. I can tell you that because I’ve gotten pretty good at it. If my gun runs dry and I have another magazine ready, I can have it reloaded in less than 2 seconds. What about gun-free zones? Common sense would tell you that criminals ignore them. Gun-free zones account for 92% of public mass shootings between the years 2009-20144. What about an assault weapons ban? Maybe that would have helped, but remember, Holmes had a shotgun and a pistol in addition to his AR-15—which malfunctioned, by the way (another soapbox here, AR is short for Armalite, the original manufacturer of the rifle . . . it does not stand for Assault Rifle). What about a gun registration? Wouldn’t have made any difference. What if all guns were banned for civilian use? Let’s dive into this one a little deeper.
A gun ban is what the folks in the far left truly want. Many will argue that the Australian National Firearms Buyback Scheme of 1996 should be a model for the USA. It’s hard to argue with the theory behind this approach, but it has several fatal flaws. Here are a few of the fatal issues inherent in an Australian/European-style handover. Problem 1: there are an estimated (on the low end of the spectrum) 270 Million personal firearms in the USA5. This would be an extraordinarily massive undertaking. In Australia, the mandatory buy-back program yielded just 650,000 personal firearms, and cost the taxpayers $500 Million6. That’s about $770 per firearm. Let’s say half of the firearms in the US would remain legal after a ban on semi-auto pistols and rifles as well as automatic weapons. That would mean that the US would need to collect 135 Million guns. At $770 per firearm, that would cost the taxpayers a whopping $103.8 Billion (that’s Billion, with a capital “B”). Now, there would certainly be economies of scale gained with a program like this, so we can be even more conservative with the figures. Let’s say it would only cost $500 per firearm. We can still estimate the cost of this program to be $67.5 Billion. This kind of program would be a huge burden to infrastructure and would likely result in tax increases to fund it. Problem 2: non-compliance. How can you ensure that all guns were surrendered? In Australia, it has been estimated that between one-fifth and one-third of the personal firearms were collected under the buy-back program7. Could the participation rate be increased by a gun registration? How would you ensure compliance with the registration? I believe this would be the biggest problem. The net result would be that law-abiding citizens would turn in their guns, and criminals would keep them, rendering problem 3: ineffectiveness. Suicide rates and violent crime rates in Australia have not been materially affected by the gun buyback. Suicides and murders with firearms followed the same trends they were following before the buyback, and robberies spiked before a decline in the mid 2000’s. Additionally, data collected from US examples of gun control clearly show that restricting gun ownership have an adverse effect on public safety. See footnote for a full discussion by Dr. John Lott, President of the Crime Prevention Research Center8. Not only would violent criminals continue neglecting just one more law, but many Americans would also feel obligated not to participate out of a sense of patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution, thus rendering these patriots “criminals”. Constitutionalism and sense of patriotic duty leads us to problem 4: the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The Second Amendment is a hotly debated topic in this country. Many believe it does not explicitly guarantee the individual right to own firearms, while others argue that it absolutely does. The most famous court case litigating this issue is the District of Columbia v. Heller case, decided 5-4 by the Supreme Court in 2008. In this case, it was decided that the Second Amendment protects the individual’s inherent right to self-defense. Several other court cases have upheld similar protection under the Second Amendment. This means that to even consider a buy-back program, Congress would have to pass a new amendment to the Constitution, requiring a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate and three-fourths of state legislatures to ratify the amendment. It is fairly certain that a controversial measure like this would never get the majority votes it needs to even pass Congress. Now that the controversial bit is out of the way, let’s move to a more recent topic of discussion: mental health.
The third facet of this discussion is one that has been brought up more in recent years than any other subject in conjunction with gun control legislation: mental health. It is no secret or surprise that many of the mass shootings in recent memory have been committed by individuals with serious mental issues. How can such unstable individuals acquire these weapons? For that, we have to look at what the excluding factors are under the current system of background checks. Individuals are prohibited under Federal law from buying or possessing firearms if they have been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution”. Let’s look a little deeper here at being “adjudicated as a mental defective”. Basically, a court of law has to have decided that an individual 1) is a danger to himself or others; 2) lacks the mental capacity to manage his own affairs; or 3) is found insane by the court in a criminal case (which James Holmes was not; he was found legally sane and guilty on all counts). Basically, an individual would have needed to be legally certified by a court as mentally defective, or incapable. The second disqualifying factor is having been committed to a mental institution. Essentially, an individual would need to come into serious contact with the “mental health system” in order to be disqualified from purchasing a firearm. This is an area that I think needs improvement. A significant portion of the American public struggles with mental health issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 18.6% of adults in the US suffer from mental illness in any given year9. Under current law, these individuals could acquire firearms at any dealer without a hitch. In the spirit of not jumping to conclusions, I must add that not all people who suffer from mental illness are violent, and the converse is true. Another glaring issue with mental health screening for background checks appears when you look at the mentally ill that receive treatment. There is a high correlation between patients taking psychiatric drugs and mass murders. Medications such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Ritalin, and other mind-altering drugs are common prescriptions to these mass killers. There have been at least 35 school shootings or acts of violence committed by individuals taking psychiatric drugs10. In the interest of sound argument, I feel compelled to emphasize that this is a correlation, not causation. This data in no way implies that taking psychiatric drugs causes people to commit horrible, violent crimes. The more likely conclusion is that individuals who have been prescribed psychiatric drugs are more likely to have serious mental issues, including depression, schizophrenia, rage, and violent tendencies. Here’s where it gets complicated. I think there are some common-sense steps we can take to prevent the sale of guns to the mentally unstable. Potential solution #1: Background check interfaces with medical history to check for current and recent (lookback period TBD) prescriptions for psychiatric drugs. One unknown here is what to do with a positive result on a psychiatric prescription. Should you automatically ban that person from owning a gun? I’m not so sure. Maybe an interview process or some other way to further screen out those with malicious intent. Here’s the big question with that solution: how can we make it HIPAA-compliant? There would have to be a government database containing the prescription records of everyone with a Social Security Number. This opens the door for potential hackers, abuse, and other red flags under HIPAA. However, I do think that adding prescription checks to background checks should be explored. Potential solution #2: Interview screening for everyone. On the one hand, this solution could potentially screen out people who are mentally ill, but have never been diagnosed or treated for their condition. On the other hand, it could make purchasing a firearm a lengthy nightmare for most law-abiding citizens who have no mental illness. Given that the data shows the strongest correlation between mass killers and current prescriptions for psychiatric drugs (virtually no mass murders are committed by those not being treated for some sort of mental illness), potential solution #1 seems like a better, less intrusive way to make the background check system more effective. Another serious issue is that support for mental health in the US is lacking at best, but that is a subject for another discussion.
