Eight years ago, a member of my extended family shot and killed himself with a handgun. Was his death preventable? Probably.
He had experienced post-divorce depression which morphed into chronic depression. He withdrew from friends and family, and for some time he had been missing from family functions. He was the topic of discussion, but no one fully understood the extent of his condition. What if one of us had seen or heard this message:
“Do you have a friend or relative who has both depression and access to a gun? Ask him or her to let you remove and lock up the gun while he or she gets help. This is a public service announcement.”
It is possible such a reminder would have caused us to take action, and that action might have saved his life.
Over half of gun-related deaths in the United States are by suicide. That is to say, most of the time we are our own worst enemy.
One can commit suicide without a gun, but the gun makes it real easy. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health reported, “Studies show that most attempters act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair. Once the acute feelings ease, 90 percent do not go on to die by suicide.” If you can take the gun out of the equation, and out of the apartment, you might buy your friend the time he or she needs.
In the wake of the events of July 16, 2015, I was experiencing, like most people here in Chattanooga, a confused combination of shock, sadness and contemplation.
A day after the shootings, I posted a comment on Facebook, not realizing what I was about to stir up. It read in pertinent part, as follows:
“When can we rationally discuss what can be done to reduce gun violence, save lives and help keep guns out of the hands of sociopaths?”
This elicited a number of comments, but the discussion devolved quickly into a polarized pro-gun/anti-gun argument, which was unintended on my part. I learned quickly that some people interpret the words “reduce gun violence” as meaning “Repeal the Second Amendment.” Given the current political rhetoric, such an interpretation may not be unreasonable, but it is not necessarily correct. I saw where this discussion was headed, and didn’t comment further but let it happen. Here is a sampling of those posts:
“Stay away from my rights. If you don’t want a gun don’t buy one.”
“No inanimate object can be the cause of anything! The cause of a murder is the user of a weapon, not the weapon….”
“It is totally guns… People don’t murder people with butter knives.”
I assume this next fellow ‘unfriended’ me: “Are you kidding me? Are you so far down in your political pursuits that you want to scrape the bottom of this barrel? What we need is freaking leaders, not bleeding heart liberal BS.”
This post was spot-on: “I’m not sure a rational discourse is possible in this country anymore. But we need one now more than ever.”
Let me pause by saying that the Second Amendment is not going anywhere. It is here to stay. Confiscation of all the guns is an unrealistic fear (or goal), tantamount to eliminating or confiscating all the toasters. Working within the Second Amendment, though, we can reduce gun violence. We cannot eliminate it, but we can slow it down. My suggestions entail two basic ideas: First, the actual enforcement of existing laws, and second, enhancing public awareness through public service campaigns such as the one recited above.
First, enforce the laws currently in place: The Brady Bill makes it a crime for a convicted felon to purchase, own or carry a firearm. Stricter enforcement of this provision would help disarm, or at least slow down, an obvious and known threat, i.e., convicted criminals.
The Brady Bill makes it a crime for dealers to sell firearms without a background check, but this requirement is flouted regularly by users of on-line sites such as Armslist. According to a July 21, 2015, Wall Street Journal report, “A 2013 study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that one in 30 would-be buyers on Armslist have criminal records that should bar them from owning guns….”
Both the Chattanooga shooter and the Charleston, S.C. shooter bought their weapons on Armslist. Although a background check would not have stopped the Chattanooga shooter, the Charleston shooter would not have passed the background check.
Internet middlemen should be subject to the same rules and responsibilities as are required of local dealers. In so many respects (e.g., copyright infringement, pornography, cybercrime, identity theft, fraud), the internet plays host to black markets. We can begin addressing these issues by enforcing legal arms sales on the internet.
Recent federal administrations have become selective in their enforcement of existing laws. Unless and until existing laws are changed or relaxed by the legislative process, they must be enforced. Lax enforcement, or more precisely, the selective non-enforcement of existing laws, compromises our collective faith in the Rule of Law.
Federal agencies, moreover, should communicate with one another. They often don’t. I recently handled a federal wage-and-hour case for a business client, and one of the claimants against my client was an illegal alien. The federal agent informed me that his agency does not report or concern itself with immigration issues, but only with whether the wage-and-hour laws have been violated. In other words, these federal agencies are not in communication with each other.
Next, we can reduce gun violence by enhancing public awareness: Federal and state governments have the power to turn heads and change minds through the power of the Ad Council and similar state-level agencies. Why have gun safety and awareness not been promoted through public service campaigns? The power of the government’s public message system is stronger than legislation. Teddy Roosevelt called it his “bully pulpit.”
Throughout our lives, our behavior and habits have been altered by the power of public service campaigns.
