Will the Newtown Massacre be Our Final Wakeup Call?

By: Nina Brooks The mass killing in Newtown, CT has forced the issue of gun control to the top of the legislative agenda yet again. But it is a shame that it takes such grave, national tragedies for Americans to demand tougher restrictions on gun control and even worse that the fervor is so quickly forgotten that no politician is held accountable for the lack of substantive action. Hopefully the massacre of innocent children in Newtown is the last wakeup call America needs to make a proactive shift towards the protection and safety of our citizens.

While mass killings are rare, especially compared to the number of homicides committed with guns in America, the sheer number of them in recent memory makes them seem less rare. Just last week there was a mass killing in a shopping mall in Oregon; over the summer America was shocked and grieved by the murders at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Mother Jones mapped every single mass killing spree of the past three decades in the United States and found that there have been 62 mass murders since 1982, with 18 occurring since 2008. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership as well as the highest murder rate of any industrialized nation. The Center for Disease Control estimates that in 2011 there were almost 32,000 deaths by firearms in the United States. In an extensive review of U.S. states and numerous different countries, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center has found that more guns correspond to more homicides, debunking the common argument that allowing citizens to carry guns makes everyone safer. Moreover, in the Mother Jones investigation, of the 62 mass killings studied, not a single death was stopped by a civilian intervention with a gun. Perhaps even more strikingly, the same study found that almost 80% of the shooters obtained their weapons legally. Advocates of strong 2nd Amendment rights argue that it is unfair to blame murders on guns (guns don’t kill people; people kill people) but that argument falls pretty flat in the face of the data presented above. People do kill people – and they kill more people, more often when it is extremely easy to obtain and carry guns.

While it takes a headline-grabbing massacre to spur the general population to take a strong interest in gun control legislation, the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby and its supporters are incessantly active at the state and federal level. In 2011, Gallup found that 47% of American households report that they own a gun and gun ownership has increased by about 50% since 1995. Since 2009 alone, the NRA has pulled off 99 legislative victories that make guns easier to own, openly carry in public, and harder for the government to track. Now every single state allows the carrying of concealed weapon; Illinois, that last holdout, struck down their ban in federal court last week. On December 13, just one day before the Newtown killing, Michigan passed a bill that allows people to carry concealed weapons in schools, which Republican Governor Richard Synder vetoed on December 18. In Missouri, one of eight states that now allows concealed weapons in bars, citizens may even fire a gun while intoxicated, if acting in self-defense. We impose stronger safety restrictions on driving – it is high time our politicians stood up to the NRA lobby and place reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, carrying policies and ammunition that both respect the 2nd Amendment and put the safety of American citizens first.

One common argument from both sides of the gun-control debate is that stricter gun laws will not solve everything, especially when so many of the killers suffer from mental illness. One the one hand, greater attention to and investment in mental health is a good thing, especially when social services in public schools have been cut so much. However, whether this will be an effective way to curb homicides is another question altogether. An investigation by the New York Times in 2000 found that of 100 mass killings, at least half of the shooters showed signs of mental health problems. Clearly, there is a connection between mental illness and violence, but that link is not as strong as people may think and does not necessarily offer a clear path to policy solutions. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that only about 4 percent of violence in the United States could be attributed to people with mental illness. Moreover, among the general population there is a profound misunderstanding and stigmatization of mental illness. Severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are quite different from anxiety disorders, which are both different from developmental disorders, such as Asperger’s and autism. Just because a child is “strange” or introverted or even demonstrates a fascination with violence, does not mean he or she will become a mass murderer. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University, argues that even with professional expertise, psychiatrists are unable to predict which patients will become violent.  Any attempt at predicting mass killers could result in pernicious profiling of patients, especially children. Mental illness is certainly a risk factor for violence, but any attempt to curb firearm violence by investing solely in mental health without stricter gun control laws will likely be expensive and have limited impact.

In his statement at Jared Loughner’s trial on November 8, Gabrielle Gifford’s husband Mark Kelly excoriated politicians for their lack of action. "As a nation, we have repeatedly passed up the opportunity to address this issue. After Columbine, after Virginia Tech, after Tucson, and after Aurora, we have done nothing." His words are a call to action. President Obama’s December 19 decision to create a gun control task force, headed by Vice President Biden is promising, but we have seen plenty of Presidential task forces accomplish little and President Obama’s track record on gun control is less than encouraging. There are solid policy proposals that will limit the accessibility of firearms without trampling on the 2nd Amendment that the task force would be wise to include a proposal for the President. We should start by rolling back the concealed carry laws that allow concealed weapons in schools, bars, national parks, and on Amtrak. Forty percent of gun sales are done without a background check. We must enforce universal background checks for all gun purchases, including private sales, which is a policy even the NRA supports. We should also ban or impose severe restrictions on the sale of high capacity magazines. Many advocates of gun owners’ rights support the claim that high capacity magazines are unnecessary for hunting or self-protection. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a staunch 2nd Amendment supporter, said, “I don't know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle. I don't know anyone that needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting.” Lastly, we should take the legislation recently introduced in California that requires a background check and a permit to purchase ammunition to the national level. “If you want to fish, you have to secure a license to fish. If you want to cut down a Christmas tree in California — this is legally factual — you have to secure a permit at a cost of $10. Yet anyone who walks into any gun store in California can buy all the ammunition they want,” said the bill’s sponsor State Senator Kevin de León. While these measures will not stop mass killings, they could greatly reduce the number of firearm-related homicides.

The reactions from President Obama and other politicians is promising. What is even more encouraging is the NRA’s response to the Newton killing. In a complete turnaround, the NRA has announced it is willing to reconsider its unwavering opposition to any federal or state gun control legislation and be part of a real discussion on gun control. Maybe America has finally woken up.

Will Health Providers Survive Health Reform?

A Proud Boston Marathoner