Americans and Guns: Are the Politics Changing?

U.S. public opinion is shifting towards an acceptance of stricter gun regulations, according to Igor Volsky, founder of Guns Down America and author of a new book on the issue. In a conversation with TCR, Volsky lays out a blueprint for taking advantage of the shift to go beyond what he calls merely “incremental” reforms.

Igor Volsky

Igor Volsky. Photo by Peter Dohan

Igor Volsky learned to tell the difference between what politicians say and what they do when he was growing up in the former Soviet Union.  The lesson came back to him forcefully as a teenager exposed to the debates and controversy about gun control in the U.S.

After the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Ca., (2015) and Orlando, Fl., (2016), annoyed by what he called the “risk-averse” approaches taken by politicians, he decided to form Guns Down America, a nonprofit organization aimed at harnessing the national consensus that more regulation can help reduce gun violence. He turned his policy ideas into a forthcoming book as well: Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns.

In a conversation with The Crime Report’s Julia Pagnamenta, Volsky explains why he thinks the chances for meaningful gun control have improved, why firearms manufacturers are vulnerable to a concerted campaign, and what he thinks the Founding Fathers might have made of the current debates over the Second Amendment.

The Crime Report: How did you get started in gun control and reduction advocacy?

IGOR VOLSKY: My entrance into the gun movement really started with a Tweet storm after the San Bernardino shooting [December 2015]. That came after a deep frustration that we have lawmakers who say the right thing after a shooting, or at the very least express their “thoughts and prayers” after a shooting, but do not actually do anything to reduce gun deaths. And so when I sat down on the computer the day of the San Bernardino shootings, I saw all of the lawmakers who voted against background checks in the aftermath of the [Sandy Hook school shootings in December 2012], now Tweeting their thoughts and prayers as if they cared about actually doing something to reduce gun deaths, that just made me really angry.

Probably because I came from a background where the gaps between what a politician actually said and what a politician actually does is really wide, and I found that to be the case on this issue.

So [gaining a platform] really brought me into the movement in a real way, and when I got to the table I recognized that there were lots of great organizations that were working on this issue, but they had a scope that was relatively narrow. Their scope was what can we get done in this Congress? What is politically possible in this moment? What incremental change can we secure? And I realized from my work on other issues that there existed a space for an organization that talked about long-term goals, that talked about where do we want to be in 10, 15, 20 years? And for me that point was a future with fewer guns and making guns harder to get. I got to that point by looking at all of the research. I looked at countries around the world and there is unanimity on the point of where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths.

The book is really an effort to reset the conversation. After the [February 2018 Parkland school  shooting] there is so much new energy in this movement. There are folks who are coming into the issue, and into politics, fresh, and we as a movement need to meet them where they are. The American public is way ahead of politicians on this issue, and I view it as my role as an advocate to help close the gap between the kinds of incremental reform that politicians are still putting forward and where I think most Americans are.

TCR: Is there a large discrepancy between where politicians stand on gun control and what the American public believes?

VOLSKY: Politicians are naturally risk averse. Whether it is guns, or whatever issue, they use talking points, framing, and messaging that is safe. You saw that same dynamic in marriage equality. In 2007, 2008, the country was clearly in a place where the country was ready to move towards marriage equality, and yet you had a bunch of Democrats running for office, or for the presidency in 2008, who would only go as far domestic or civil unions. They were just afraid that a mythical number of voters would drop out. The reason why I think Obama didn’t do it in 2008, didn’t do it in 2009, was because he was risk averse. The established and conventional wisdom was, you can’t go that far, you will alienate voters.

And we saw in 2012 once the president [Obama] embraced marriage equality, or first Joe Biden, nothing happened. Nobody cared because the public was already there. And I think the same thing is true on the gun issue.

[California Senator] Kamala Harris just held a town hall where she talked about background checks; where she talked about banning assault weapons. Those are all good things, we support all of those things, but it is time for lawmakers, for candidates, to meet Americans where they are; to go bolder on this issue because we really as a country have evolved on this issue. Frankly, I think the gun movement [is] where we were on marriage equality in 2007 and 2008; where Americans were in a bolder place than politicians. The purpose of the book and the organization [Guns Down America] is to move our conversation towards that bolder place.

TCR: How did your personal background influence your decision to enter gun reduction advocacy work?

VOLSKY: The reason I work in progressive politics at all is because I grew up in the Soviet Union, where you were told every single day that lawmakers were working for you, and they are making things better for you, and you are all equal/  The reality, the reason why we literally had to flee, first to Israel, and then to America was that being Jewish in the Soviet Union at that time—and I suspect is also to some degree true today in Russia—was very difficult. You were locked out of opportunities, you couldn’t go to colleges, you couldn’t get good jobs just because you were Jewish.

From a very early age [I was exposed to] the gap between what lawmakers actually say and what they do in reality. And this issue followed me to America, and so when I sat down on Dec. 2, 2015 [San Bernardino shooting] and saw the hypocrisy of “thoughts and prayers,” I [realized] I had honestly seen it before, and in that moment it really sparked an anger inside of me that I think goes back to those roots.

TCR: You write in the book that the Founding Fathers would have embraced Guns Down’s policies. Can you put this debate into historical perspective?

VOLSKY: The history here is really important. The fact that during the drafting of the Constitution and the drafting of the [Second] Amendment there was no argument about an absolute right to own a firearm, and to the extent that it was discussed, their understanding of what it meant to own a firearm really extended to the militia, not to the individual. And this notion of an individual right to own a firearm, which the Supreme Court would then find many years later in 2008 in the Heller case [District of Columbia v. Heller], that wasn’t something that we birthed in the beginning of our nation.

