Friday, February 23, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers

After every shooting, I see an offer of "Thoughts and Prayers." I cynically posted a "Thoughts and Prayers" meme after the church shooting in November in Texas. I said "If only those people in Texas had prayed harder." One of my friends commented "REALLY!?!?!"  Social media has become an increasingly polarizing place. The anonymity of posting memes and arguing with friends and strangers online has taken out a human element of reasonable discourse. We say things on Facebook that we would rarely say to another person's face, let alone our friends. I have been trying to be better about doing this, and taking these conversations offline and out in public.

Here are some of the comments and suggestions I have seen along with my own "thoughts and prayers."

People need to do a better job raising their kids!
Some children live in one-parent households (for a multitude of reasons) and their parents are doing their best just to put food on the table. We don’t know their situation; maybe they shouldn’t have been parents or didn’t want to be a parent in the first place. Maybe they couldn’t afford birth control, or their partner left them after they got pregnant. Not everyone is cut out for parenthood and unfortunately some people only realize it after it’s too late. 

Let’s not forget the half million kids in foster care and their unique challenges. What do we do about those kids that get left behind? It is true that it "takes a village", and we all need to do our part to help out the kids that we see struggling. 

Some of these parents are doing everything they can to raise their kids right. Some children are born with antisocial personality disorder and don’t know the difference between right and wrong. There aren’t enough resources for the parents of these kids, and they also might have a hard time believing that there is something wrong with their child. Deinstitutionalization is another part of the problem, but that is a bag of worms for another day.

Teenagers can be insanely impulsive. As someone who was once a teenager, I can give quite a few personal anecdotes on this topic. According to researchers at the NIH, this is because teenage brains are in the process of maturing – their prefrontal cortexes are still maturing. The rational part of a teen's brain isn't fully developed and won't be until about age 25. As adults, we reason better, develop more control over impulses and make better judgments. This also makes me wonder why we are sending people to war without fully developed brains.

So while everyone is screaming mental illness, let’s be honest with ourselves – teenagers are impulsive and do stupid things. It's because they have developing brains.

If you see something say something! 
People do. Unfortunately, these systems fail as they did in Florida. Reports are now emerging that the latest shooter was reported to authorities multiple times. Also, not every incident is meticulously planned – some are impulsive teenage immature brain problems. There was also the 12 year old girl who brought a gun to school in her backpack. The backpack fell on the ground and discharged the gun, wounding 2 kids. That also puts to bed the "guns are inanimate objects" argument as well. They can misfire and accidents can happen. 

Video games and violent TV/movies/glorification of violence are the problem!
Study results have been inconsistent at best and have produced conflicting results at worst. Canada and Europe have many similar shows/movies/music, yet they don't have these problems. That said, those countries have some major differences: socialized medicine and strict gun laws. 

Mental Illness is the problem!
According to NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Health), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US (43.8 million) experience mental illness in any given year. Certainly many of the mass shooters were suffering from mental health issues, but to say that anyone who has a mental illness will commit a violent crime is simply false. It creates even more stigma for those who suffer from these invisible illnesses. 

Our schools need more security!
There was an armed guard at Parkland High School. It is now reported that he froze in the situation and never went inside to confront the gunman. If this was a trained deputy, why should we expect better from armed teachers? Teachers are barely paid enough as it is for the work that they do. Most of them went into the profession to teach children, not defend them from armed maniacs. Assuming that the teachers would want to be armed, we would also have several officers carrying guns to protect each school entrance, of course we would also install metal detectors. 
Are we sending our kids to school or sending them to prison?

We already have gun laws / gun laws don’t work in Chicago/Baltimore/other place
While it is true that there are plenty of gun laws on the books, the inconsistency between state laws create a lot of problems. Due to lax gun laws in neighboring states, all it takes is an hour or less drive into a neighboring state to have someone make a straw purchase or even a legal purchase. 

On to facts.
Part of the reason that gun violence is difficult to study is because of the Dickey Amendment of 1996, which ties the hands of the CDC and prevents them from using Federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” The NRA pushed for this amendment at the time, after researchers had produced studies that suggested that having a gun in the house increased the risk of homicide and suicide (spoiler alert: it does). 

Since 1968, more than 1.5 million Americans have died in gun-related incidents, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, approximately 1.2 million service members have been killed in every war in U.S. history, according to estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs and, a website that maintains an ongoing database of casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the record, this number includes suicides. 

