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October 07, 2015

A modest proposal for common sense gun control that respects the Second Amendment

Everyone is appalled at the recent mass shooting incidents. The reaction has been predictable and polarizing.  One side advocates more restrictive gun regulations or an Australia-style gun roundup.  The other side retreats behind the protection of the Second Amendment and rejects any roll-back of the individual right to bear arms.  We've seen this repeatedly, and it gets us nowhere.  Here is a different approach.

1:  Implement useful policies that already enjoy broad support

Most Americans, even Republicans and many NRA members, agree that felons, non-citizens and crazy people should not be allowed firearms.  The corollary of this is that we can probably all agree that there should be fast, inexpensive but universal background checks before guns can be purchased.

However, many (most?) of the recent rampage killers either legally acquired their weapons after undergoing background checks or would not have been thwarted had universal background check laws been in place.  (The NYT, hardly a Second Amendment enthusiast, found that 8 of the 14 recent mass shooters would not have been stopped had universal checks been required.)

This brings us to second area of potential common ground: our mental health "system" (to the extent we can call it that) is a mess. Virtually all of the recent mass killers exhibited symptoms of serious mental illness.  Many were receiving (or had received) various levels of psychological and psychiatric care. But as we have seen, having access to some level of mental health care is not enough to avert potential tragedy. We need to put in place the policies – and appropriations – to fix this mess, and pronto.

2:  Create a “psychological hold” system to strengthen background checks

The current National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) is fairly simple. When a background check is required (which is not always due to the gun show loophole), the seller submits information on the buyer to FBI (or a state agency, in some cases) which then searches several databases for serious criminal offenses, orders of protection and involuntary commitment to a mental institution. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work and more is needed.

Few of the recent mass killers would have been stopped by our current background check system.  I propose creating a new, Federal database that would collect reports of mental instability in individuals.

  • Reports could be filed by anyone at a local police station.  Teachers, mental health workers, social workers, police officers, neighbors, relatives, etc. would be encouraged to identify people that they have reason to be believe should not be allowed access to firearms.
  • The bar to reporting should be low; signing a sworn statement detailing the reasons for their concern should be sufficient. 
  • If the police agency taking the report believes the information to be well founded, the report would be passed to the NICS and would bar approval of firearm purchases by that subject.
  • The existing (or an enhanced) FBI appeals process could address unfounded or erroneous reports blocking gun purchasers.
  • Ultimately, denied purchasers could appeal to a judge to rule on their fitness to obtain firearms.
  • The identity of the informant should be kept confidential from the subject of the report unless a court appeal is needed. 

Of course, this system would be susceptible to abuse as personal enemies, jilted lovers, etc. could file false reports.  Ideally, abusive reports would be rejected by the police agency receiving the report.  In some cases, however, a formal appeal would be needed to clear a person. In any case, an unfounded report would not be sufficient to bar gun purchase approval.

3:  Stop motivating copy-cat killers

Beginning in the 1970s, states began enacting “rape shield” laws to make it less traumatic for rape victims to report their assaults to the police.  In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law giving similar protections to women under Federal law. While courts have ruled that these laws cannot be used to prevent media outlets from disclosing the identity of rape victims, virtually all major media outlets have voluntarily adopted this policy in the public interest.

Criminologists and psychologists who have studied the motivations of rampage killers have found that unlike serial killers, who have long histories of escalating acts of violence, most mass murderers have no prior record of violent behavior. Instead, in the words of James L. Knoll IV, director of forensic psychiatry at the State University of New York's Upstate Medical University writing in a 2010 article: they become “'collectors of injustice' who nurture their wounded narcissism." To preserve their egos, they exaggerate past humiliations and externalize their anger, blaming others for their frustrations. They develop violent fantasies of heroic revenge against an uncaring world.  This is brilliantly summed up in a 2013 WSJ OpEd by Ari N. Shulman:

“Part of this calculus of evil is competition. Dr. Mullen spoke to a perpetrator who "gleefully admitted that he was 'going for the record.'" Investigators found that the Newtown shooter kept a "score sheet" of previous mass shootings. He may have deliberately calculated how to maximize the grotesqueness of his act.

Many other perpetrators pay obsessive attention to previous massacres. There is evidence for a direct line of influence running through some of the most notorious shooters—from Columbine in 1999 to Virginia Tech in 2007 to Newtown in 2012—including their explicit references to previous massacres and calls to inspire future anti-heroes.

Aside from the wealth of qualitative evidence for imitation in massacre killings, there are also some hard numbers. A 1999 study by Dr. Mullen and others in the Archives of Suicide Research suggested that a 10-year outbreak of mass homicides had occurred in clusters rather than randomly. This effect was also found in a 2002 study by a group of German psychiatrists who examined 132 attempted rampage killings world-wide.”

While it is probably not Constitutional to prohibit journalists from writing about rampage killers, Shulman has several suggestions that may help prevent copy-cats:

  • Never publish a shooter's propaganda
  • Hide their names and faces
  • Don't report on biography or speculate on motive
  • Minimize specifics and gory details
  • No photos or videos of the event
  • Talk about the victims but minimize images of grieving families
  • Decrease the saturation
  • Tell a different story. (There is a damping effect on suicide from reports about people who considered it but found help instead.)

Constitutionally sound laws can probably be crafted to prevent release of these details by police and other government agencies.  Formal declarations of the public interest in suppressing this type of information might help encourage media outlets to exercise greater restraint, even in this internet age.

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There is no silver bullet that can prevent these tragedies.  But adopting policies that have strong, bi-partisan public support – and can reasonably be expected to help reduce mass shootings – may help make them less likely.

October 7, 2015 at 03:19 PM | Permalink

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