On Wednesday, President Obama, flanked by young children, announced a number of initiatives, some in the form of executive orders, others in the form of proposed legislation, all designed to curb gun violence. Some make sense, others don’t. Here’s my take on the major aspects of the President’s proposals:
Improving the Firearms Pre-Purchase Background-Check System — This makes sense, to a point. In fact, I’ve been calling for it for years, at least since the Virginia Tech massacre. What we have is a patchwork system with lots of holes and loose ends in it. What we need is a tight-knit system that covers the whole country. We do not, however, need to make it a national registry of who does and doesn’t own a gun. A background check should be performed to make sure that a prospective gun purchaser isn’t a felon and doesn’t have a history of major mental instability. Running someone’s name through a database of felons, psychiatric commitments, etc. does not, however, require the collection of any data about the particular gun(s) that the person wants to buy, and certainly when someone passes such a background check, there’s no need for the government to retain any data about whether the intended purchase was completed. Virginia Tech is an excellent illustration of what we need and why we need it. The perpetrator of that massacre, among other things, had previously set a fire and frightened women on that campus. When he ended up in front of a judge who had the power to commit him involuntarily to a mental-health institution, he requested permission to check himself in voluntarily so as not to create a record of involuntary commitment. The judge acquiesced, the shooter checked into the institution and immediately checked out, and when he later went to purchase the guns used in the massacre, nothing showed up on his background check. First of all, the judge shouldn’t have had the discretion to allow the bogus “voluntary” commitment if the shooter met the criteria for an involuntary commitment. Second, whether the commitment was voluntary or involuntary, to the extent that it involved acts that put others at risk, it should’ve been reported to law enforcement, and it should’ve shown up in any subsequent firearms pre-purchase background check anywhere in the country. That brings me to the next aspect of the President’s proposals:
Permitting Mental-Health Professionals to Report Even Non-Specific Indications of Potential Violence — This makes sense, but it doesn’t go far enough in some respects and goes too far in other respects. For decades, mental-health professionals have had a “duty to warn” specific individuals against whom patients have threatened imminent harm. Recently, the State of New York has passed legislation requiring mental-health professionals to report even non-specific threats so that law enforcement can at least make sure that the patient is red-flagged in the national firearms pre-purchase background-check system, and if the harm appears potentially imminent, law enforcement can dispossess the patient of any previously-acquired firearms. The President’s proposal may similarly expand reporting standards nationwide, so that they better approximate the ubiquitous requirement that reports be made whenever and wherever mental-health professionals have reason to suspect child abuse. Had such a standard been in effect in Colorado last year, the movie-theater massacre in Aurora just might have been prevented. A necessary (and thus far unmentioned) next step, however, is to re-create places to put such individuals. Our national “deinstitutionalization” experiment, begun in the 1960s, has failed — for some people, outpatient treatment simply isn’t adequate; they require long-term, sometimes indefinite, inpatient confinement. We’re going to have to reconstitute our state hospital system nationwide as we make it easier to put people there (while of course protecting the Constitutional rights of those whom we do put there). If that means we need to build new facilities, then we build new facilities, no tax increases necessary, just a realignment of priorities.
Some mental-health professionals have objected to mandated reporting, as in the State of New York, fearing that the possibility of being reported will prevent individuals in need of mental-health care from seeking that care. It wouldn’t. Most Americans, especially mentally-ill Americans, aren’t following these developments closely, so they wouldn’t be deterred from seeking mental-health care. Other mental-health professionals have objected on the basis of patient privacy. I’m not worried about that either. When somebody’s potentially violently-unstable, I’m sorry that he/she is sick, but I’m less concerned about that individual’s privacy than I am about the innocent people whom he/she might harm. Still other mental-health professionals have flat-out said they’d disobey requirements to report. As someone who’s regularly called upon to serve as an expert in mental-health professional disciplinary cases, let me just say that if I have anything to do with it, they’ll either obey or they’ll be needing to look into alternative career paths. I do have a few problems with overly-broad reporting requirements, though:
First, they include threats and thoughts of self-harm. I don’t want anyone to commit suicide, but if that’s “all” a person wants to do, I don’t see it as the same degree of state/national emergency as potential murder, plus, mental-health professionals see a lot of suicidal people, and if they have to report every one of them, I worry that the system will be too overloaded to be effective against those who are actually dangerous to the public. Second, while I like the intensified focus on people who’ve exhibited signs of potentially-violent mental instability, I can report that most seriously-mentally-ill people don’t hurt anybody, and when they do, the incidents are most-often spontaneous batteries of family members or caregivers, which is not to say that those aren’t important crimes to prevent, but simply to say that most seriously-mentally-ill people simply aren’t capable of formulating and executing multi-step plans for mass murder. Third, the majority of mass murderers actually are not diagnosable with any specific violently-destabilizing mental disease or disorder — they certainly aren’t mentally healthy, and they may exhibit multiple symptoms of psychological dysfunction, but mostly they’re disaffected, frustrated, enraged, malignantly-narcissistic psychopaths who feel entitled to project their anger onto innocent others. That brings me to the next aspect of the President’s proposals:
Increasing Penalties for Gun Crimes — That makes sense, but it doesn’t go far enough. Gun crimes ought to be federalized so that U.S. Attorneys can prosecute them as well as district attorneys in the various states’ justice systems. There ought to be stiff mandatory sentences for any crime committed with a gun. In Florida, for example, if a criminal is in possession of a gun at the time of a crime, there’s a mandatory 10-year sentence. If the criminal displays the gun during the commission of the crime, the mandatory sentence climbs to 20 years, and if the criminal actually discharges the gun, the mandatory sentence is life. That kind of tough sentencing ought to exist nationwide. But it shouldn’t just be for gun crimes. The vast majority of mass murderers, including mentally-ill mass murderers, committed multiple lesser crimes before committing mass murder, but those crimes either weren’t punished or were punished leniently. Thus, we generally don’t need to rely on mental-health professionals to identify even those mentally-ill individuals who pose risks to public safety because those individuals generally self-identify by committing prior non-lethal crimes. The problem is that we generally don’t do enough when they self-identify. How about federalizing the assault of a teacher? Separation of criminals, even (and in some ways, especially) mentally-deficient criminals, from the public, under punitive conditions (for those whose minds are still working well enough to be culpable for their actions), is essential to public safety.
