I was going to write a post about mental health and gun control, but I see that Hillary Clinton just came out with a plan, so I’m going to talk about that as well. First, the Clinton plan:
Fight for comprehensive background checks.
- Advocate for comprehensive federal background check legislation.
- Close the “Charleston Loophole.”
- Tighten the gun show and Internet sales loophole if Congress won’t.
The first bullet point is meaningless.
The second is concrete and is common-sensical. The “Charleston loophole” is what made the Charleston shooter able to obtain a gun legally. He had a federal criminal record, but the background check was not completed in three days. If that happens, you get the keep the gun. Which is stupid. Close the loophole and make it a law that you can’t get the gun until the background check is complete. (It seems to me this is smart from a homeland security standpoint as well).
The third also is sensical. Require background checks when the gun is bought on the internet or at gun shows. Clinton’s wording seems to suggest that this can be done without Congressional approval. If that is so, I think it would have been done by now.
Hold dealers and manufacturers fully accountable if they endanger Americans.
- Repeal the gun industry’s unique immunity protection.
- Revoke the licenses of bad-actor dealers.
The NRA lobbied Congress to pass the so-called “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,” a law which prevents victims of gun violence from holding negligent manufacturers and dealers accountable for violence perpetrated with their guns. It is very odd. If we can hold cigarette manufacturers responsible, why not gun manufacturers? This isn’t a second amendment issue either. It is not a ban. Having the right to make guns does not mean you are immune from the legal consequences.
Presumably, we all already revoking the licenses of bad-actor dealers. Clinton says we need to be more vigilant. Fine.
Keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, other violent criminals, and the severely mentally ill.
- Support legislation to prohibit all domestic abusers from buying and possessing guns.
- Make straw purchasing a federal crime.
- Improve existing law prohibiting persons suffering from severe mental illness from purchasing or possessing a gun.
- Keep military-style weapons off our streets.
More obvious solutions, although somewhat vague in the third bullet point, which is what I wanted to address.
I think we’re talking about a reductionist link between mental health and mass shootings that is too simplistic. Most mentally ill persons are more likely to be victims of crime, not perpetrators. The common post-shooting cry that more resources should go toward dealing with mental illness misses the point. So many factors seem to go into mass shootings—age, alcohol and drug use, social isolation, the availability of guns, whether the shooter knows the victims (usually they do) and mental illness—that the problem needs to be addressed in its totality.
In fact, if I were to guess, I think social isolation and age (and certainly gender) are more relevant factors than mental illness. And I’m not sure what mental illness MEANS in this context.
Mental retardation, sure. Mental illness which manifests itself with violent tendencies and a history of assaultive behavior, sure. Those are obvious. But I don’t think that net is big enough to have captured the Oregon shooter, the Charleston shooter, or the Columbine shooters, to name a few.
So do you cast a wider net? Do you include people with schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? Other major mental and emotional illnesses, even if they don’t include violence?
Maybe, but sometimes people with those kinds of mental illness can control them with drugs and behavioral therapy. What do you do, for example, with someone who was diagnosed as schizophrenic in his teens, but is now in his 60s and has gone 5 decades without any incident?
What about depression? Social anxiety? These are mental illnesses found in the DSM-V, that are often temporal in nature. Are you going to deny guns to ANYONE who has EVER been depressed? What about PTSD which happens to crime victims and one-third of all soldiers who served in combat (try taking guns away from THAT group)?
And how do you find out about peoples’ mental and emotional illnesses anyway? Will private medical and psychiatric records be made available to the government?
In other words, other than the most obvious examples (people committed to long-term mental hospitals), a “mental illness” approach to reducing gun deaths and suicides is not only impractical, but ineffective. Violent tendencies (as shown by domestic abuse complaints, and violent crimes) are a better predictor, and our focus should be on that.
In the end, however, Nick Kristof isn’t saying anything new, but he’s saying it correctly:
First, we need to comprehend the scale of the problem: It’s not just occasional mass shootings like the one at an Oregon college on Thursday, but a continuous deluge of gun deaths, an average of 92 every day in America. Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns than died in all U.S. wars going back to the American Revolution.
When I reported a similar figure in the past, gun lobbyists insisted that it couldn’t possibly be true. But the numbers are unarguable: fewer than 1.4 million war deaths since 1775, more than half in the Civil War, versus about 1.45 million gun deathssince 1970 (including suicides, murders and accidents).
If that doesn’t make you flinch, consider this: In America, more preschoolers are shot dead each year (82 in 2013) than police officers are in the line of duty (27 in 2013), according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.
More than 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides, and most of the rest are homicides. Gun enthusiasts scoff at including suicides, saying that without guns people would kill themselves by other means. In many cases, though, that’s not true.
In Great Britain, people used to kill themselves by putting their heads in the oven and asphyxiating themselves with coal gas. This accounted for almost half of British suicides in the late 1950s, but Britain then began switching from coal gas to natural gas, which is much less lethal. Sticking one’s head in the oven was no longer a reliable way to kill oneself — and there was surprisingly little substitution of other methods. Suicide rates dropped, and they stayed at a lower level.
The British didn’t ban ovens, but they made them safer. We need to do the same with guns.
When I tweeted about the need to address gun violence after college shooting in the Roseburg, Ore., a man named Bob pushed back. “Check out car accident deaths,” he tweeted sarcastically. “Guess we should ban cars.”
Actually, cars exemplify the public health approach we need to apply to guns. We don’t ban cars, but we do require driver’s licenses, seatbelts, airbags, padded dashboards, safety glass and collapsible steering columns. And we’ve reduced the auto fatality rate by 95 percent.
One problem is that the gun lobby has largely blocked research on making guns safer. Between 1973 and 2012, the National Institutes of Health awarded 89 grants for the study of rabies and 212 for cholera — and only three for firearms injuries.
Daniel Webster, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, notes that in 1999, the government listed the gun stores that had sold the most weapons later linked to crimes. The gun store at the top of the list was so embarrassed that it voluntarily took measures to reduce its use by criminals — and the rate at which new guns from the store were diverted to crime dropped 77 percent.
But in 2003, Congress barred the government from publishing such information.
Why is Congress enabling pipelines of guns to criminals?
Public health experts cite many ways we could live more safely with guns, and many of them have broad popular support.
A poll this year found that majorities even of gun-owners favor universal background checks; tighter regulation of gun dealers; safe storage requirements in homes; and a 10-year prohibition on possessing guns for anyone convicted of domestic violence, assault or similar offenses.
We should also be investing in “smart gun” technology, such as weapons that fire only with a PIN or fingerprint. We should adopt microstamping that allows a bullet casing to be traced back to a particular gun. We can require liability insurance for guns, as we do for cars.
It’s not clear that these steps would have prevented the Oregon shooting. But Professor Webster argues that smarter gun policies could reduce murder rates by up to 50 percent — and that’s thousands of lives a year. Right now, the passivity of politicians is simply enabling shooters.
The gun lobby argues that the problem isn’t firearms; it’s crazy people. Yes, America’s mental health system is a disgrace. But to me, it seems that we’re all crazy if we as a country can’t take modest steps to reduce the carnage that leaves America resembling a battlefield.