That is really something that came out following the revolt within the National Rifle Association  (NRA) leadership in 1977, and it came out of a multi-million dollar propaganda campaign on behalf of the NRA and the really successful work they were able to do in the legal profession through the states to build and create a new understanding of what the Second Amendment meant.

The argument that I make is that the Founding Fathers would be shocked to learn that the Second Amendment actually extended individual rights to own and have a firearm. That is certainly not the way they talked about it; that’s not the way they wrote about it; that wasn’t the debate at the time. It really evolved into that understanding as a result of a very powerful gun lobby and that of course has created a standstill in our politics and has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

TCR: You cite research showing that Americans make up five percent of the global population, yet they make-up approximately half of the world’s civilian gun owners. Are these striking figures part of an historical continuum or did a specific event or political era trigger mass gun ownership?

VOLSKY: Americans have long had a place in their culture for guns. This didn’t make it into the final book, but it certainly started as America began to expand West. Guns were used for all kinds of purposes, to clear the land of indigenous people. That was also the case during colonial days when guns were used to enslave people and exert a degree of power. That’s just the history of guns in America. And you certainly move into what was happening during the time of the Martin Luther King assassination [April 1968], and the John F. Kennedy  assassination [November 1963], and the rise of urban unrest, and how certain parts of the population responded to that with gun ownership.

What I find more interesting is the change in the National Rifle Association (NRA) that really occurred in the latter end of the 1970s. There was new leadership at the time, and with it came this notion that any kind of gun control violates the Second Amendment. That the right within the Second Amendment is far broader than past NRA leaders, than the Supreme Court, had argued, and that’s really in many ways the starting point of gun fundamentalism that said you cannot regulate my ability to have a gun. That my freedom to have a gun for all intent of purposes is absolute. That’s an idea that the NRA birthed in the late 1970s, and that’s an idea they spent millions of dollars propagating.

So, whereas before Americans had guns, [they] also understood that those guns could be controlled for the interest of public safety. You actually saw that in the Wild West days, where many of those towns actually had very strict gun control. You saw that in the way the NRA publicly thought about guns in the early part of the 1900s; that all changed in the 1970s. So part of the argument I make is that the modern notion from gun enthusiasts that the Second Amendment is absolute, and that their right to own any kind of gun could bear almost no restriction, that’s a pure invention.

The NRA invented that for two reasons: one is to sell memberships, and two is to help the gun industry sell more guns.

TCR: You write that the NRA is powerful not only because it shapes gun policy, but also because it has built a social community and identity. 

VOLSKY: The social construct piece, the social identity of the gun owner was probably the most interesting part for me as I began researching and writing the book. It was important for me to understand: why is it that gun owners are so much more likely to call their members of Congress? [Why] are [they] so much more likely to be plugged into the advocacy on their side of the issue? The NRA doesn’t make arguments around facts and figures, they make arguments around what it means for an individual to own a firearm and what kind of individual that is.

In their construct, when you own a gun, you are a great patriot, you are somebody who is living the spirit and the ideals of our Founding Fathers, and the very core of what it means to be an American. That’s how they structure all of their arguments. If you, as a gun owner, are the quintessential American who has all the values for freedom and democracy, then the opposition is the exact opposite of that.

They are building a set of values that goes into social issues. So you are more likely to have certain views on abortion, certain views of LGBTQ rights, certain economic views. It really is an entryway for you to construct an entire worldview that everyone in your community shares. That’s really the power they were able to tap into.

The gun control movement in contrast argues in a very different way. It argues through facts and figures, and through logic. As a result, it doesn’t have the same kind of emotional resonance as the other side.

TCR: You describe how common and routine it has become for schools to engage in active shooter training. How have these shootings transformed education in this country, and the training’s psychological effects on students?

VOLSKY: I am 33. I have never undergone a lock-down drill in school. The first shooting I vividly remember is the Columbine shooting on April 20th, 1999. I was in homeroom, we heard about it, we talked about it. [But] there wasn’t any suggestion that now we are going to change all the policies, that we’re going to do active shooting drills. As I point out in the book, at that point when I was in school, the percentage of public schools that had locked down drills was relatively low. That really changed after the Newtown shooting.

It changed after [Sandy Hook] because we had so many more mass shootings, because the industry had more time to advertise their military style weapons to young people, and they do that deliberately because they want an in into that market. As a result, young people are really on the front lines of our broken gun laws, and the fact is that we, as a country, have made a decision to basically let the gun industry do whatever it wants.

When I went to the March for Our Lives [March 2018] here in D.C., I talked to a lot of students and a lot of teachers about what it meant to be in a lock-down drill. It really fell into two different camps. One camp was that it was a really traumatic experience. It’s really scary, but what’s increasingly been happening—and this is both in the anecdotes I heard, but it’s also chronicled in David and Laura Hogg’s book [#NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line], and also in the movie, The Eighth Gradeis that it’s become so ubiquitous that it is now treated as a joke. This is just another thing. Even in the Parkland shooting, Laura and David Hogg talk about how in the actual shooting, when it was actually happening, a whole bunch of kids thought it was just a joke.

