The Gun Problem Is Guns, Especially Semiautomatic Guns

Predictably, since Trump promised to really truly fix the Gun Problem he has pursued nothing but red herring solutions, namely arming teachers and doing something about “mental health.”

I’ve already written about the widespread but mistaken belief that school shooters are all “mentally ill.” Trump seems to think it would be easy to just round up the “mentally ill” people and lock them up in hospitals.  “We’re going to be talking about mental institutions. And when you have some person like this, you can bring them into a mental institution, and they can see what they can do. But we’ve got to get them out of our communities,” the president said during a meeting at the White House with state and local officials.

I don’t know who he thinks is going to pay for those mental hospitals, but never mind. It wouldn’t work, anyway.

In the 1960s, states across the country began to close or shrink mental hospitals after a series of court decisions that limited the powers of state and local officials to commit people. The decline continued for decades, in part because of cuts in both state and federal budgets for mental health care.

Those institutions housed people with severe mental disorders, like schizophrenia, who were deemed unable to care for themselves. And while spree killers may be angry and emotionally disordered, few have had the sorts of illnesses that would have landed them in hospital custody.

The latest school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19, was clearly troubled and making threats, and he was stockpiling weapons. But he had no mental diagnosis. He has been described as angry, possibly depressed, perhaps isolated — not so different from millions of other teenagers.

A full psychiatric evaluation, if he’d had one, might have resulted in a temporary commitment at best, but not full-time institutionalization, experts said.

The idea that more such institutions would prevent this kind of violence “is ridiculous, because you can’t put half the people in the country with a mental disturbance in mental hospitals,” said Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University who has studied mass killers.

It’s also the case that the law put up a lot of barriers to committing people to mental institutions against their will. It used to be too easy to commit people who were more inconvenient than disturbed. Although there’s no question we need much better mental health services in this country, it shouldn’t be the job of the health care system to warehouse people who might be potential criminals. That’s taking us into dystopian “Minority Report” territory.

The quoted article goes into an analysis of recent mass shooters and whether a “mental health” filter would have prevented them from shooting. Most had no known “mental health” issues that would have gotten them hospitalized even overnight. Even the Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza, who clearly was not all there, was not considered a candidate for hospitalization after a psychiatric evaluation at the Yale School of Medicine. Most others — including Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, Elliot Rodger, Dylann Roof, and Stephen Paddock — were angry and anti-social to varying degrees but not suffering anything that would have gotten them hospitalized even overnight. Whether any of them were “mentally ill” and not just maladjusted depends on how you define “mental illness,” actually. The exceptions were Jared Loughner and James Holmes, who were psychotic and who *might* have qualified for commitment, had there been beds available. But you never know.

But let’s look at this from another angle. We are told incessantly that “if you see something, say something.” Apparently a lot of people were saying something about Nickolas Cruz. He was very angry and very anti-social, and had collected several weapons — including an AR-15 and an AK-47 — most of which had been purchased legally. The New York Times has a story about all the warnings about Cruz that people called in to authorities, and it’s chilling stuff. Some of the people warned authorities explicitly that he might shoot up a school. He had an out-of-control temple, was threatening and violent, and he was stockpiling weapons. The signs were crystal clear this guy was dangerous.

But, in the end, there was little law enforcement could do because they had no authority to confiscate his guns.

Yep, until you’ve actually committed a crime, you are officially a law-abiding citizen, and your legally purchased firearms may not be taken from you. It doesn’t matter how angry and threatening you are.

The Associated Press reported this week:

Only five states have laws enabling family members, guardians or police to ask judges to temporarily strip gun rights from people who show warning signs of violence. Supporters of these measures, deemed “red flag laws” or gun-violence restraining orders, say they can save lives by stopping some shootings and suicides.

Florida is not one of those states. The article says that California enacted such a law after Elliot Rodger went on a woman-hating shooting spree. The article identifies Rodger as “mentally ill,” but you can find plenty of mental health experts disputing that. However, it’s a fact that Rodger’s parents called authorities to do something about their son, who had made violent threats online, but when police actually went and talked to him they decided he was harmless. One wonders if the Elliott Rodger law would have stopped Elliot Rodger.

And Adam Lanza’s mother actually encouraged her son to shoot guns, because she thought of shooting as something fun they could do together. She was the first one he killed.

Even so, if the cops could have confiscated Nicholas Cruz’s firearms (assuming they would have, or that he didn’t have a few stashed out of sight) that might have stopped him. So that’s something.

The problems with putting all “mentally ill” people into some database so that they are blocked from purchasing firearms is that (a) this would stop very few mass shooters, and (b) this could discourage people from seeking psychiatric help for fear of ending up in a government database.

Some states are stripping gun rights from people who have been convicted of domestic violence or stalking, both of which are big red flag behaviors. This is a fairly obvious move that should have been done nationwide years ago, but of course the NRA objects.

The NRA’s solution for domestic violence is, of course, to arm women. The problem with this is that when women do eventually shoot and kill an abusive partner, most of the time she’ll get convicted for manslaughter. It’s also the case that in the real world, women are sometimes shot with their own guns. There’s all kinds of data showing than women who live with abusive men are much more likely to be murdered when there’s a gun in the house — no matter who owns it — than if there isn’t. Of course, the obvious solution is to not live with abusive men, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.

