Local protagonists: No simple cure for gun violence

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YARMOUTH — A man carrying a loaded assault rifle through downtown Portland on Christmas Eve prompted dozens of calls to police and was quickly condemned by virtually every group involved in gun and public safety issues, including gun advocates.

Jeff Weinstein, a Yarmouth resident and president of the Maine Gun Owners Association, said the man’s midday stroll was not only insensitive, considering the recent mass-murder of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., but was also an abuse of the law that allows people to carry guns in public.

“Virtually every gun owner finds carrying a loaded rifle around town offensive and unnecessary,” Weinstein said last Friday. “The intent of the open-carry provision applies to someone carrying a handgun in a holster, not displayed in your hand or handled in a way where immediate use seems imminent. Carrying a rifle, purportedly for self-defense, is not a wise idea. It will only offend people unnecessarily.”

This behavior does not represent the typical behavior of the majority of gun owners, he said.

Still, Weinstein said people should be allowed to own an assault rifle like the one used in the Connecticut mass-killings, known as an AR-15, noting it’s commonly used by hunters to kill small game like rodents, squirrels and coyotes.

“It’s a very accurate firearm and the bullet is small,” he said. “It’s very fast and it has an excellent reputation among gun owners as accurate and reliable.”

But, he said, more consideration should be given before people can buy similar or more powerful weapons, through the use of extensive background checks that would help prevent people with mental illnesses from owning weapons.

Although mental health has come to the forefront in the discussion about gun violence in America, it’s important to not focus too heavily on mental health as the main culprit behind gun violence, said Dr. Marc Kaplan, an osteopathic physician and medical director at Sweetser, the mental health services provider.

“People with mental illness are statistically much more likely to be the victim of violence then the perpetrators,” Kaplan said, noting that only a small percentage of violence in America, particularly gun-related murders, can be linked to mental illness.

The reality of the situation with concern to gun violence, Kaplan said, is that the overwhelming majority of people using guns to murder others aren’t mentally ill, and do so for a variety of reasons, from socioeconomics to crimes of passion.

The danger, Kaplan contends, stems from access.

“From a public health standpoint,” he said, “most ethical physicians are in awe of the fact that an average citizen can go out and buy a highly automated killing machine.”

Despite the focused attention on the mentally ill, Kaplan said limiting access to the mentally ill could help people from getting hurt, but it’s not going to solve the problem mass murderers using guns to kill people.

Limiting access to the mentally ill also proves difficult to enforce.

And although a program to join mental health records with background checks already exists in Maine, federal funding to implement the program has never come through, said Karen D’Andrea, executive director of Maine Citizen’s Against Handgun Violence.

Background checks also don’t account for the people who obtain the guns illegally, she said.

In fact, about 1.4 million guns, or an annual average of 232,400, were stolen during burglaries and other property crimes in the six-year period from 2005 through 2010, reviewed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

D’Andrea’s organization is supporting efforts, as it has in the past, to reinstate a ban on the sale of guns like the AR-15.

“We just don’t see any reason for civilians to have assault weapons,” she said.

In addition to the ban, D’Andrea said they would like to see universal background checks when guns are being sold and restrictions on the use of high-capacity magazines.

Weinstein and D’Andrea agree gun control is not the only way to limit gun violence, both noting that other factors within American society play crucial roles.

“Gun violence is multifaceted. It’s complex, and not just one or even two things, but a combination of things,” D’Andrea said. “We live in a culture where guns are readily available, easy to obtain and in great numbers. Will all guns laws stop the killers and bad guys? No. But it’s better to stop some than none at all.”

Owning an assault rifle, or any other type of firearm, is important for personal safety and hunting, Weinstein said, although restrictions on more powerful weapons should be considered.

“I don’t think anyone should own an operational bazooka or a tank,” he said. “When you get into the bigger stuff, that’s a different story and not addressed at all under the Second Amendment.”

Although Weinstein said larger, more powerful weapons should be considered for some regulation, part of the solution to keeping people safe is more guns, not less.

“I think it’s a terrific idea to have a limited number of teacher or administrators with significant training to carry a weapon,” he said, echoing similar calls from the National Rifle Association. “If someone comes crashing in with an automatic weapon or doing some other violent activity, they would be the first line of defense.”

The best thing that can be done from a mental-health standpoint is to improve the early identification programs, Kaplan said, noting that trustworthy information is sometimes hard to come by.

“Our information is only as good as the honesty of the answers people give us,” he said, noting that it’s unlikely the recent killers would have disclosed information about gun ownership due to the thoughtful planning ahead of their attacks. “A standard part of our examination for any patient is asking if they ever have thoughts of killing others or harming other or themselves, but we can only go on what other people are telling us.”

Profiles of people who commit high-profile mass-killings are often the same: young, white, male loners from suburban neighborhoods. But, Kaplan said, focusing too closely on that group would also be wrong.

“Suburbia isn’t rosy for everybody,” he said, referring to bullying at schools as another common element in the environment of these recent shooters. “If you lined (the recent shooters) all up, they tended to be loners, had access to weapons and were socially kind of inept. But again, we could fill up Madison Square Garden hundreds of times with people who have the same problems, but they’re not killers.”

“Again, it speaks to a different kind of violence,” Kaplan continued, noting that the mass shooters almost universally commit suicide after going on a spree. “Gangbangers don’t kill themselves, but these guys kill themselves, it’s a really different profile. It represents a very, very small portion of gun violence in America. Drive-by shootings kill more school-aged kids, or they’re killed in context of domestic violence at home, I think there’s a lot more of them.”

The culture of violence in America, from violent video games and movies to state-sanctioned violence, like war, is vital, albeit complex, in producing the people that  decide to commit massacres, D’Andrea said.

“Does our militarization play a role in it? Probably. Just as I can say violent games play a role in it. … But do they play a role in all shootings? No,” she said. “So, yes, if you start piling up all these various aspects about how violence enters our culture we have to take a look at all of these. We teach our kids from the minute they step into their first pre-K class to use their words to sort out their arguments. But, in our society, how we solve the problem is whipping out the gun.”

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow Will on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.