On top of that, you have different companies that are trying to profit from it. Having all sorts of backpacks that are bullet-proof, different vests that are bullet-proof. And so we’re in this place where we are putting our kids in danger, and we’re somehow more concerned about how to protect them from the stuff that is coming out of the guns, rather than making sure that guns don’t get into the schools, and into the movie theaters, and into the malls in the first place.

TCR: What role does American media coverage have in shaping the conversation around gun violence?

VOLSKY: What I think is important to recognize is when I started writing the book in August 2016, the movement itself was different, and the way Americans themselves related to the issue was different. Before Parkland you would walk into rooms with movement leaders, or you would walk into just general conversation, and there was a great divide between the way people would talk about mass shootings and the way people talked about everyday gun violence that plagues a lot of our urban communities. Mass shootings were always seen as a big problem that we have to solve, while everyday gun violence was barely mentioned.

As a result of the Parkland movement, and the very smart way that the leaders of that movement weaved in and connected every day gun violence to mass shootings, I think both the movement and Americans at large see the two as intertwined. As a result, I think the media is really catching up, and in many ways, closing the gap. Certainly more work still needs to be done.

In the book,  I discuss to some degree about the great community-based violence intervention programs that are running in cities across the country, like Cease Fire, and Cure Violence, and others that really changed community norms to make sure that people don’t pick up the guns in the first place. And there really is a greater recognition of that both within the general public and our elected leaders. I think we were able to make significant progress on that front.

TCR: What do you think of sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s warning in a 2012 piece in the Atlantic in which she cautions newspapers and the media against printing “detailed information about the killer and his methods” because it possibly generates a copy-cat effect?

VOLSKY: In all of my work, and certainly in the book, with the exception of the Australian chapter, I don’t talk about the perpetrators. I don’t even frankly know their names because I don’t want to glorify the perpetrators and the killers.

More broadly, there is research, you are citing some of it, into the notion that the perpetrators of mass shootings are not necessarily copying other shooters. Some of them certainly are, and some of them have admitted to it. But the other factor here is that they have a fantasy of being in a shoot-out with police, of attracting the kind of attention that these acts generate, and that’s part of the calculus of committing the crime. I have no interest in feeding into that.

TCR: In certain European countries, such as Great Britain, the vast majority of law enforcement personnel don’t carry guns. Do you think that weaponizing our law enforcement contributes to perpetuating violence in our society?

VOLSKY: Research on this shows we have over 393 million guns in circulation and that in the states with higher rates of gun ownership, the police are three times more likely to die than in states with lower gun ownership. It’s also true the opposite way. You are more likely to die at the hands of police if you live in an area with higher rates of gun ownership. That suggests our rate of gun ownership in the United States puts both us and law enforcement officials at risk. It’s also a fact that law enforcement is not immune from this shoot-first, ask-questions-second culture that the NRA perpetuates. All of these are factors that contribute to the problem.

Can we move to a place where law enforcement officials don’t carry firearms? I’ll just say that in a country with 393 million guns that’s a challenge, a great challenge. I think the policing aspect and police brutality is something that the gun control movement hasn’t really grappled with. But it is something that they are stepping into and recognizing that they are part of the same general problem that we are all trying to solve. I fully recognize that it is incredibly complex, but that our ubiquity of firearms is certainly a contributing factor.

TCR: Please describe Guns Down proposals, such as the New Second Amendment Compact.

VOLSKY: The New Second Amendment Compact is [intended to] balance our unbalanced approach to firearms, and to propose a series of proposals that will help get us to a long-term goal of building a future with fewer guns. It’s basically divided into three different buckets.

The first bucket is cracking down on the gun industry. That’s significant because the industry is highly unregulated, and made a business decision in the late 1980s, early 1990s to make firearms of increased lethality, so we’re in a situation where people are dying from gunshot wounds that they would otherwise be surviving because the industry needs to market a new, more powerful weapon. That’s a huge problem and we really need to regulate the industry in a serious way. I propose in the book that the Consumer Safety Board regulate these firearms. We really have to start with the big fish and that’s the industry.

Bucket two is making it significantly harder to get [guns]. I write in the book about all of the latest science that shows that background checks only work in the context of a larger licensing system where it takes a lot longer between when you want the gun and when you actually get a gun. When the checks you have to go through, and the hoops you have to jump through, are far more extensive, we know that works in reducing gun deaths, both suicide and gun crimes. Both domestically and internationally.

The final bucket is an effort to deal with and reduce deaths in urban environments. That’s really about funding community based programs that we know work in changing behaviors and ensuring that people deal with offenses or fights or disagreements in a way that does not include firearms.

TCR: Let’s go back to your first bucket. In the debate around gun violence reduction and control the focus is on gun owners, but in your view transformation hinges on a top-down approach that holds big industries, such as gun manufacturers, accountable.

VOLSKY: Yeah, the top down approach is incredibly important. Part of the reason why we’re in this cycle is because the industry and the lobbies changed the conversation around the Second Amendment, around guns, and these industries pumped much more powerful weapons into our communities and they have not been held accountable.

So the group I run, Guns Down America, is really focused on weakening the industry. The other reason why going after the industry and the lobby is so important is because a lot of times the solutions we talk about are focused on criminalizing the gun owner. I spend some time in the book talking about whatever our solution is we can’t go down the route of criminalizing the gun owner, which historically has disproportionately impacted communities of color, while at the same time giving the industry and the lobby a pass. We can’t stand for that, we can’t make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. That’s part of the reason why I’ve been emphasizing the industry over the user end.