Right now on Holtzclaw Avenue, a billboard shows a dead man’s foot with a tag hanging off the toe that says, “Raced a train and lost.” If I had been tempted to race a train, I’m not now.
In the sixties, we were asked to stop littering: Don’t be a litterbug. The message became an Arlo Guthrie punch line in “Alice’s Restaurant”. My mom’s car carried a plastic “litter bag” which hung off the car’s cigarette lighter. Trash cans began to appear on every city block. People for the most part stopped throwing trash out of their car windows.
In our lifetime, smoking went from cool to uncool due to a long-term public service campaign. The Hollywood image of sophisticated smokers in films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s was hard to crack, but it is difficult now to watch “Casablanca” or “To Have and Have Not” without feeling choked up from all the smoke.
The public began to associate smoking with bad breath and bad health. By the 90s, smokers were those people who stood outside, smoking in the cold. Not cool. Once you took away the cool, it became easier for smokers to kick the habit and easier for young people not to start.
This can work on the local level as well. In the 70s, every weekend night at 11:00 p.m. a TV announcer said, “It is eleven o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” That little push was enough to remind Chattanooga’s parents to check in on their kids.
We need that public service announcement today. After the events of this past year, it is sobering that the message might be updated to say, “Is there a young person in your basement who is armed to the teeth, and have you talked to him lately?”
Wouldn’t you like to see that on a billboard?
The American Bar Association recently issued a report asking state legislatures to re-think “stand-your-ground” laws. The ABA says these laws send the wrong message and will result in unnecessary gun deaths. Stand-your-ground laws and carry permits do not change the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings that deadly force cannot be employed in the face of a non-deadly threat.
It seems a lot of people want a carry permit. On a recent radio show my law partner and I got a call from a man who said he was having trouble getting a gun permit because he is a convicted felon. “Can you give me some advice on how I can get a carry permit?” he asked.
“No,” we answered.
Even with a permit, guns are currently prohibited in courtrooms, school buildings, airports and public recreation areas; in addition, intoxication revokes one’s permit rights. Tennessee Code Annotated Section 39-17-1301 et seq. defines gun crimes and gun permit requirements. This title has undergone several recent changes, with more being proposed.
We might remind the state legislatures that the current trend of allowing gun-toting patrons in bars is a bad idea. Men plus women plus alcohol plus a gun equals a dead guy.
How can you tell if an armed person has a permit? You can’t. The weekend after the Chattanooga shootings my wife and I were in a department store, and a man in shorts and a muscle shirt was packing a .38 on his hip. Was he a good guy or a bad guy? Did he have a carry permit? No way to tell.
The frequency with which police officers are shot with their own guns brings up practical dangers. “I prefer to keep my weapons so I can protect my family”, said a lady in the Facebook conversation. But will she fire the gun in time? Instead, she runs the risk of inadvertently arming her assailant. Most people do not know they are under attack until it is too late. “And if you hesitate,” an ex-cop told me a few years ago, “you have just handed a gun to your attacker.”
I can attest to the fact that the assailant has several seconds that you do not have. I was attacked on a metro train in Europe a few years ago. I was several seconds into the altercation before I realized I was in a fight. If I had been armed, I would have been disarmed.
Just a few days ago the news reported a man killed trying to stop a wife-beating. He got his gun out of his car and ordered the attacker to stop. He then hesitated while the attacker pulled a gun and shot him dead.
The question initially posed by this article was, “When can we rationally discuss what can be done to reduce gun violence, save lives and help keep guns out of the hands of sociopaths?”
We cannot disarm, at least as long as there is evil in the world, and from all appearances that will be a while longer. But how do we avoid what presently looks like a return to the Wild West?
I do not pretend that this list is anything more than the start of a discussion:
We can offer to take and lock up our depressed friend’s handgun.
We can enforce the present gun laws and monitor and enforce legal internet sales. We should re-think the wisdom of stand-your-ground laws.
Maybe most importantly (and this is a long-term plan), we can encourage gun safety and personal responsibility through the power of public service messages, Teddy’s “Bully Pulpit”. In a nod to the Golden Rule, we can encourage people not to become the person they fear.
(Note: I wrote this article just after the shootings of July 16, 2015. I chose not to publish it at that time because of the service position I held last year with our local bar association. The opinions expressed herein are mine alone, and are not the opinions of this newspaper or of any association with which I am affiliated.
(Postscript: Ad Counsel billboards appeared a few months after the publication of this article which showed a boy with a handgun, with a caption reminding parents to lock up their guns to keep them out of their children’s hands. Probably a coincidence, but the timing was uncanny.)
(Post-postscript: This article was written prior to the last presidential election. Even considering the political polarization which has since occurred, these suggestions could still work, assuming common ground is possible even at this most basic level.)