Just this past Tuesday, a man walked into a technical college in St. Louis, MO and shot an administrator. Guess what? In 2009, the shooter, who has a history of mental illness (but not severe enough illness to render him not guilty by reason of insanity) assaulted a taxi cab driver with a box cutter. He was sentenced to five years…probation. If he had actually been locked up for five years, or longer, he at least wouldn’t have been available to attempt murder on that campus this week (and no, I wouldn’t have worried much about whether he got mental-health care in prison or not — my first priority would’ve been public safety, i.e. separation of the violently-unstable individual from the public followed by stringent, “no-strike,” supervision if/when the individual were ever allowed to reenter public circulation).
We also ought to get rid of judges’ discretion to allow multiple sentences to be served concurrently. If someone commits three crimes, then that individual should serve the complete sentence for each crime, consecutively, before he or she ever gets back on our streets. As it is now, far too often, convicts only pay for one, albeit generally the most severe, of the multiple crimes that they’ve committed. That’s wrong morally, and it’s wrong practically, because it puts innocent people back in danger sooner rather than later. I say if you shoplift, and you hit 10 cops as they try to apprehend you, and the sentence for battery of a cop is two years, then you serve 20 years, two for each battery of a cop that you committed, plus the sentence for the shoplifting. If that means we need more prisons, then we build more prisons, and again, no tax increases necessary, just a realignment of priorities.
Increasing Federal and State Cooperation on the Interdiction of Illegal Gun Trafficking — That makes total sense and makes it more than a little ironic that the Obama Administration is still fighting not to release information about its own trafficking of guns to Mexican drug cartels as part of the tragically-failed Operation Fast & Furious.
Conducting More Research on the Causal Factors Underlying Violence — That makes sense, but I think we pretty much already know those. What I think would be more helpful would be research on what effectively inhibits individuals who’ve exhibited propensities for violence from perpetrating violence thereafter. I’ll bet that research would corroborate what I’ve been saying here and on TV for years, but perhaps then politicians and voters would be more likely to actually act on it.
Banning the Importation and Sale of “Assault Weapons” — That will likely do nothing to reduce mass violence. There are millions of these weapons in the U.S. already. Unless — perhaps, and even this probably wouldn’t make a huge difference — we want to abandon our Constitution and send confiscators door-to-door, there’s nothing we can do that’s going to make it impossible, or even very difficult, for a committed mass murderer to acquire one. Chicago, IL bans all guns and yet more Americans were shot there last year than in Afghanistan, plus, we’ve tried this (“assault weapons” ban) before — during the Clinton Administration — and guess what? Gun violence went up. In addition, the “assault” designation is somewhat cosmetic, referring to guns that look military in nature. There are plenty of other guns, for example, guns with polished wooden stocks instead of folding tactical plastic stocks, that are capable of firing equally-lethal ammunition. The main “functional” aspect of the “assault” designation is the capacity of the magazines available for use with those weapons, which brings me to the next aspect of the President’s proposals:
Banning Magazines with Capacities Greater than Ten — That will likely do nothing to reduce mass violence, but it will likely reduce the ability of law-abiding Americans to defend themselves as they deem necessary. For example, if I choose to live in a rural area here in Kansas, and if my home is ever the target of a home invasion by armed robbers, even if I have the world’s best security alarm system, the sheriff is not likely to arrive in time to do anything but investigate the aftermath of what happens; it’ll be up to me to defend my home and family. In that case, potentially facing multiple armed assailants moving rapidly in the dark under high-stress conditions, I want to be able to fire more than ten rounds. No, I don’t need a tank, because if my home is invaded, I’m not likely to be up against a tank, but I am reasonably likely to be up against “assault” weapons loaded with more than ten rounds each.
I would like to have heard the President talk more about increasing security, including armed security, measures at schools, but he has said that he’s “skeptical” of such measures, even as his own children are protected by armed guards 24/7 (which of course I support — I just don’t think that your kids are any less valuable). I would also like to have heard the President talk more about culturally returning to respect for the lives and rights of others via consistent messages at home, church, and school, but it’d be tough for him to argue that he’s highly interested in fostering those things since his policies in other respects have consistently flouted traditional values, religious freedom, and school choice. And lastly, a note about the children surrounding the President on Wednesday — each of those children, thankfully, has an infinitesimally-small chance of being shot at school, but each of those children is over $50,000 in debt at this moment, enough to go a long way toward paying for each of their college educations. So, while I’m glad that the President is interested in their physical safety, I’d like to see him express similar interest in their fiscal safety.