There have been 74 multiple shootings/killings since those at Sandy Hook in New Town. I have closely studied each one, as each tells a story of mental illness, and the intent of the shooter to make others pay for his/her misery. Recently, however, a school shooting hit closer to home, as my grandson was in the Troutdale school near Portland OR when a shooter showed up 2 days ago, shot another and himself, and injured scores emotionally – perhaps permanently. My grandson is physically fine, and was protected by a brave and quick-thinking custodian who shoved him into a classroom and out of the line of fire.
As a crusader for the individual right to bear arms under Amendment Second, I have previously addressed the school shooting problem because I do not believe that Amendment protects the mentally disturbed who possess firearms. See https://lawyerchuck.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/columbine about the Columbine Highschool shootings and https://lawyerchuck.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/columbine-and-the-aurora-theater-massacre/about the Aurora Theater shootings. In each of all 74 shootings, there was an indication of mental disturbance of some nature (well-adjusted people do not often kill others,) and the shooter’s mental condition was frequently revealed to others who took no action. It seems no one wants to be involved in attempting intervention when someone is acting/posting/speaking in a dangerous and/or irrational manner. That, of course, is not true of the San Diego parents who desperately tried to get help before their son started shooting, but found none. Part of the reason is the disdain society and law enforcement hold for the mentally ill (suck it up and get over it,) part of it is the societal prohibition against seeking psychological or psychiatric counseling (man up and get going), and part stems from the reduction in civility and the reduced values which are part of human over-population. “I just don’t want to get involved” is a common stance in our over-crowded society.
I got my first firearm at age 6. So did my friends, including some girl friends. It was a single-shot .22 rifle, and over the years I shot many an elusive and rare beer can with it. My son shot it; my grandson will when he’s ready. Coming of age in Wyoming, I didn’t know any boy who didn’t have a .22. They were, as in my case, passed down in the family, and some have been around for 4 or more generations. That would be mine. On any given day in Laramie WY in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s you could find 30-40 pickups with a gun rack in the rear window and 2-3 guns in it. That’s just how things were. Firearms were tools, used to hunt game and dispatch varmints and beer cans, and everyone knew how to handle them and most knew how and what to shoot at. On any given Saturday night at Woods Landing, a roadhouse 25 miles from Laramie, the cowboys, loggers and football players would gather to drink and dance, pretty much the same as today. Fights, however, were common place, and if you wanted your face punched Woods Landing on a Saturday night was just the place for you. There were ever so many cowboys ready to oblige for any or no reason, and you might just get into one even when you didn’t want to. And that was every Saturday. I attended my share of dust-ups at Woods Landing, had a couple of my own, and witnessed scores over the years. Scores. And, the same pickups seen in Laramie during the week were seen at Woods Landing on Saturday night, with the same gun racks and the same rifles in the same rear windows. You see the relevant question (as I once told a NY Times reporter) is not “Do you have a gun in there?” but rather “How many guns do you have in there?” That’s the Cowboy Way.
The Cowboy Way also prevented anyone from going for a firearm. Period. I didn’t think about it at the time, but that was also the code of the West. You want a fight, roll up your sleeves and follow me. Bring your best game, and someone will have to be carried home. But a gun? I never saw one drawn during those fights, nor did anyone else, as it just wasn’t done. Were these cowboys better people? No, they just wouldn’t bring a gun to a fist fight. Not the Cowboy Way. We unfortunately live in a different time now, and although the mentally ill have always been with us, they are with us in ever-increasing numbers as our population expands exponentially out of control. We simply cannot allow the mass shooting to continue. We will, of course, not stop them all, but if we stop but one we will have accomplished something of real value for someone – perhaps someone, as in my case, close to you. We MUST do something.
A good place to start is universal background checks for purchasers of firearms bought in retail stores, gun shows, and private sales. Yes, I can hear the NRA calling me now, but although I have been a long-time member of that organization, they are irresponsibly wrong on this issue. The NRA is afraid of background checks because it believes that will lead to national registration of firearms. And, of course, it could, so I am clearly against registration and fully in support of the NRA on this issue. But registration is not the issue. The purchase of firearms by someone who has no business possessing one is. If you study the cases carefully, you will find that the majority of firearms which were used, to the extent their sources could be discovered, were purchased legally, although in same cases they were obtained by theft from family members. The point is that many of the firearms used by the mentally disturbed to accomplish these 74 shootings were purchased legally, as there is no effective background check at the present time. One fills out a form (ATF 4473) when purchasing a firearm which has this question: “Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective (which includes having been adjudicated incompetent to manage your own affairs) or have you ever been committed to a mental institution?” That’s it. That’s the present background check for mental illness. The form asks the purchaser if s/he has ever been nutty; s/he says “no,” and that’s it. Nothing more. Unless the purchaser is standing on his/her head and spitting cotton burrs, the purchase goes through without a hitch. That is just not enough.
I’m not sure I know what is enough, but I am pretty sure I know that background checks for mental illness past and present must be expanded and the resources created to do so. A national data base is probably the only thing which would work, as more burden cannot be placed upon the firearms sellers who have enough paperwork to worry about as it is. Today the dealer will call NCIC (National Crime Information Center) to find out if you have been convicted of a felony or are otherwise disqualified from firearm ownership. Creating a similar database for those with a history of mental illness would not be a giant step, and perhaps the NCIC database could be expanded to include that information as it is already in place and has been working for many years.
This won’t keep those who are mentally ill from acquiring a firearm if they are sufficiently determined as most seem to be. There are an estimated 300 million guns in the United States. Getting one shouldn’t be a problem. Getting one legally, however, is a problem if someone has a history and the dealer can access it. Of course all the privacy protections should remain in place, and they could. You cannot access my record at NCIC if I have one, and I cannot access yours either. So, the public would not have easy access to someone’s personal history. Those who know the potential shooter, however, can and should intervene and damn the consequences. The Columbine shooters even made YouTube uploads of their diabolical plans, but no one cared. No one paid attention. No one intervened. 12 young people died as a result, and scores of families were distraught and must now live forever with their losses.
I do not claim to have the answers. But I do claim a determination to keep the conversation going until we collectively find the answers. If we all do deep, serious and collective thinking, we will find our way out of this Dantesque horror film in which we are living, wondering if our children or someone we love will be the next school shooting victim. A good start would be to teach our children the Cowboy Way about firearms, as they are not the problem, but the people who misuse them are. Every shooter was someone’s child. You can do your part to ensure it isn’t your child or one you influence who shoots or is shot. Sound people don’t shoot other people. That’s the Cowboy Way.