By Todd Smith | The Caledonian Record
Last Wednesday a twisted psychopath murdered 17 innocent students and teachers at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland Florida.
In the wake of these national tragedies, well-intentioned and compassionate people often turn to calls for increased gun control. Such was the case following horrors at an open-air concert in Las Vegas; at a Newtown, Conn. school; a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; the campus at Virginia Tech; an Arizona shooting range; a Safeway parking lot; a church in South Carolina; an Orlando nightclub; a facility in San Bernadino; and now a country music concert in Vegas.
Predictably, media and policy makers are already discussing the latest tragedy in policy terms. Their recurring proposals, all promulgated in good faith, are not new. Nor is the reality that no confluence of gun laws will stop these terrible things from happening.
That isn’t stopping well-meaning folks from trying. Within hours of the Parkland massacre, lawmakers were repeating calls for “meaningful” gun control legislation. They won’t pass anything.
For our part, we agree that dangerous people shouldn’t have access to high-powered assault weapons. But on the exact same day the Newtown horrors were playing out years ago, a severely disturbed Chinese man stabbed 22 children at an elementary school in China. None of the children were killed, admittedly, but 69 people at a summer camp in Norway the previous summer were. A madman was able to secure lots of high-powered weapons and use them to devastating effect, even though that country has some of the world’s strictest gun laws. The same goes for Chicago, which has the ironic ignominy of the highest gun violence rates and the toughest firearm restrictions. Meanwhile, handguns were used to slaughter 16 children at the Scottish Dunblane Elementary School in 1996 and a car was used to kill kids on a California playground in 1999.
Background checks, waiting periods and assault weapons restrictions — all 100 percent totally fine by us — wouldn’t have stopped any of these atrocities. If a deranged individual wants to kill, there’s no amount of legislation that will stop them. If there were, then the existing ban on killing innocent people would work.
Which brings up the question of how we might identify and treat deranged individuals before they decide to commit horrendous acts? Once upon a time we institutionalized people with mental illness. Involuntary commitments slowed in the 1960s and all but stopped — for some very good reasons — with Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s.
Edwin Fuller Torrey, M.D., a psychiatrist and schizophrenia researcher argues that the closing of state hospitals wasn’t as much of a problem as was our collective failure to follow-up with treatment plans of any kind. He says that approximately 10 percent of homicides in the United States are committed by people with untreated mental disease. A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law put the figure slightly higher — reporting that 16 percent of state prisoners who had perpetrated murders were mentally ill. In 2016 the American Psychiatric Association published “Gun Violence and Mental Illness,” which said mass shootings by people with mental illness account for one-percent of gun-related homicides each year. That means, of course, that the overwhelming majority of murders are committed by people who technically don’t suffer severe mental health problems.
To further complicate the issue, a 2009 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry said that unemployment, divorce, and a history of physical abuse, are better predictors of violent behavior than a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
The sobering reality is that science and society don’t have answers for us. As Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, told the Washington Post … “We’re not even good at predicting minor violence. When you’re talking about preventing a mass shooting, that’s a needle in a haystack,” he said. “You can’t just go out and lock up all the socially awkward young men in the world.”
Maybe not, but Michael Welner — a forensic psychiatrist and chairman of the Forensic Panel — told the Washington Post that mental illness plus violent media equals very bad news. “I point the finger unreservedly at the entertainment industry, which has spawned and cultivated gaming that by design is increasingly real, geared to action as the shooter’s point of view, increasingly dehumanizes victims, and increasingly rewards players by how many they kill,” Welner told Post writer Joel Achenbach. The story also mentions the role media might play in giving homicidal maniacs a “a notoriety they couldn’t have achieved legitimately.”
Welner may be right but the idea of government censorship — on the off-chance that a schizophrenic might consume a violent book, movie or game and become violent (when otherwise he wouldn’t have been) strikes us as a prescription worse than the disease. It may be hard to believe, given the headlines, but according to the Pew Research Center and data from the Centers for Disease Control, America has enjoyed decades of declining rates of gun violence. “Between 1993 and 2000, the gun homicide rate dropped by nearly half, from 7.0 homicides to 3.8 homicides per 100,000 people,” Pew Research shows. “Since then, the gun homicide rate has remained relatively flat. From 2010 to 2013, the most recent year data are available, the number of gun homicides has hovered between 11,000 and 12,000 per year.” Non-lethal shootings have dropped even more. “The rate of nonfatal gun victimizations declined in a similar way to the gun death rate, with a large drop in the 1990s — 63% between 1993 and 2000. The decline since then has been more uneven. In 2014, there were 174.8 nonfatal violent gun victimizations per 100,000 people ages 12 and older.”
Mass shootings are shocking and tragic but statistically unusual. According to Nate Silver’s fiveThirtyEight.com, there were 90 mass shootings (four or more victims) from 1966 to 2012. Those senseless acts of violence killed 948 people.
Meanwhile, of 33,000 lives taken by guns in America each year, approximately two-thirds (21,058) are suicides, a third are homicides (11,726) and the rest are accidents (546). It’s difficult to draw conclusions about solutions to gun violence based on these figures.
Meanwhile, like us, Americans tend to be OK with background checks, waiting periods and some assault weapon restrictions. They get quite nervous, however, whenever government tries to more generally restrict Constitutional safeguards, like the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
The United State Supreme Court is just as suspicious about attempts to chip away at the Second Amendment. In the District of Columbia v. Heller, circa 2008, and again in 2010, the High Court upheld the notion that individual self-defense is a central, underlying tenet of the Constitution’s Second Amendment. The rulings, from a court traditionally standoffish with Second Amendment issues, signaled a landmark articulation of an individual’s constitutional right to defend oneself — independent of collective states’ rights to arm through militia. When our country’s framers crafted the Second Amendment, British soldier quartering, foreign oppression and armed domestic uprisings were fresh in their collective memories. Protection from future tyranny, from home or abroad, factored foremost in the architecture of our “right to keep and bear arms.”
At the time, many of our framers abhorred the notion of a professional army and could barely conceive of a federal military. Today, through advances in weaponry, communications and human management, the United States military (through each of its five branches) is the mightiest, most lethal killing machine ever assembled in history. That’s to say nothing of the 20 or so well-armed departments that fall under the auspices of “Homeland Security.”
Now imagine, for a moment, that Americans elect a President who doesn’t care about civil protections or due process. Imagine that man was a little rash — even psychotic — and determined to ban entire religious groups, media he didn’t like and judges who didn’t rule in his favor. How would you stop a person like that if he ordered federal agents, armed with tanks and assault weapons, to arrest all of his detractors?
The underlying spirit of the Second Amendment is as relevant today as in any time in human history — an armed citizenry alone is able to protect itself from tyranny. Or, as George Mason argued to Virginia’s ratification convention in 1788 — to disarm a nation is surely to set the conditions to enslave it. Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “An unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.” A lesson well understood by despots throughout history.
Todd M. Smith is the publisher of the Caledonian Record, where this editorial first appeared. He lives in St. Johnsbury.