At Issue: 12-Step Program for Gun Violence

Some things we can't change and will have to live with. For example, guns in America.

by / January 14, 2013
Gun shows usually require no background checks and may be a target of legislation to change that. Photo: Flickr CC/M Glasgow Flickr CC/M Glasgow

Vice President Biden will soon send to President Obama a plan to curb gun violence, and that plan will most likely focus on banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, increasing background checks of gun purchasers, and limiting violence in films and video games, among others. In response, gun sales have spiked across the country in anticipation of coming restrictions.

The 12-step motto -- "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference," -- might provide a perspective for dealing with gun violence, and the many legislative efforts to come.

Some things we can't change and will have to live with. For example, guns in America. They are with us and most likely always will be, they are a part of our heritage as revolutionaries alert for tyranny. They are enshrined in our Bill of Rights, and half of all American households have at least one firearm, the vast majority of those used responsibly for hunting, target shooting or self-protection. But as long as there are firearms in the hands of people, there will be violent actions of a few disturbed individuals. That doesn't mean that nothing can be done to reduce it. Gun violence is like disease -- very few diseases have been totally wiped out, but they have been reduced to minor problems, and we have learned how to prevent or avoid most diseases and how to deal with them once contracted.

Following the Sandy Hook shootings, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy exemplified the frustration and the need to take action -- any action -- to stop gun violence. “We don’t yet know the underlying cause behind this tragedy," he said, "and we probably never will. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.”

And Iowa State Rep. Dan Muhlbauer wants to ban semi-automatic firearms and "start taking them" from gun owners who won't participate in a buy-back program.

Right now many initiatives of Congress and numerous legislatures are "just doing something," out of frustration -- attempting to restrict school visitors, increasing taxes on gun sales, limiting ammunition purchases, etc. -- which may not affect gun violence at all.

Those hopeful that psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health or counseling professionals can spot those who will commit violent actions are likely to be disappointed. A psychiatrist recently wrote about the difficulty of spotting those who might commit violent acts, saying: "predicting future violence is something psychiatrists do poorly." And in a 2012 report called Predicting Violent Behavior, the Department of Defense also concluded, in part, that "there is no effective formula for predicting violent behavior with any degree of accuracy." 

So what things can be changed that will effectively reduce gun violence?

1. Stay alert to threats and report them.

Since the Connecticut school shooting, parents, students and law enforcement have become much more alert to potential threats, and several individuals who threatened others have been arrested. In one situation, a student attempted to recruit friends to help him trap and shoot other students. In another, a woman reported that her husband threatened to burn her and then kill students at the nearby school where she worked. Those angry outbursts are being treated very seriously now.

2. Require all felons, fugitives and the mentally ill to be included in a national background-check database; require background checks for all gun purchases; prosecute those prohibited from buying but attempting to do so; prosecute straw purchasers of guns used in shootings or crimes.

Even the National Rifle Association is pushing for better background checks of gun buyers, advocating a national database of the mentally ill. Even so, many point out that current laws are not being enforced. According to a Sunday article in The New York Times, nearly 80,000 Americans attempted to buy a firearm in 2010 but failed the background check. It is a felony for a person who is legally prohibited from buying a firearm to attempt a purchase, but of those 80,000 attempts, only 44 individuals were prosecuted. So authorities should be notified of all failed attempts, and those attempting to purchase should be prosecuted.

There's a catch, however. If the penalties for attempts to purchase are enforced, then the felon or fugitive will pay a straw purchaser to buy the gun for him or her, or may purchase privately or at a gun show, which generally require no background check. That is already a problem, and no real solution for that yet exists, although gun shows will most likely be a target of legislation to require background checks.

The convicted felon who shot five first responders in Webster, N.Y., on Christmas Eve, for example, had a neighbor buy the weapons he used. The neighbor was arrested afterward, but by then it was too late. In addition, people who are refused permission to buy a firearm are 28 percent more likely to commit gun violence after being refused than before, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. Clearly, they continue to shop and obtain a weapon where background checks are not required. And while gun shows may one day be required to do background checks, private sales between individuals or on the Internet are a different matter.

3. Require at least one armed and trained person in each school or large-scale gathering of young people.

Each second lost in responding to a mass shooter means lives lost. When Anders Behring Breivik began shooting young people at a summer camp in Norway, he killed nearly 70 until he was confronted with another weapon and then gave up. His plan was to kill hundreds. Police had a difficult time reaching the island camp, so Breivik roamed the island shooting teenagers and attempting to scare others into the water where he hoped they would drown.

School security personnel would be first choice for carrying a firearm, then perhaps teachers who already have a weapon or a concealed weapon permit and who agree to serve if needed. This is not a new or unusual idea. In the 2009-2010 school year, for example, one-third of American schools already had an armed security guard, according to the The New York Times. Two teachers' heroic actions stopped the Taft, Calif., school shooter earlier this month. The school employs an armed security guard, but he was snowed in the day of the shooting and not present. So alternates should be considered, much like substitute teachers or playground duty.

But how about shopping malls, movie theatres and so on that have been the scene of mass shootings? Will we need to arm security at any facility where large numbers of people gather? That will likely be debated in the coming months.

4. Install gunshot detection systems in high-crime areas and around schools.

Gunshot detection systems consist of a series of acoustic sensors. When a loud noise is detected, the source of the noise is triangulated and an exact location noted. Then the sound waves are analyzed to see if the source is a gunshot, firecracker or auto backfire. If it is a gunshot, police are notified as to the exact location and if the shots are moving -- as from a drive-by shooting -- the direction traveled is included. Such systems have two benefits that can save lives. First, they provide instant information. They can confirm a gunshot and an exact location within a few seconds. In tests of such systems, only 10-20 percent of gunshots detected by such a system are ever reported to emergency services by nearby residents. One could conjecture that residents are unsure of what it is, don't know which direction it came from, or are just accustomed to gunfire and pay it little attention.

Another benefit of gunshot detection systems is in preventing gun violence. Stolen weapons are often fired to test them before they are sold. And gangs planning an attack on another gang, for example, may also test their firearms. Those "confidence" shots, detected and located by a gunshot detection system, can be followed up by police. After one such incident, said Rocky Mount, N.C., Police Sgt. Kevin Bern, "We found out there were a bunch of felons in the house with five stolen guns. Three of them were stolen from addresses in Rocky Mount." Arrests were made, stolen guns were recovered and burglary cases were cleared — all from locating one gunshot.

In addition, dangerous "celebratory gunfire" on New Year's Eve or the Fourth of July for example, quickly diminished once celebrators learned that police could locate them quickly.

5. Other Resources

For more information on preventing gun violence, watch for the March issue of Government Technology magazine. 

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.