By Brian Kirwin
I understand the arguments and I listen to legislators and activists across the spectrum debate this issue over and over and over and I only come to one conclusion. No one knows the solution.
They know some partial solutions. They know things that they can do that might stop some people sometime and somewhere. But mostly won’t. They know things we can do that might feel like we are doing something, even if the something is ineffective, or worse, gives us a false sense of security.
I have two kids, if I can call my daughter in college a kid anymore. But my youngest is in kindergarten. When I see parents on TV discussing the issue of school shootings, I know their fears all too well.
I almost wrote the “recent” issue of school shootings, because there seem to be more and more of these incidents, except they aren’t confined to only the past few years.
In high school, I had a mad obsession with British music (and without the internet this obsession required traveling to Tower Records and ordering from the Import section of a giant yellow-paged catalog and waiting weeks before albums arrived).
I remember the Boomtown Rats’ big song, “I Don’t Like Mondays”, and knowing that it was a song about a school shooting. I never new much else, but have since learned more about Brenda Spencer, who is still sitting in prison for the school shooting she did at aged 16.
She lived across the street from an elementary school in San Diego. Her parents were separated. Friends said she wanted to do something to get on tv and she talked about shooting a cop to do so. No Facebook posts in 1979.
She was assessed by officials in the education system as suicidal and had an arrest record for burglary and for shooting out the windows of the school across the street with a bb gun. Dad wasn’t a big help. He denied permission to have her admitted to a mental hospital and gave her a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle for Christmas.
A month later, she was shooting kids outside the school across from her home.
Almost four decades ago. And if I didn’t tell you the year, it would pass for a story that could’ve happened four days ago.
Most of the media attention has focused on what to do about the weapon used. But like trying to squeeze water in your hand, most of it finds a way to slip through. The gun in the 1979 shooting was one of five million Ruger 10/22 rifles made.
The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary involved multiple weapons, but the victims were all killed with a Bushmaster semi-automatic .223 caliber rifle. All the firearms were registered to the mother of the killer, who stole the weapons, killed her and headed to the school. Years earlier, the shooter had a conversation about the weapons he had at home and the shooting he wanted to do at the school. The conversation was reported to police, but nothing was done. His parents were divorced, and the killer was suspected of mental illness, but never diagnosed as such.
The 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado was done with a 12-gauge shotgun, an M&P15 semi-automatic rifle and a handgun. The shooter was diagnosed with mental illness and prescribed antipsychotic medication. He told his campus psychiatrists he was thinking about murdering people, but when he dropped out of college, no one off-campus was alerted.
We in Virginia know well the 2017 Virginia Tech shooting, done with handguns, by a killer with a long history of mental illness problems and a fascination with the Columbine killers, who committed their infamous shooting with an array of shotguns and handguns.
This is just a sampling of the shootings that have occurred and creates a bit of a problem for those who advocate banning this gun or this rifle or this bump-stock, which was used in the Las Vegas shooting during a concert. No specific gun ban addresses all or even most of these shootings. The current message is to ban the AR-15 rifle, mainly because the AR-15 was used in the most recent shooting. Calls for banning bump stocks followed a shooting that used bump stocks. These reactionary calls to ban one specific item meet this problem frequently, in that by the time any legislation on one of these bans gets drafted, debated or voted upon, another shooting with a different weapon occurs, alerting everyone that the previous proposal wouldn’t have stopped it.
Indeed, the local focus on rifles and bump stocks was preceded by a focus on handguns and the need to ban those. The Supreme Court heard the D.C. v. Heller case dealing with a Washington DC law that banned handguns, and during the arguments, the proponents argued that handguns were the most dangerous firearm available, and since rifles and shotguns would remain legal, DC should be allowed to ban handguns.
“There is no showing that rifles and shotguns are not fully available for all of the purposes of defense,” argued Walter Dellinger in arguing for the handgun ban, and Justice Breyer’s dissent in the case carries forward the notion that since rifles are available, handguns can, in his view, be restricted without harming the right to self-defense.
The current movement to shift the conversation about bans to rifles certainly makes one wonder if there isn’t some incrementalism at work.
Nonetheless, with over 300 million guns owned in America, any ban of this gun or that gun would not address the number of guns already owned without moving to a system of confiscation. Gallup’s polling shows 71% opposition to banning handguns, and even higher number oppose confiscation of existing guns, but a majority supports a ban on assault rifles. Defining those has become a problem, and specifications and modifications make it difficult to decide which rifles are allowed and which would not be.
However, Gallup also shows as much as 80% of Americans think the failure of the mental health system is at fault for these shootings, and they support background checks. Time after time we have seen that the people who should not have access to firearms for mental health reasons find a way, either illegally or legally, through theft or loopholes in background checks, are involved in shootings that occur.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that over 43 million adults currently experience mental illness and 21% of youth aged 13-18 do as well. The Citizens Commission on Human Rights International makes the claim that over 78 million American take some form of psychiatric drugs, with 9 million being teenagers. Debates center on the effectiveness of this treatment, with a number of these highly publicized shootings involving killers who had some form of medical treatment history. And questions about side effects of some of these drugs are becoming more and more common.
As a parent, I can totally understand those who are concerned about both issues. Both mental health and how much we truly understand what to do about it, and the nightmare of deadly weapons in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.
My greatest concern is that we have this many people doing these horrific shootings that 50 years ago were a lot less common. From an incident that inspired a song decades ago to literally a mass shooting every few months, something is going on here beyond rifles and handguns. There is something culturally that has changed, and few know how to respond.
Some have called for arming potential victims or teachers, increasing school security and basically accepting that these incidents will be attempted and we need to defend our children. That doesn’t solve whatever has caused this problem. It just creates a defense against it.
It’s common to call for conversation and dialogue about these issues, but it’s not easy because the solutions aren’t apparent. I sure don’t understand the intricacies of the mental health situation in America, and whether people are overmedicated or undermedicated. I don’t know which rifle is a bad rifle and which one isn’t. I don’t know why some of our young people are so lost that either for revenge or fame they plan a massive shooting that many times ends up costing them their lives as well.
But we better learn.
Brian Kirwin is a Republican consultant and media strategist. He lives in Virginia Beach.