See also, National Police Foundation report: “Does a Code of Silence Among Students, Parents Abet School Shootings?”

Julia Pagnamenta is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Why the Second Amendment Protects the AR-15 Assault Rifle

Gun control advocates are wrong to advocate banning so-called assault weapons on the grounds they are “weapons of war,” says a  law professor who argues such bans are based on a misconception.

The push to ban civilian ownership of so-called “assault weapons” such as the AR-15 rifle is predicated on the misconception that these weapons are indistinguishable from those used in the military, according to a law professor at Campbell University.

In a recent article published in 43 Southern Illinois Law Journal, E. Gregory Wallace argues that this misconception is caused by gun-control advocates who spread myths about the AR-15 rifle and similar weapons.

One myth, according to Wallace, who describes himself as a competitive shooter and certified firearms instructor, is that they are solely for combat.

“Any rifle can be used in war, but certain rifles are made exclusively for combat applications,” Wallace writes. “The United States military has never used the semiautomatic-only AR-15 for combat.”

Instead, Wallace notes, the U.S. military uses the M16 rifle and the smaller M4 carbine—both automatic weapons that fires continuously so long as the shooter presses and holds the trigger.

A second myth, according to Wallace, is that the semiautomatic AR-15 is designed to “spray” a high volume of bullets almost as rapidly as a machine gun, even though it and other “assault weapons” do not have such “spray fire” capability.

“This is part of [gun-control advocates’] strategy to exploit confusion surrounding ‘assault weapons’ and make courts, lawmakers, and the public think that such weapons operate like machine guns and are therefore more dangerous than other rifles,” Wallace writes.

In an unprecedented ruling, the en banc Fourth Circuit in Kolbe v. Hogan declared that the AR-15 is not a protected firearm under the Second Amendment because it is functionally equivalent to the military M16. Wallace notes that the court labeled civilian AR-15s “exceptionally lethal weapons of war” that are designed “to kill or disable the enemy on the battlefield.”

Wallace also notes that court made its decision based on an interpretation of District of Columbia v. Heller that excludes weapons that are “like” M16 rifles from Second Amendment protection.

“One flaw is that small arms such as long guns and handguns have never been nicely separated into distinct categories of ‘military firearms’ designed for the battlefield and ‘civilian firearms’ designed for hunting, target shooting, or self-defense,” Wallace wrote.

“Historically, most popular civilian firearms were designed for military use. Civilians have been buying and using ‘weapons of war’ since musket days, with little if any significant differences between military and civilian versions of these firearms.”

Washington state had the only gun-control ballot initiatives in the nation during the most recent midterm elections, and residents passed Initiative 1639, which bars the sale of semi-automatic rifles to people under 21 and to people who don’t live in Washington.

It also requires buyers to pass an enhanced background check and prove they have taken a firearms training course. The NRA is suing the state in response.

A copy of the study can be downloaded here.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Gun Crazy? No Easy Explanations for Mass Shootings

Opponents of gun control argue that better attention to mentally troubled individuals will do more to prevent mass shootings than restricting access to firearms to the general population. But our columnist argues that there is little evidence supporting mental illness as a critical factor in acts of tragic violence.

To the rest of the world and even to many US citizens, gun ownership in America seems to be out of hand. About one-third of Americans own a gun, with another 10 percent reporting they live in a home with guns. It’s believed that there are enough guns for every American to have one, so that means many own more than one.

How many guns do you need? One to protect your home, maybe one to carry with you for self-defense. If you’re a hunter or sports shooter, two or three long guns might seem reasonable, especially if they are suited for different purposes.

According to a Pew Research survey in 2017, two-thirds of American gun-owners have at least two firearms, and 29 percent own five or more. Three percent own 17 apiece, according to one analysis of an unpublished study by Harvard and Northeastern University researchers.

The Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had even more, two dozen or so, with a dozen bump stocks. Half of those he amassed in a year. Do you need a gun a month? Should that be a red flag?

Not in the United States, home of the Second Amendment to the Constitution: the right to bear arms.

When a mass shooting takes place, Second Amendment defenders such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) say it’s not a problem of guns, but of mental illness. Psychologists point out that mental illness is a far better predictor of self-harm or victimization, not harm against others.

But what if the gun ownership, the gun love, is a sign of mental illness itself?

Is the multiple-gun owner a compulsive collector, a hoarder? Probably not.

One difference between a collector and a hoarder is that collectors are choosy. They take care of their collection, display it attractively, and take pride in showing it to others. A hoarder is less or not at all selective; he or she just crams the items into whatever cubbyhole is available, and piles them in sinks, bathtubs and other spaces that serve another purpose but can no longer be used for that purpose. (One example: a book collector displays his books in a bookcase; a book hoarder piles them in his bathtub.)

By this definition, most firearm collectors are not hoarders. I don’t know of any gun enthusiasts who throw their weapons in a pile or in a sink. Most keep them clean, oiled, polished and either displayed on a rack or kept in a gun safe.

What if they have enough ammunition for an army? Not necessarily.

Some of these people do seem paranoid, afraid of jack-booted government thugs or a civilization-ending natural disaster. One site —that says you need at least 2,000 rounds of ammunition per caliber of firearm: 1,000 with which to practice, and 1,000 for when (not if) the national power grid goes down—warns that 200 million Americans will die when (not if) the nationwide power grid goes down.

But the nonpartisan firearm information site The Trace, no great fan of the NRA, explains that there can be perfectly reasonable reasons to “hoard” ammo for reasons of supply and price, not because it’s preparation for a mass shooting or rebellion.