And then there’s arming teachers. The only people who think that’s a good idea are those who learned everything they know about active gunfire situations by watching Fast and Furious movies. Those with real-world hostile gunfire experience — like war veterans and cops — think it’s a terrible idea.

“Shooting under stress is extremely difficult. Even for the most well-trained shooters,” Jay Kirell, an Afghanistan veteran who has written about difficulties veterans face in civilian life, tweeted. “A teacher is not going to be able to do this. Cops & soldiers literally get paid to do this & most of them can’t shoot accurately under stress.”

“Not because they suck, but because it’s nearly impossible to hit a target in one shot when pumped full of adrenaline,” Kirell added. “And if you’re in a school with a shooter and dozens of children, if you’re not shooting accurately you’re just creating crossfire.”

And let’s talk about the practicalities of keeping firearms in classrooms where they will be quickly available to the teacher in case of a shooter in school, but where the students can’t ever get it. Don’t make me laugh. And that’s assuming that the teacher doesn’t have a few screws loose and shouldn’t be trusted with a firearm. Or, what happens when the cops show up at an active shooting situation and see the armed math teacher, who happens to be a black man?

I realize part of the appeal of the “arming teachers” arguments comes from belief in the Magic Firearm that will dissuade shooters just be being there. There is no evidence that shooters choose targets just because they are allegedly “gun free zones.” Several mass shootings — Las Vegas comes to mind — have taken place where guns were completely welcome. And since most mass shooters kill themselves as the police close in, one assumes they aren’t afraid to die.

Let’s review what we’ve covered so far — the solution to the Gun Problem is to lock up “mentally ill” people wholesale whether they’ve been convicted of anything or not. The answer is to report scary people to authorities, who presumably will haul them away. The answer is to turn schools into armed fortresses. The answer is to put the names of mentally ill people into data bases so they can be singled out.

Does anyone else see the pattern here? We’re basically penalizing people wholesale so that a minority of Americans can own and carry any damn fool firearm they want. Why is that?

Now I’m hearing that the gun problem is not a gun problem, because more Americans used to own guns than they do now and there didn’t use to be all these mass shootings. Which is true. The percentage of Americans who own firearms has slowly declined over the years. And I can remember in the 1960s a lot of the boys in my high school owned guns, and no one worried about school shooting. But most of those guns were bolt-action .22 caliber (or not much larger) rifles, which were used mostly to shoot cans and squirrels. They weren’t AR-15s and AK-47s.

Semiautomatic firearms have been available for civilian purchase since the 1960s but were not widely owned until the 1980s, this article says. Ironically, it was a 1989 school shooting that opened the floodgate.

Civilians started to be able to buy the weapons shortly after they were developed for the military, but Chivers argues that doing so was still relatively uncommon. Many American gun-owners didn’t know or didn’t think about the option of owning a semiautomatic weapon.

That changed after a shooting at a Stockton, Calif., elementary school on Jan. 17, 1989, that left 5 dead and 29 wounded.

“Before Stockton, most people didn’t know you could buy those guns,” Chris Bartocci, a former employee of AR-15 manufacturer Colt and author of Black Rifle II, told CNN. He argues that people went out and bought the weapon after reading and hearing the news reports about the school shooting.

The Feb. 6, 1989, TIME cover story tried to make sense of how the gunman got a hold of a Chinese-made semiautomatic weapon in the first place. It reported that as trade increased following the normalization of relations, so did imports of Chinese copies of the AK-47, “which soared from a mere 4,000 a year as recently as 1985-86 to more than 40,000” in 1988. AR-15 sales went up too.

I couldn’t find current numbers on annual sales of semiautomatic weapons, but today semiautos, both long guns and hand guns, are the most popular in terms of sales. (For those of you who are new here and wonder why I’m not talking about automatic weapons, see Know Your Gunz.)

Now, if you listen to the gun, um, enthusiasts, you would think that America’s Freedom depended on nothing else but the ability of private citizens to purchase semiauto firearms. But if we’re waxing nostalgic about what’s changed, and why was it okay for boys to own guns years ago and not now, the difference is technology. It’s the relatively recent proliferation of semiautomatic firearms in private hands in the U.S. that puts us all in danger.

Yes, you can shoot people with bolt-action rifles, too. But not as many people as quickly. And I also think there’s something about the semiautos, especially the ones that look like bad-ass military weapons, that are compelling males with issues to pick them up and shoot them into other human beings. It’s the very act of sending all that metal into flesh that promises catharsis and resolution, somehow. Back in the day, if a young man needed to do something reckless to prove his masculinity and resolve his grievances, he’d harass and assault girls (which isn’t okay, either) or get into fistfights or drive cars too fast (ditto). Acting out Rambo fantasies by shooting up one’s schoolmates is relatively new, but one suspects the fantasy requires a semiauto weapon. A bolt-action .22 caliber rifle just won’t do.