The next issue that we should discuss is violence in the media. This issue is one that should be glaringly obvious. There are countless movies, TV shows, music albums, video games, and other forms of media released each year that glorify violence in one form or another. Movies and TV shows consistently portray gangs, serial killers, organized crime, and war (possibly the most benign of all), all of which are filled with guns, knives, pipe wrenches, and other weapons. With the advancement of green screens and special effects, these portrayals of violence continue to be more graphic and realistic. Children and teenagers drink in these graphic depictions without having the emotional capacity to process them. These images sink into their minds, and in many cases become fantasy. There are so many stories of disturbed teens and young adults acting out violent rape fantasies and other graphic scenes they have seen in movies, TV, or pornography. Austin Sigg is a gruesome example of a mind warped during his adolescence11. There are rap and hip-hop albums released every year that glorify violence in the streets and the objectification of women. These albums do nothing but perpetuate the problem of racial inequality and prejudice, as they are disproportionately produced by and distributed to racial minorities. Video games, although they seem harmless, may quite possibly be the most sinister of all media influences. Game anthologies like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and countless other blockbuster video game series are essentially simulations of violence and killing. Military and police training operations in many developed countries include simulations similar to those in the video games available to the public12; however, servicemen are simultaneously steeped in emotional and physical discipline to ensure they use their training responsibly. Many young Americans use video games as an escape from a home life that is less than ideal. The games can very quickly become fantasy, and shortly thereafter, reality. Video games have ratings, please observe them. They are there to protect the impressionable minds of our youth. A Stanford Med School controlled, double-blind study showed that after families turned off TV, movies, and video games for ten days, violence was cut in half, bullying was cut in half, and test scores rose by double digits13. A side benefit was that the reduction in media consumption reduced obesity. In short, everything you watch, listen to, or engage in affects your mind and your behavior. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.
On to the final piece of this discussion: the responsible armed citizen, the sheepdog (see the full discussion of sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs linked below14), the protector. There are members of your community, and most likely members of your family that fall into this category. Whether they are gun enthusiasts or not, you know someone who would willingly intervene in a conflict to protect the innocent. This group of people have been the biggest voice in the gun debate thus far (think, the NRA). Here are some of the positives for the armed citizens: 1. there are far more armed citizens than police officers; 2. they do not require government funding; 3. they have proven to be effective. Now, here are some cons: 1. lack of standard training—Many civilians are more proficient than some police officers; however, most lack a great deal of training needed to succeed in a deadly force encounter; 2. loose cannons*—there have been many incidents when an armed citizen used a firearm when it was unnecessary or became the aggressor in a conflict (*This would technically exclude them from being responsible armed citizens—this would put them into the wolf category, not a sheepdog). Despite the loose cannons, in my opinion, armed civilians are the stopgap between all of the aforementioned solutions and the problem at hand. There are numerous incidents each year in which an armed citizen intervenes in a conflict and prevents further violence before the police arrive. There are countless stories of armed citizens warding off burglars from their homes. The benefits of armed citizens greatly outweigh by the risks, and we can take action to minimize the current problems with our armed citizens. I strongly believe that anyone wishing to carry a weapon should be able to pass a proficiency test. Anyone wishing to operate a motor vehicle is required to take a driving test. It makes perfect sense to require a demonstration of proficiency to carry a weapon. Another solution would be to end gun-free zones. Schools, movie theaters, and many other facilities that do not have the luxury of armed guards could benefit from the ability of civilians to be legally armed. We need to make it easier for law-abiding citizens to be armed, and we need to make it more difficult for criminals to succeed in causing mass casualties.
So here we are, at the conclusion of this discussion. There are myriad problems that contribute to the epidemic of American gun violence, and we have laid out a few potential solutions. I would suggest that the following would be a comprehensive, extraordinarily effective plan to curb gun violence: 1. Increase police patrols, and place officers in schools where budgets allow; 2. End gun-free zones, particularly venues without armed guards, and in schools that cannot afford full-time police presence; 3. Improve screening for mental health and violent tendencies in gun purchasers; 4. Fight addiction to media. Turn the TV, movies, and video games off, and we will see children that are better educated, less violent, and healthier. A triple-crown winner. 5. Raise standards for armed citizens, and enhance their ability to be armed responsibly. I truly believe that with a comprehensive strategy, we can reduce gun violence (and hopefully, all violence) in this nation. The United States of America is the freest nation on Earth, and we should strive to keep it that way. God Bless America, and Don’t Tread on Me.