While we may always have to deal with gun violence in this country, many steps can be made to substantially improve our violence detection and prevention measures.
As the United States recovers from a devastating string of mass shootings at the end of 2012, including the killing of 20 children and 6 adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, Americans have renewed their demand on Congress to find ways of reducing gun violence.
Vice President Joe Biden is leading a working group that is searching for measures that are broader and more comprehensive than simply reinstating the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, according to the Washington Post. The work group is looking at measures backed by key law enforcement, such as requiring universal background checks for firearm buyers and strengthening mental health checks. The group will present its findings this month.
President Barack Obama has said he is open to any suggestions on how to reduce gun violence, although in the past he expressed doubtfulness over the successful passage of any new gun control legislation.
“When there is an extraordinarily heartbreaking tragedy like the one we saw, there’s always an outcry immediately after for action. And there’s talk of new reforms, and there’s talk of new legislation,” Obama said in a speech before the National Urban League last July following the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. “And too often, those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney expounded on Obama’s stance on gun control.
“He believes that we can enhance the enforcement of existing laws by making it more difficult for those who should not have weapons under existing laws … to obtain weapons,” Carney said.
He noted that President Obama supports the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban which expired in 2004, but said he wants to focus on strengthening background checks “given the stalemate in Congress.”
The crux of our problem is that the national discussion on this subject has been dominated by a virulent stream of rhetoric. Both sides try to smother any perspective different from their own, by starting petitions to deny people their legal rights, ridiculing opposing arguments, intentionally skewing the facts, and so on.
But any attempt at widening the divide between the two sides of this issue is just wasting our precious time. To make matters worse, the solutions that our members of Congress offer or don’t offer tend to reflect a polarized side of the debate – either we get proposed bills for very strict gun control, which reliably fail to pass in Congress, or else our lawmakers throw up their hands as if there are no solutions to be found.
There have been 19 mass shootings in the past five years but no federal action has been taken in that time. Over the next few months, lawmakers will prioritize federal spending and debt and soon our collective attention could again be pulled away from the gun violence issue. Before we know it, we might forget that Congress has failed to institute any solutions on firearms violence. Until we’re faced with yet another horrific tragedy that reminds us of our inaction…
It is essential to understand and respect that citizens sitting on the two sides of this debate have very different ideological viewpoints and in that regard there will be no changing of minds. One side believes that owning weapons is the one sure way of preventing or combating gun violence, while the other side believes the very presence of firearms dramatically increases the possibility of violence.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that both sides of this debate want to reduce gun violence in America.
To find middle ground, we must get as far away from the issue of gun ownership as possible and instead search for options that focus on the people who create violent situations.
Community Programs for Reducing Violence from Firearms
Communities can choose to replicate program models that are statistically proven to dramatically reduce gun violence.
Cure Violence, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, has been very successful in the U.S. and around the world in its use of “detection” of potential escalations in violence and then an “interruption” of that violence through the use of a well-trained and highly skilled “interrupter” who uses an established set of methods to curb gun violence.
According to a 2012 study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a 2009 study by the National Institute of Justice, the Cure Violence model has successfully helped over a dozen neighborhoods in Chicago and Baltimore to significantly reduce gun violence in their communities. The findings in the Johns Hopkins study of four historically violent neighborhoods show in one neighborhood killings reduced 56% and shootings 34%. In another neighborhood killings reduced 53%, and in two other neighborhoods, shootings reduced 34 and 43%. The Cure Violence model is now being replicated in cities across the nation and around the world.
Considering that the rights of gun owners and would-be gun owners come under attack every time there is a highly publicized shooting, the National Rifle Association has good reason and plenty of resources to financially support programs like Cure Violence. The NRA could also develop its own program to reduce gun violence, which could easily be offered nationwide through its many offices situated across the country.
Containing the Mentally Ill and Violent
Each mass shooting contains an element of horror that is incomprehensible to most, leading many to believe that the mass shooters were mentally ill. Our government’s work following these types of shootings reflects this belief, such as the passage of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (NIIS) that followed the shooting at Virginia Tech and Vice President Biden’s current work on improving mental health checks.
Given the extraordinarily high amount of young people carrying out the mass shootings, it seems prudent to focus mental health problem detection on them. Berndattte Melnyk of Ohio State University notes that “approximately one out of 4 children, teens and college youth have a mental health problem, yet less than 25% get any treatment whatsoever at all.”
One option for addressing this concern is to create a national marketing campaign particularly geared toward parents and youth to educate them on mental health resources, perhaps providing a web site that contains more information on local mental health resources for teens and college age adults. The campaign might also encourage the use of mental health services by presenting them in a welcoming and non-judgmental way.
Certainly we must continue to get better at bridging the gap between learning that someone is mentally ill and potentially violent and keeping weapons out of their hands. The psychiatrist treating James Holmes, the mass shooter in Aurora, Colorado, reportedly rejected an offer by police to place Holmes on a 72-hour psychiatric hold after she contacted them to report her concern that Holmes could become violent.
Though she rejected the offer of a psychiatric hold, should the campus police have required the psychiatrist to get a second psychiatric opinion before making a final decision on the hold? Should the campus police have alerted the Aurora police department so that they could have decided whether to open an investigation of Holmes? Such situations merit a closer look at police protocols when they receive notice from a mental health professional that a mentally unstable and potentially violent person is on the loose.
Active Shooter Training
The heroes of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting remind us of the importance of clear thinking in such extreme circumstances. Some teachers and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School put children in closets and bathrooms when they heard the gun shots. Some evacuated the children from the building.
One person turned on the school’s public address system.
“I think whoever did that saved a lot of people,” said Theodore Varga, a fourth grade teacher at Sandy Hook who was inside the building when the shooting occurred. Varga had quickly left the building through an emergency exit but returned to help three other teachers escape through a window.
While we’d all like to believe we would react bravely in similar circumstances, the reality is that many of us would naturally become paralyzed with fear, shock and disbelief. To overcome this natural reaction, a practical training program for dealing with this kind of situation could help. It’s called Active Shooter Training, which is training normally reserved for police officers responding to a mass shooting. But programs offered by the Otterbein University Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and others provide similar training for anyone who might find themselves in a situation where there is an active shooter in the vicinity.
The counter-attack and evasion trainings in general show participants how to identify what is happening, then to ID weapons, escape routes, and tactics.
The Otterbein University program encourages others to treat this type of training just as we do fire preparedness training by incorporating it into normal training offered in the workplace and in schools. The idea is to stop being in denial over whether this situation is possible to occur, accept this training as part of emergency protocols, take charge and be prepared.
In conclusion, these options are not necessarily meant to replace measures that would directly control the sale and possession of firearms but rather to demonstrate that we can actually reduce gun violence without treading upon people’s deeply-held beliefs about gun ownership.
While we may always have to deal with gun violence in this country, we can substantially improve our violence detection and prevention measures. We can empower ourselves through various training programs. And, above all, we can collaborate with even seemingly opposite sides to find effective, long-term solutions.
Photo Credit: Mikejmartelli