Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis
By Robert Bernstein
Gun Violence as a public health crisis was the topic of the most recent Humanist Society talk. It might seem this was an amazing coincidence as it came just before the latest round of mass shootings.
But such mass shootings are becoming so frequent that it just emphasizes the importance of this topic.
Toni Wellen founded the Coalition Against Gun Violence 24 years ago with Eileen Pritikin. Wellen asked for a show of hands of how many have been touched by gun violence. A couple of hands. How many are gun owners? A couple of hands.
She first talked about a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO) as a way for family members to take guns from someone they think is unfit to have a gun. The California law was written by Das Williams after the Isla Vista massacre.
https://speakforsafety.org/ has more information about the GVRO and how to obtain one.
60% of gun deaths are suicides. And the majority of those are white males over the age of 65. Family members often have to face the difficult decision to take away the car keys from a loved one. That is also a time to take away the guns.
Lois Capps introduced the GVRO bill at a Federal level in 2016. Salud Carbajal reintroduced it. And Dianne Feinstein introduced it in the Senate. It has bipartisan support, but it has not been passed.
California has many gun laws for good reason. The purchase process checks that the buyer is a responsible gun owner.
In California the buyer has to take a test and wait ten days. In contrast, in Arizona a person can fill in a form and walk out with a gun on the spot.
Many people impulsively go to buy a gun with the idea of homicide or suicide. The Goleta Post Office mass murderer woman could not buy a gun in California. She went all the way to New Mexico to get one.
There is no gun registration in the US but there is licensing. If there were registration it would be with the Department of Justice and it would have to be renewed every two to five years.
For 24 years her group has worked to pass such a law, so far without success.
In California it is not allowed to buy a clip with more than ten bullets. The Colorado shooter had a 100 bullet clip. The effect was devastating. With a smaller clip there is a chance for a crazed shooter to be stopped when reloading.
California also does not allow the purchase of more than one handgun per month. This restriction does not apply to rifles and shotguns. This year there is legislation pending to extend to those guns. People who buy multiple weapons often sell to those who should not own one.
There are currently 20 laws pending in the California legislature.
Wellen presented a graph that showed that California gun death rates from 1993-2017 were less than in the US overall. She argued that this shows that the California laws do make a difference.
There was a mass shooting at Port Arthur in Tasmania in Australia in 1996. The Conservative Prime Minister of Australia demanded a buyback of all assault weapons. There has not been a single mass shooting in Australia since then.
New Zealand had few gun laws. But a recent mass shooting led to immediate enactment of gun laws.
The US is different. We have one mass shooting after another with little meaningful action at a national level. One difference is the National Rifle Association (NRA).
There are 40 shootings each day in the US. 9-10 involve children.
The way the US was founded is part of the reason. The Revolutionary War led to many people having guns. After the Revolutionary War most people did not have guns in their homes.
But during the Civil War people were issued rifles and went home with them. People got used to having guns in the home and using them to kill.
In contrast, Australia was founded as a penal colony. The prisoners were not necessarily violent. There was no violent founding of the country. They just had to make the best of a challenging environment.
In the US there is a swelling of public opinion now against gun violence. We pay $20 billion/year for the effects of gun violence in the streets. Including helping those injured for life.
A group called States United To Prevent Gun Violence opened a gun store in New York City. People came in thinking they might buy a gun. Instead, they were offered guns that were part of historic massacres or other tragedies.
A hidden camera showed how people responded as they were offered a gun used by a child to accidentally kill his brother. A San Diego mass shooting gun. A Sandy Hook killing gun. A gun used by a child to shoot his mother.
It made them think twice. Here is the video we were shown:
Over 1300 guns have been collected in Santa Barbara in a local buyback program. It is anonymous and people are given a Smart and Final gift card. Many participate because they have children at home.
They get some money from the City of Santa Barbara, but not enough. They have never gotten any grant money and depend on individual donations. The City of Goleta said no.
Many who participate are ex-felons who are not allowed to own a gun anymore. Otherwise the gun would sit in a closet and be illegal for them.
Wellen explained that it is no longer enough to talk of prayers and tears unless that leads to awareness and action. It is time to demand a plan to end gun violence.
40,000 Americans die each year from gun violence. If it were a disease we would demand action. We must treat it in exactly the same way: As a public health threat to be solved.
I noted that radio talk show host Thom Hartmann has offered a very practical solution: Require gun owners to purchase liability insurance exactly as car owners are required to do.
This would have at least two benefits:
1) If someone is harmed with a gun, there is compensation to them and/or to their families.
2) If a person is unfit to own a gun, they will not be insurable and will have to give up the gun.
Wellen claims that the insurance companies have resisted such a law. I would argue that this approach has not yet even received widespread consideration.
Another listener asked what can be done to get rid of the Second Amendment. In the past, this was narrowly interpreted. But in 2008 the Supreme Court expanded the interpretation in the Heller decision. They ruled by 5-4 that an individual has a right to own a firearm, even though the Second Amendment refers to a "well regulated Militia".
In recent years medical people have organized around this issue of gun violence. The NRA pushed back and said doctors should "stay in their lane". The doctors pushed back with the hashtag #thisisourlane
The medical professionals described having to tell a family their child has died. Having to operate on people who have been shot many times.
One safety program that requires no laws: "Asking Saves Kids" (ASK). This has parents asking if there is an unlocked gun in your house before letting your child go there to play.
One of the most effective laws needed at a Federal level would be a universal background check. As it is now, even if one state enacts good laws, a criminal or mentally disturbed individual can just go to another state with lax laws.
And this check must be done for every gun sale. As it is now, there are many gun sales that get no check at all. Most infamous is the "Gun Show Loophole". This enormous loophole exempts a large percentage of "private sales" from any kind of background check. Ending this "loophole" is an obvious and important action that can be taken.
This will happen when people demand this change from their elected officials.
As I write this, there is a massive effort to get Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reconvene the Senate. They are demanding a vote on the bills that have been sitting on his desk for months.
Notably, House Resolution 8 which has been on McConnell's desk since February without any action. It is also called the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019.
Toni Wellen invited people to visit their Coalition Against Gun Violence web site at http://www.sbcoalition.org/