Are gun enthusiasts actually mentally ill? Not according to Psychiatry Online, which says the idea that gun violence and mental illness are closely linked is a myth.

“It should be noted that there is no established causality between mental illness and gun violence,” DJ Schuette, a self-described “responsible gun owner “who admits to suffering from depression and anxiety, told The Marshal Project.

Schuette keeps his gun in a gun safe to which only his wife has access. He’s not worried that he’ll harm others so much as that he might take his own life, which is a far more common outcome. Of the approximately 37,000 US gun deaths in 2016, 22,000 were suicides. Fewer guns would make those deaths less likely because suicide attempts by other means—drowning, hanging, poison, wrist-cutting—are not as often successful.

Despite the lobbying by the NRA, other “Second Amendment Firsters” and politicians, mental illness is not a good predictor of whether someone will engage in violence with guns. It happens, but is rare. To the extent that modern psychiatry and neurology can determine (often post-mortem), most shooters—even mass shooters—are not mentally ill.

“The large majority of people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression are not inclined to be violent,” according to a study by Jeffrey W. Swanson. Even when they do commit acts of violence, it is is more likely to the result of some other factor such as substance abuse.

Take Stephen Paddock. A thorough autopsy found nothing to suggest he was mentally ill due to a brain tumor or stroke or early onset dementia, although “an abnormally high number of tiny deposits” that are sometimes associated with neurological disease were found scattered on the surface of his brain.

However, in an article earlier this month (at least in part hawking his own 2007 book on the subject), Grant Duwe wrote, “peer-reviewed research has shown that individuals with major mental disorders (those that substantially interfere with life activities) are more likely to commit violent acts, especially if they abuse drugs. … [At] least 59 percent  of the 185 public mass shootings that took place in the United States from 1900 through 2017 were carried out by people who had either been diagnosed with a mental disorder or demonstrated signs of serious mental illness prior to the attack.”

Maybe the difference in the two opinions is that Duwe qualifies his conclusion to include “demonstrated signs” of mental illness, which seems a little vague. The results of at least one survey concluded that “half of all Americans will qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point in their lives, while a quarter of them do in any given year.”

Not even all gun enthusiasts like the idea of blanket mental illness restrictions on gun ownership. These are better predictors, according to Dr. Renee Binder, former president of the American Psychiatric Association. A history of drug or alcohol abuse is “stronger indicator of risk” than mental illness, he said. Though he added that, like mental illness, substance abuse is more associated with being a victim of gun violence than a perpetrator.

In an essay, Brandon Smith questions ” WHO gets to decide who is mentally ill and why they are mentally ill? Will this be done by a jury of our peers? Or, by an unaccountable and faceless bureaucracy? Will the guidelines for mental illness be strict and specific, or will they be broad and wide open to interpretation?

“Once a person has been labeled mentally defective, will they have the ability to appeal the decision, or will the label haunt them for the rest of their lives?”

At the same time, Smith suggests that psychotropic pharmaceuticals are the cause of mass shootings, because “at least 35 school shootings and/or school-related acts of violence have been committed by those taking or withdrawing from psychiatric drugs” and “psychotropic drugs are proven to influence violent and even homicidal behavior in people.”

Without case studies detailing the shooters’ pre-drug-use behavior, it is just as likely that an underlying mental illness that was inadequately medicated led to the shootings.

Paddock was “withdrawing” from the anti-anxiety medicine Valium at the time of the shootings. His physician suspected he might have a bipolar disorder, but he refused to take antidepressants for it. More meds might have prevented this mass shooting.

If mental illness isn’t the cause, maybe it’s substance abuse? Alcohol, yes. Drugs, maybe a little, if the abuser also has a mental illness.

“Alcohol was a more important predictor of future violence than prior violence was,” according to Garen Wintemute, the director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, who conducted a longitudinal study which found that a gun owner convicted of a crime involving alcohol, most often driving under the influence,was almost 33 percent more likely to commit a violent or firearm-related crime.

If we deny guns to people with a mental illness, should we deny gun ownership to anyone with a DUI, too?

Of people who abuse alcohol or drugs, 39.1 percent also have a co-occurring or comorbid mental illness. Sometimes they may be trying to self-medicate the mental illness with alcohol or drugs. When that’s the case, rehab for substance abuse or mental illness alone is not sufficient, and treatment at dual diagnosis treatment centers is required.

The National Comorbidity Survey Replication survey estimated that more than 25 percent of a representative sample of 9,000 adults had a mental illness in one year. Marcia Angell of Harvard Medical School cited an even more alarming survey sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health between 2001 and 2003 that found 46 percent fit the American Psychiatric Association profile of at least one mental illness at some point in their lives.

Even if gun ownership isn’t a mental illness, gun ownership may correlate with tendencies towards anger and impulsivity. However, just over 10 percent of people who have guns in the home also have any pathological anger traits, as do 1.5 percent of those who carry guns.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy states that “Firearm prohibitions for high-risk groups — domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes, and individuals with mental illness who have been adjudicated as being a threat to themselves or to others — have been shown to reduce violence.”

Stephen Bitsoli

Stephen Bitsoli

Even that might be a bridge too far for Americans. While other nations—Australia, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom—have had some success with gun control, their solutions likely wouldn’t work in the US because of the Second Amendment, and the strong American belief that guns keep us safe and free.

