Mechanized Slaughter

The shooting Sunday night in Las Vegas is the worst mass killing in modern American history, with a single gunman killing 59 people and injuring hundreds as he fired shots into a country music festival crowd — but it’s different only in degree, and not really in kind.  Accused gunman Stephen Paddock was a little older than the norm, but he was just another lone gunman who was inexplicably motivated to indiscriminately slaughter random people for no readily apparent reason.  We’ve heard this story before.

reported-shooting-at-mandalay-bay-in-las-vegas-crop-promo-xlarge2Police officials will tell you that there is no viable way to stop “lone wolf” lunatics from launching their deadly attacks if they manage to avoid creating a criminal record, as Paddock did, and that’s the scary thing for the rest of us.  Equally scary is the lethal arsenal that Paddock accumulated and then took to his killing room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas casino hotel.  Paddock had 23 firearms in his hotel room.  (Paddock had another 19 firearms, and explosives, at his home.)  And while the investigation isn’t concluded yet, indications are that Paddock may have used an automatic weapon and modified other weapons to convert them from semi-automatic to automatic, allowing him to fire more rounds of ammunition in shorter time periods.  The devices found in the hotel room also included a stand and a scope that allowed Paddock improve his aim and better carry out his murderous intentions.

We may never truly know what set Stephen Paddock on the path to cold-blooded mass murder, and we may never be able to identify and thwart the impulses of other lone wolf killers — but it seems like we should be able to do something about the ability of a single person to amass a trove of automatic and semi-automatic weapons that could kill and injure hundreds of innocent people if that person happens to run off the mental rails.  I can understand people wanting a handgun for personal security, and hunters needing a rifle for hunting.  But there is a big difference between owning one or two firearms and owning dozens of guns that could be modified to fire dozens of rounds a minute and allow an unknown 64-year-old to turn himself into a ruthless killing machine.  We’ve got to figure out a way to prevent this kind of mechanized slaughter in the future.

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Both Eyes Blind

In the wake of the deadliest mass killing in U.S. history in which more than 50 innocent people died, in the aftermath of the terrible carnage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, you would think, or at least hope, that the country could come together.  But you would be wrong.  If anything, the slaughter exposes a country more fractured than ever.

At one point on the political spectrum, the attack is presented as all about guns and gun control.  At another point, it’s all about radical Islam.  But the two sides don’t connect.

pulse-orlando-shooting-001_custom-afcf8cd831a4547d9b4465462bcea412bd660ffd-s1100-c15The people who blame the NRA and gun manufacturers are seemingly unwilling to even acknowledge that there is a radical strain of Islam that not only has fomented the hate-filled, misogynistic world of ISIS, but also violently opposes the western world and the tolerant values we embody and is looking to bring the fight to our shores.  The people who focus solely on radical Islam, on the other hand, won’t concede that something is wrong when one man whose behavior has become increasingly troubling, and who was targeted in several terrorist investigations, can somehow acquire a gun that allows him, with a few squeezes of a trigger, to send out a fusillade of bullets that can kill and injure few more than 100 people in a few bloody minutes.

There’s a middle ground here, but no one seems interested in finding it.

On one side, people need to acknowledge that certain strains of radical Islam present a real problem that needs to be addressed.  If we allow concerns about political correctness to prevent us from even talking directly about the issue, if we couch our discussions in oblique terms about what “we” need to do as a society rather than focusing on the specific problem, how can we ever hope to develop a solution?  Emoticons and lighting candles aren’t going to change the paradigm.  And we need to recognize that the shackles imposed by our zeal to achieve maximal inoffensiveness come at a cost — in the form of Donald Trump, whose appeal for many is due in part to his willingness to break through the PC barriers.  Trump’s unseemly and ignorant self-congratulation in the wake of the Pulse massacre was a vintage example of his colossal ego and intrinsic bad taste, but his followers undoubtedly are nodding at the fact that their candidate at least is talking about the issue, whereas other leaders seem to be living in a kind of PC fantasy world.

On the other side, the gun ownership advocates need to acknowledge that we’ve moved beyond the self-protection and sportsman’s paradise rationales for American gun ownership, and technology has pushed the envelope even farther.  With guns available that allow a lone killer to shoot down dozens of innocent people in an incredibly short period of time — before even the speediest law enforcement agency could possibly hope to respond and intervene — the stakes for some kind of meaningful and rational approach to gun ownership are higher than ever.  No family looking to defend their home against an intruder, and no hunter out looking to take down a deer, needs to acquire a weapon that allows them to fire off dozens of shots in the space of a few blinks of an eye.

The Pulse massacre teaches us that we need to work on both of these issues — but first the two sides need to recognize that the two issues actually exist.  Don’t hold your breath.

