I had a visceral reaction yesterday when I read the Star-Tribune coverage of the elementary school shootings and learned that most of the children were only six or seven years old. These shootings overshadowed coverage of the person who went on a shooting rampage earlier in the week in Portland, Oregon. Since July, here in the U.S. we’ve had mass murders in a movie theater, a Sikh Temple and at the workplace in Minneapolis. I was in Tucson when Congresswoman Giffords was shot–and had had a phone call from her office the day before inviting me to attend the event where the carnage happened.
What do all of these awful things have in common? Most of the killers were young white males with psychological issues, and the murders were committed, at least in part, with semi-automatic weapons.
Last Friday’s shootings made me think of my own personal encounters with guns. There have been four that have left an impact on me.
The first was when I was in college. Another student pulled out a gun in a dormitory hallway and, for no particular reason that I can think of, told me and a friend to go back the way I had come from. We did.
The second was while I was doing an informational interview with a lawyer while was was in law school. He pulled a handgun out of his desk drawer and displayed it. He said he kept it there in case a family law matter got out of hand.
The third was a few years ago when Neighbor 1 reported that Neighbor 2 had met him in Neighbor 2′s driveway, dressed in camo, waving a long gun, and instructed him to “get the f— off ” his property. Neighbor 1 complied. Before that, Neighbor 1 had done some work on our cars, and I’d stop by now and then to chat. I quietly stopped having contact with Neighbor 2.
I have fired a gun. After the incident with Neighbor 2 , I asked my husband to teach me how to use a gun. He had me practice with a shotgun, but I didn’t like the sound or the kickback. We opted for a security system instead.
So how do we, as a society, prevent mass murders committed with sem-automatic weapons in the future? If I had my druthers, I would outlaw guns, period. But I know that is not politically possible right now.
Some say better mental health treatment is the response. I support the expansion of mental health services. I have been working with mental health service providers for more than two decades, and have seen significant growth in mental health services in Minnesota during that time, which is a good thing both for the people who need the services, and for society. But it is next to impossible to force someone to accept treatment who doesn’t want help. Mental health providers can hold someone against their will for 72 hours, but after that, they either have to be civilly committed or released.
From what I’ve read about these shooters, it is likely that none of them would have met the standard to be involuntarily committed in Minnesota.
And what if they’d gotten help earlier? A common issue among people with serious and persistent mental illness is that they don’t think there is anything wrong with them. There are drugs that can help people, but the drugs, even if prescribed, don’t help unless the person takes them. Compliance can be a significant issue with anyone taking prescribed medication. Think back to the last time you were prescribed something as simple as antibiotics–did you really take all of them as prescribed, or did you stop when you started feeling better?
So that leads us to controlling access to semi-automatic weapons and large capacity clips. I agree with Senator Feinstein, who plans today to introduce a bill in Congress to limit the manufacture, sale and possession of assault weapons and large capacity clips. Please note that she is not talking about prohibiting the manufacture, sale or possession of handguns, shotguns or hunting rifles–only semi-automatic and automatic weapons. So hunters and those who are packing heat for personal protection can relax. Semi-automatic and automatic weapons–the kind used by the military–have only one purpose: to kill people. Lots of people. These kinds of weapons were illegal a few years ago, and the world as gun-owners know it, did not end.
Mass murders, like all crimes, are driven by motive and opportunity. Here in the wealthiest country in the world, we have people who are so angry and/or delusional about their circumstances that they are motivated to acquire and use semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines to kill themselves and others. Because we are a wealthy country and guns of all sorts are legal to acquire, getting a gun is not hard to do.
We can reduce the number of people killed in shooting sprees by reducing access to assault weapons. (Note I did not say handguns, shotguns or hunting rifles.) If there were fewer cars on the road, there would be fewer traffic deaths. Speed limits, drunk driving laws and seatbelts don’t eliminate traffic deaths, but they do reduce them. And so it is with semi-automatic weapons. Yes, even if assault weapons are illegal , there will be people who acquire them illegally and who use them to kill others. But that shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can to reduce their number.