If it’s not mental illness, drugs or the number of guns we possess, what is it? There are no easy answers. The cause of America’s gun violence problem may be in the American character. In some ways we still think we’re in the Wild West.

Stephen Bitsoli, a Michigan-based freelancer, writes about addiction, politics and related matters for several blogs. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Does the Constitution Protect Stun Guns?

Massachusetts is one of four states that ban civilians from possessing Tasers and stun guns. A U.S. District judge is expected to rule soon on whether the ban violates the Second Amendment.

Since its landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court has largely left it to lower courts to decide how far the government can go in regulating firearms.

Those limits are now being debated again in a challenge to a state law that has nothing to do with guns. Massachusetts, one of four states that ban Tasers and stun guns for civilian use, has become a new battleground in the fight over the meaning of the Second Amendment.

Lyn Bates spent years training herself in firearms and self-defense techniques, and helped start a group that teaches other women to do the same. But because of the ban on stun guns, she says she’s forced to choose between using lethal weapons or using nothing at all.

Lyn Bates. Photo courtesy Lyn Bates

When she first heard about the ban, Bates recalled thinking that it was “bad law that made it harder for women in Massachusetts to be safe.

“It never occurred to me that that law might be unconstitutional.”

Bates and two other plaintiffs, represented by a public interest law firm in Washington, D.C., are challenging the Massachusetts ban as unconstitutional. On the other side, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is defending the state’s power to prohibit the weapons for the sake of public safety.

The case, Martel v. Healey, is now in U.S. District Court, awaiting a judge’s decision on summary judgment.

Less than a year ago, the same Massachusetts law was challenged by Jaime Caetano, a woman who was convicted under the ban after police found a stun gun in her purse.

Caetano’s case ultimately made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the state court’s rationale in upholding her conviction was improper and vacated the conviction.

But the court did not directly address whether the ban itself was unconstitutional.

Now, Bates and her co-plaintiffs are challenging the law head-on.


Taser “Pulse” model, used by civilians. Photo courtesy Axon Enterprise Inc.

Their argument is that stun guns are neither dangerous nor unusual, a key standard under the Heller ruling, in which the Supreme Court recognized for the first time an individual right to bear arms.

Attorney General Healey insists that the weapons are both dangerous and unusual, and without any direct precedent in the colonial era. And even if they were protected under the Heller precedent, the state argues that it has a legitimate interest in banning them to protect the public.

“While they are less lethal than firearms, they can nevertheless be deadly,” the Attorney General argued in her brief.

(The Attorney General’s office declined to offer further comment beyond its briefs in the case).

Tasers and stun guns have drawn controversy in recent years, though primarily over their use by law enforcement. A 2015 investigation by the Washington Post identified at least 48 deaths that year during incidents in which police used Tasers, but called the link between those deaths and the Tasers “unclear.”

That year, a Department of Justice report found that the percentage of local police departments authorizing the weapons increased from 7% in 2000 to 81% in 2013.

Though the terms are often used interchangeably, Tasers and ordinary stun guns are actually distinct. Stun guns require direct contact and deliver a painful shock, while Tasers can be deployed from a distance and can immobilize a target for as long as 30 seconds.

Massachusetts is also arguing that alternatives to stun guns are readily available to those seeking tools for self-defense, ranging from guns to pepper spray.

For Donna Major, another of the plaintiffs in Martel v. Healey, that choice is not good enough.

According to court briefs, Major “has a moral aversion to taking human life and cannot contemplate any circumstances under which she would use a firearm, even in self-defense.”

The case is just one piece of a bigger debate that has been simmering for nearly a decade: how far should the Second Amendment go in protecting an individual’s right to bear arms?

Second Amendment law remained dormant for decades until the 2008 Heller case and a 2010 case which applied that ruling to the states. Those decisions left open major questions surrounding the interpretation of the Second Amendment, and how far legislatures can go in regulating guns.

That is typical for the development of constitutional law, according to Clark Neily, who was a co-counsel in the Heller case and is now Vice President for Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute.

With First Amendment law, for example, “the Supreme Court didn’t try to answer every question that might come up about free speech all in one case or all in two or three cases,” said Neily.

“The whole judiciary has to kind of feel its way along from that initial point when the Supreme Court says on a particular right: yes, this is something that courts need to be protective of.”

Gun rights advocates have taken those open issues to the courts in an effort to develop and expand the meaning of the Second Amendment. They have challenged laws over who can be prevented from owning guns, where guns may be prohibited, what kinds of weapons can be banned, and much else.

“I think it would be fair to say that in the federal judiciary as a whole there remains a kind of a skepticism — and perhaps a dislike — of guns and gun rights,” said Neily, while noting that there are many exceptions.

Federal courts of appeals have been divided over the contours of the Second Amendment, and until last year, the Supreme Court stayed silent over those circuit splits.

But in its first Second Amendment case since 2010, the Court took on Jaime Caetano’s challenge to the Massachusetts stun gun ban. After dispensing with the case without ruling on the constitutionality of the law, the ban is now back in court.

The Center for Individual Rights (CIR), which filed a friend of the court brief in the Caetano case, saw an opportunity this year to levy the challenge more directly.

The group has previously been involved in several high-profile cases, including challenges to affirmative action policies, the Voting Rights Act, and public employee union fees.

“The court has not yet squarely held that electrical weapons are covered by the Second Amendment, but a fair reading of recent decisions provide good reasons to think that it will, and that it will also find that a complete ban on such weapons unconstitutionally violates the Second Amendment rights of individuals,” said Jennifer Flagg, a spokesperson for CIR.

