Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Guns & Legislation: I wish the world made sense

The school shooting in Newtown three months ago has ignited state legislators to propose lots of new legislation.  What it did not ignite legislators to do is to think about what goals they wished to achieve and how to go about making meaningful changes. 

The first question that should be asked before writing gun legislation is this:

Who is it you want to protect and from what?
If you want to prevent spree shootings in schools you create different laws than if you want to prevent suicides, than if you want to prevent violent murders.  If you want to prevent violent murders, then the issues are different if you want to drop the gun deaths by domestic violence versus drug-deal related gun deaths.  

Suppose you want to prevent spree killings.  These are rare events, with very similarities.  It's really hard to target legislation at rare events.  We know a few things about high profile spree shooters: they tend to be young --mostly under 30, but not exclusively-- and all are male.  There has been no legislation proposed that would target males, but keeping guns away from men might stop spree killers.  

Okay, so there are dangerous mentally ill people and we know this.  Legislators in Maryland have decided that anyone hospitalized for 30 days or more should be reported to the FBI's database to prevent future gun purchases and to revoke current firearms.  I don't believe any of the high-profile mass murders have been committed by anyone who has been hospitalized for 30 days, so I'm not sure where that idea comes from. And I am opposed to reporting voluntary patients to an FBI database because I worry this will discourage people from getting care.

In Maryland, we can add to our knowledge the fact that a high school student came to school on the first day prepared to kill a cafeteria full of kids. He used a parent (or step-parent's) firearm, and was tackled by a faculty member.  He shot one student, a boy with Down's syndrome, who survived and has since returned to school.  The shooter was reportedly depressed, told other kids he was going to do this, and posted on his Facebook page that this was the first day of school and the last day of his life.  He did not  have access to a high-velocity firearm, he used a shot gun, and perhaps that fact limited the number of wounded.  The 15 year old shooter, by the way, was sentenced as an adult to life in prison, eligible for parole in 35 years.  I, for one, think we need to use this an example to chip away at teenager's "code of silence" that keeps them from talking to adults about dangerous behaviors in their friends, whether it be drunk driving or school shootings.   

So we know that some shooters have used assault weapons (Newtown and Aurora, for starters).  In Maryland, the legislature has backed down on banning assault weapons.  We know some shooters, including the one in Newtown, used legal weapons owned by a family member.  None of the legislation proposed addresses guns owned legally by family members of those we don't want accessing guns.  And all of the legislation that targets people with mental illness targets those who have been in treatment, even though the majority of shooters have not been in on-going psychiatric care or have ever been hospitalized. 

It's like our legislators have walked into a room with  blindfolds on and just randomly started shooting, hoping they hit some target.