Guns, Doctors, Patients, And Medical Privacy

Yesterday the Obama Administration announced some new gun control measures.  Because President Obama issued executive orders, rather than proposing legislation to be debated and approved by Congress, most of the attention was on whether the President overstepped his authority and violated the intended constitutional balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

I’d like to focus on a different, substantive element of the changes announced yesterday:  namely, changes to a federal law protecting the privacy of certain health information to allow reporting of individuals who would fall within the mental health prohibitions of the federal gun background check law.  Politico reports that the new rule “enables health care providers to report the names of mentally ill patients to an FBI firearms background check system.”  Diagnostic information about the nature of the mental health condition being treated, however, would still be subject to privacy restrictions.

handgun_collectionThe announcement of the new rule by the Department of Health and Human Services uses the kind of dense, acronym-filled administrative jargon that makes ordinary people scratch their heads and throw up their hands, and it is not entirely clear the extent to which it applies to doctors — although the HHS announcement acknowledges that a number of comments it received about the rule expressed concerns about how the reporting issue would affect the “patient-provider treatment relationship and individuals’ willingness to seek needed mental health care.”

This is a difficult issue, because we’ve seen, over and over again, the carnage that can ensue when a mentally disturbed person builds an arsenal and then acts out their disturbed fantasies.  We want to keep those people from buying guns.  At the same time, however, notions of doctor-patient confidentiality are important — most states have laws or rules of evidence that protect such confidentiality — and exist precisely to encourage people to see a doctor and, in this example, seek treatment for their mental health issues.  New rules, even permissive ones, that could interfere with that confidentiality raise a legitimate concern, because if people who might otherwise seek treatment understand that by doing so they risk being disclosed to a federal database as mentally unfit, they may decline to seek treatment in the first place.  And if physician reporting of information that would disqualify a patient under the gun purchase laws is permissive, and a physician chooses not to report a patient who fits such criteria and the patient then acts on their fantasies, can the physician be sued for failing to report?  And, if the answer to that question is yes, won’t reporting become routine — and therefore the prospect of discouraging people from receiving treatment in the first place become even more likely?

No one wants to see mentally unbalanced people get their hands on guns, and we’ll have to see how these new rules play out, but this is a very sensitive area.  If the new regulations have the effect of discouraging people from seeking needed mental health treatment, they may unintentionally compound the problem.

 

Guns, Guns, Guns . . . And Distraction

Your daily newspaper and your favorite news websites have been dominated recently by news about guns and gun control.  Since the awful shootings at the Sandy Hook elementary school, where a heavily armed lunatic murdered more than two dozen children and adults, our political leaders have been talking a lot about firearms and what we can do to prevent another horrible massacre.

In an odd way, the opportunity to talk about guns must be a kind of welcome relief for our politicians, because the gun control debate lets each party retreat to safe, time-honored positions that appeal to their bases.  Democrats understand that most of their voters will support attempts to license gun owners, register all weapons, and restrict or even ban ownership of “assault weapons” or other firearms.  Republicans, on the other hand, know that their supporters will cheer vigorous defenses of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms and stalwart opposition to overly zealous attempts to regulate gun ownership.

I suspect that all of the talk, talk, talk about guns is, in part, a means of distracting voters from other pressing issues.  Members of Congress and the Obama Administration would rather stay snugly in their gun debate comfort zones than deal with the spending, tax, and budget deficit issues that have far more long-term significance for our country.  With all the talk about guns, how much discussion of those core economic issues have you heard recently?  When those issues are in the forefront, and feet are being held to the fire, there are no easy, pat answers and no rote appeals to political bases.

As terrible as the Sandy Hook shootings were, we shouldn’t let our political leaders divert our attention from the federal debt time bomb and other issues that are restraining our economy.  Yesterday we received an unpleasant reminder of these problems when it was announced that gross domestic product dropped in the fourth quarter of last year.  Imagine:  our economy actually shrank during the hottest shopping season of the year.  It’s time we remind Congress and the President of the paramount need to focus on the hard budget and economic issues, before our economy plunges into another recession.

The Easton Shooting

It was a busy Saturday night at the upscale Easton Town Center on the weekend before Valentine’s Day.  The place was crowded with shoppers.  A dispute among young people apparently started in the Easton Apple Store and spilled outside.  And then, a few blocks away, the dispute culminated in bloodshed when a 15-year-old boy was shot and critically wounded.

The wounded boy’s 16-year-old brother was charged with the crime, and when the wounded boy died his brother was charged with murder.  The stories of what actually happened aren’t clear or necessarily consistent.  Apparently the boys were with a group that encountered another group.  There was an argument.  When the argument started to escalate, the shooter pulled his gun and fired.  One news reports quotes his father as saying the boy intended “to shoot in the air to get the tension away from them,” but someone hit his arm and he fired into the crowd instead.  Now, the defense attorney says he has witnesses who say another juvenile also drew a gun and fired.

This is an unnerving story, and not just because I’ve been in the Easton Apple Store on many occasions and have walked past the area where the shooting occurred on a busy weekend night.  The story strikes a deeper chord because two fundamental questions are presented.  First, how did the 16-year-old get a loaded gun, and did he just carry it around with him as a matter of course?  (And if there was another juvenile shooter, as the defense attorney claims, how many kids walking around shopping areas these days are armed to the teeth?)  And second, why would this 16-year-old think that firing a gun into the air was an appropriate way “to get the tension away from them”?

We have laws that would not permit a 16-year-old to have and carry a gun, but this boy (and perhaps others) had one, anyway.  And he used it in a way that shows an appalling casualness about the potentially lethal consequences of firing a handgun.  He will be tried, and the jury will render a verdict on whether he committed murder.  But will we ever learn the deeper back stories that really caused this incident?