In recent years, stun gun bans in several other cities and states have been repealed or reversed.

To bring the case, CIR found Bates, Major, and a third plaintiff named Christopher Martel, an electronics sales engineer who wants to carry a stun gun for self-defense.

Bates was sympathetic to their efforts. A few years earlier, she found out about a woman arrested for carrying a stun gun outside a nearby supermarket in Ashland, Massachusetts, where she lives.


Yoni Wilkenfeld

“The first I heard of that incident I remember thinking how awful it was for her to be arrested for breaking a bad law just to protect herself,” Bates said.

That woman was Jaime Caetano, whose case ultimately reached the highest court.

“How amazing is it that a situation in my little town made it to the Supreme Court and I could be part of it?”

Yoni Wilkenfeld is a freelance journalist based in New York, covering the courts and the criminal justice system. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Preventing the Next American Gun Tragedy: One Mother’s Story

Often missing in the gun control debate is the perspective of those who worry that a loved one might catalyze the next American tragedy. In the aftermath of Las Vegas, one of our regular columnists provides a poignant example.

The attack in Las Vegas earlier this month was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, with 58 dead and hundreds of people injured. While the families of the victims and Americans around the country grieve the catastrophic loss of life, legislators and lobbyists are already strategizing how to use this shooting as a catalyst for pushing their gun policies.

Whether it is a pro-gun stance to endow schools and businesses with weapons of their own, an anti-gun position to reduce gun ownership, or a multidimensional intervention to further regulate gun distributors and invest in smart-gun research, Americans have already heard a variety of politicized reactions to the Las Vegas tragedy.

But what’s often missing in the debate is the perspective of those who worry that a loved one might catalyze the next American gun tragedy. Their anxieties make clear how helpless they feel in the absence of any framework to regulate who obtains deadly weapons in our society.

For example, a few years ago, I met a woman I’ll call “Jane Doe” during a visit to the psychiatric unit of INOVA Fairfax Hospital in Northern Virginia. I was visiting a human trafficking survivor whom I had recently rescued, and “Jane” was visiting her 27-year-old son, who was also a patient in the same psychiatric unit.

As we waited for the private security-controlled elevator to descend, I couldn’t help noticing that she was upset. Her son, she confided as we began to talk, was mad at her because she “took his gun away.”

She told me more as we walked together to the parking garage. During a conversation that lasted nearly an hour, I learned that her son suffered from bipolar disorder and paranoia.

“He thinks ‘they’ are after him and helicopters are following him,” she said.

“Jane” was trained as a clinical social worker and clearly loved her son, but she expressed a real fear that he was capable of hurting someone—potentially lots of people.


Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

Just as disturbing to her was the fact that her son was able to buy a firearm at all while he was under psychiatric treatment.

With barely disguised incredulity, she recounted how he had bought his gun in a transaction that took less than 20 minutes. Like many Americans, she was under the misconception that the background check to purchase a firearm took three days and that persons who suffered from serious mental illness were precluded from buying one.

Unfortunately, screening for mental health history at federally licensed firearm dealers is cursory at best, and background checks can be circumvented in most states through private sales.

For example, in Virginia, where “Jane Doe” and her son reside, purchasing a firearm is as simple as presenting the licensed distributer with two proofs of identification, paying a small fee, and waiting a few minutes while the National Instant Background Check System (NICS) checks for any criminal history.

The gun distributor was not required to ask her son any questions about mental illness, so the fact that he had been voluntarily committed to mental institutions on countless occasions, across three different states, was inconsequential to his weapon procurement.

“Jane Doe’s” frustration was palpable.

In addition to finding the weapon, she recovered a concealed-weapons permit from her son’s apartment. She immediately called the local police and courts and warned the agents to deny his application if he were to reapply for a weapon.

“They didn’t know how to answer my questions,” she recalled. “It was like I was the first parent to call with a concern about a gun in the hands of a loved one with mental illness. They told me the records were sealed.”

I never saw “Jane Doe” again. As far as I know, her son remains in psychiatric treatment, and I am not aware of any gun-related incident involving him.

But how many tragedies-in-waiting are going unremarked around our country?

Why do we—and the thousands of “Jane Does”—have to keep waiting for measures that can eliminate such threats before they materialize?

Helplessness should not be our fallback emotion.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a PhD in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University. She is the author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” which will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this month. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Slavery and the Right to Bear Arms

A recent Federal Appeals Court decision rejecting the District of Columbia’s efforts to restrict carrying handguns in public was based on a narrow view of precedents created by pro-slavery judges in the antebellum South, says Fordham University legal historian Saul Cornell.

In an apparent gain for Second Amendment activists, the District of Columbia Federal Appeals court last week rejected the District government’s efforts to restrict the right to carry a firearm, ruling that handgun-carry licenses must be issued to D.C. residents under the same regulations for carry permits issued in other states.

But according to one legal historian, the decision rested on a distorted view of both U.S. legal tradition and common law.

In a report for the legal blog Take Care, historian Saul Cornell of Fordham University writes that the court’s decision in Wrenn v. District of Columbia is “riddled with errors,” and was justified by a “highly selective culling of historical evidence”– notably, a series of cases from the antebellum south, where the “permissive vision of a broad right to carry” was reified over time by pro-slavery judges.