There were nearly twice as many suicides involving firearms in 2015 as there were murders involving guns, and the rate has been increasing in recent years. Suicide by firearm accounts for almost half of all suicides in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found there was a strong relationship between higher levels of gun ownership in a state and higher firearm suicide rates for both men and women.

More guns also means that more police officers are killed. Researchers looked at federal data for firearm ownership and homicides of police officers across the US over 15 years. They found that states with more gun ownership had more cops killed in homicides: Every 10 percent increase in firearm ownership correlated with 10 additional officers killed in homicides over the 15-year study period (American Journal of Public Health).

Here’s another data point: Although we hear a lot about AR-15s and “assault weapons” during mass shooting incidents, most murders caused by guns involve handguns (FBI). The nature of semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 makes it easier for mass shooters to take out a large amount of targets in a short time frame, due to accuracy and lack of recoil. This said, the truth is that these types of weapons statistically cause fewer deaths than handguns.

Proposed Solutions

Store your weapons securely. Guns should be secured unloaded in a biometrically locked gun safe, with a trigger lock engaged. If not in a gun safe, all guns should have a trigger lock device installed at all times. There are now biometric trigger locking devices available. If all gun owners followed these procedures, it would reduce unintentional injuries and deaths. 

Repeal the Dickey Amendment to allow the CDC to study gun violence. It is truly a public health crisis. Let's study it and create solutions that are backed up with scientific data.

Congress should pass legislation requiring universal background checks. That would close federal loopholes on background checks at gun shows and other private sales. Additionally, anyone who would like to own a firearm should pass a skills test showing that they know how to properly use their weapons and that they have the knowledge necessary to be a safe gun owner. This would be similar to the training already required for those obtaining concealed carry permits. As a part of this, a firearm registry could be created so that gun sales can be tracked. The registry should be able to be accessed by mental health professionals, school counselors, police officers, and anyone else who would need the information in their professions to “red flag” someone as going to hurt themselves or others.

Congress could also limit the number of guns that can be purchased by one person in a period of time. They could also raise the age limit of all gun purchases. It would be nice to say 25, as per the earlier immature teenage brain, but at least increase the age to 21. Lawmakers could toughen penalties for straw purchases. Mass shooters often carried more than one weapon; one was found with 24. At least 167 weapons of mass shooters were obtained legally and 49 were obtained illegally. It’s unclear how 76 weapons were acquired.

Institute a gun buyback program. The cost is not too much. With each mass shooting, schools are renovated or torn down and rebuilt, costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. How much is a life saved worth? How much do you value your life? Your child’s life? Another loved one? Your neighbor? What about the people in your community?

Although I personally don’t believe that anyone needs semi-automatic weapons, I do recognize that some people really enjoy guns. I believe that certain weapons should require an increased level of scrutiny or “extreme vetting” if you will. The folks that want weapons like the AR-15 should face closer scrutiny than someone who is hunting deer with their bolt action rifle. Perhaps congress needs to specify classes of firearms with screening procedures for each.

I recognize that America is a unique country. I would love to say that America can simply enact the same kind of wildly successful gun regulations that Australia has: 28 day waiting periods, thorough background checks, and a requirement to present a “justifiable reason” to own a gun. Their gun buyback program meant about a million guns went back to the government and were destroyed. 

The problem is that in America we have a gun for every person. However, it is estimated that less than one third of Americans own a gun. So one third of Americans own an estimated 320 million guns. What do you do with that? It’s hard to shut the barn door after the horse has already left the stable. 

Even though the horse has already left the stable, we have to do something and we have to start somewhere. The number of guns in this country has roughly doubled in the past 50 years. Perhaps 50 years from now the changes that we make today will have made a meaningful impact. I hope that my grandchildren never have to fear being gunned down in the classroom or on the street.

I live in a rural area with a big gun culture. I know families here who rely on hunting to provide food. Guns are a way of life here. We need hunters to control our wildlife population. Trust me, you’d wish that Bambi had been killed before she ran in front of your car. 

What it really comes down to is do we value our guns more than we value the lives of children?

I am in awe of the kids from Parkland who have started this movement and discussion. It's sad to say that fear seems to be the only effective motivator for change, but it appears that it is. The NRA pushes fear based motivation all the time: "bad guys" are coming after you. The Democrats are coming for your guns. 

It is both terrible and inspiring that it has taken children to stand up and say that they are tired of being slaughtered in their classrooms for anyone to do more than send "thoughts and prayers." 

My thoughts and prayers: March for Our Lives will be the falling of small stones that will start an avalanche.