In fact, the only non-southern case cited in Wren was Thompkins v. Johnson, and it pertains to fugitive slave law. In that case, the court decided in favor of the right to travel armed because “the law of the land recognizes the right of one man to hold another in bondage, and that right must be protected.”

Saul Cornell. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

According to Cornell, U.S. courts have historically favored limitations on the public right to travel armed, and the idea that any restrictions on that right are incompatible with the Second Amendment is a “modern invention.”

“The permissive Southern view that Wrenn takes as normative was always a minority tradition in America, at least until recently,” Cornell writes.

“Outside of the South, with a few exceptions, Anglo-American law favored a narrowly tailored right to carry firearms that was limited to a range of long standing exceptions to the general prohibition on traveling armed in public.”

This summary was prepared by Victoria Mckenzie, deputy editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Silencers Aren’t Golden…But They Help!

Will the proposed Hearing Protection Act, which would make noise suppressors for firearms easier to obtain, contribute to more gun violence? In response to a recent TCR Viewpoint, a firearms expert dismisses the idea as “flawed.”

In a recent Crime Report article, titled “Why Silencers Aren’t Golden,” Robin L. Barton argues that silencers (a.k.a. suppressors) should not be made easier to get, as is the intention of the proposed “Hearing Protection Act.”

This bill, introduced last January and supported by the National Rifle Association, would amend the Internal Revenue Code to eliminate the $200 transfer tax on firearm silencers and “treat any person who acquires or possesses a firearm silencer as meeting any registration or licensing requirements of the National Firearms Act with respect to such silencer.” The bill also amends the federal criminal code to preempt state or local laws that tax or regulate firearm silencers.

While the author backs up her argument with some facts and numbers, her argument is flawed and misses the point.

Barton maintains that gun owners already have suitable hearing protection, which provides ample protection from the noise of a firearm being fired. She quotes several sources to explain why suppressors alone will not be sufficient to reduce noise of a firearm being fired to an acceptable level.

The article implies that folks firing a gun are too lazy to want to wear ear protection, and that they’d prefer to put a suppressor on their guns. Barton writes:

 Simply put, we shouldn’t make silencers easier to get just because gun owners can’t be bothered to use the hearing protection already available to them

She goes on to write that suppressors are a threat to overall public health and safety, claiming that the sound of a gun being fired is a good alarm for people to let them know there is danger and that they should call the police.

The article goes on to argue that criminals would want to use suppressors to avoid detection. She seems to imply that suppressors are bad because gun owners are lazy, and criminals want to use them for nefarious reasons.

Let me explain why this is wrong.

No one disagrees with the statement that guns are noisy. To give you an idea of just how noisy guns are: the typical 9mm pistol (one of the most common gun calibers in the U.S.) produces approximately 160 decibels of noise. That is even louder than a jet taking off, which produces 140 decibels!

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) states that when a person is repeatedly exposed to noise levels of 85 decibels or more, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can set in. This means that shooting a firearm can have a big impact on your hearing.

Earplugs and earmuffs do provide shooters with some protection from the excessive noise levels, but not enough. If you wear earplugs and earmuffs, the earplugs might reduce the noise level by 26 decibels and the earmuffs might reduce it by 34 decibels. If you wear earplugs and earmuffs together, it should then reduce the total noise level by 41 decibels.

That still does not reduce the noise level to below 85 decibels, which means more protection is needed to reduce the noise level.

The article seems to imply that suppressors are an alternative to other hearing protection solutions, namely earplugs and earmuffs. But that is not the case. Suppressors should be used in conjunction with earplugs and earmuffs. The principle is simple, the more you are able to reduce noise to your ears, the less impact there will be on your hearing.

So while a suppressor only reduces noise level by about 20 to 35 decibels, if it is used with earplugs and earmuffs, it will help to get the noise level closer to the 85 decibel mark.

I would suggest the following equation: Suppressor + Earplug + Earmuff = Better Hearing Health Protection

The second argument against suppressors is basically that criminals will use it for criminal activities and that loud gunshots act as an alarm.

If we were to ban everything that could be used for criminal activities, shouldn’t we then also ban the Internet? The Internet is after all where a lot of crimes seem to be committed these days!

If a criminal wants to use a suppressor, he or she can just search the Internet to find out how to make one themselves. There are literally thousands of videos on Youtube that will show you how to do it.

Here are some examples:

According to The Washington Free Beacon, records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) indicate that there are approximately 1.3 million suppressors registered in the U.S..

The ATF confirms in effect that suppressors are rarely used in crime. They have recommended prosecution of suppressor-related crimes 44 times per year over the last decade (that means that only .003 percent of suppressors are used in crimes each year).

In fact, a white paper from the ATF argues that suppressors should be deregulated.

Several other countries allow gun owners to own suppressors. These include many European countries such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden. They certainly do not have a gun crime epidemic as a result of suppressors.

The article concludes its argument against suppressors with this little gem:

In short, I believe that unless you’re a spy, an assassin or the like, there’s no legitimate reason to have a silencer for a gun.

Joe Bradley

I strongly disagree with that statement. Any hunter or person who fires their firearm on a regular basis has a legitimate reason to have a suppressor on their firearm, which is to protect their hearing health, as well as the hearing health of folks around them.

Suppressors are a valuable aid in reducing folks’ exposure to too loud noises. Making it easier and quicker to obtain is a good thing.

Joe Bradley is the editor of, a blog that promotes responsible gun ownership, as well as helps debunk myths about guns and gun owners. He welcomes comments from readers.