Disarming means & mental health

Examining various responses and solutions to dealing with gun violence following tragic mass shootings

A Bushmaster AR-15 (above) was used at the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings.
A Bushmaster AR-15 (above) was used at the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings.

Karen Au Yeung, M.A. ’13

On Dec. 14, 2012, what transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. devastated America. Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 children, aged six to seven, six teachers, and his mother, before turning the gun on himself. His weapons of choice: his mother’s legally obtained semi-automatic assault rifle and a semi-automatic handgun.

The events of Sandy Hook left the Newtown community devastated. Unfortunately, this type of violence wasn’t a onetime incident. Two and a half weeks prior to the Sandy Hook tragedy, a 17-year-old — Jordan Davis — lost his life because a man by the name of Michael David Dunn decided that Davis’ stereo was too loud, leading Dunn to shoot him. These incidents are only a glimpse into the bigger picture of America’s gun control problem.

Gun laws in the US are considered rather lenient, especially compared to many other Western countries. For example, in Canada, after the École Polytechnique shooting in 1989, more stringent gun laws were put in place. By 1995, the Firearms Act was passed, placing further restrictions on the acquisition and ownership of guns. The Act guaranteed uniformity in gun control throughout Canada; establishes a government body which oversees the authorization of gun licenses and applications was established.

The consistent regulation of firearms throughout all of Canada reflects the necessity to monitor and regulate the danger of guns. The US, on the other hand, views firearms as another consumer product; bought, sold and discussed like a new car or TV set. Different states have their own regulations on gun possession and acquisition.

Some states only require a preliminary background check. Guns have become ubiquitous in the US, as most individuals can just walk into a store and legally obtain a firearm.

Semi-automatic firearms, like the ones used by Lanza, are capable of firing multiple shots in a number of seconds. The notion that individuals can privately own these deadly weapons, without proper training and licensing, is a disturbing one, but nonetheless a reality in the US.

When comparing the statistics of gun-related crime, accident and suicide rates in the US to other Western countries, the numbers are exponentially higher in America. For example, in 2008, Japan, a country with one of the strictest gun laws in the world had only 11 gun-related homicides in total; whereas the US had over 12,000.

The numbers suggest that there is a correlation between the number of gun-related crimes to that of gun laws and private ownership of firearms. We need to at least consider having more stringent gun control laws, in hopes of decreasing the number of unnecessary deaths and injuries across the country.

While guns may not be the cause of violent crimes and homicide rates being so high in America, they are a very legitimate and obtainable means. This isn’t to say that banning guns from circulation or making it more difficult to obtain guns may completely prevent atrocities from happening, but looking at countries like Japan and Canada where there are comparatively lower numbers of gun-related incidents and stricter gun laws, the gun laws and the response to gun-related deaths in America needs to be re-evaluated.

The Second Amendment may protect the rights of American citizens to bear arms, but who will look out for the interests of the victims? The debate on gun control has always come back to the rights of people who want to privately own guns. This mentality needs to shift — the innocent individuals caught in the line of fire are those who are paying for this ‘right.’ In the politics of guns and gun control, we don’t want to forget about the mother who lost her son, the husband who lost his wife, the brother who lost his sister, and each individual who has lost their life. There needs to be a space to acknowledge the victims, and not see them just as another casualty of the fight for a certain liberty.

Karen is a Master’s student in the department of sociology.

Christian Rojas, M.A. ’13

What do Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Loughner and Adam Lanza have in common? Aside from being the latest perpetrators of gun violence in the US, all three can be categorized as mentally ill and all three also had easy access to firearms. Such incidents have generally been avoided in Canada, where policies are supportive and firearms regulated. The last recorded incident of such magnitude was the École Polytechnique shooting in 1989.

The problem of gun violence in the US can’t be blamed solely on gun control. Firearms aren’t the problem; any item in the right hands at the right time can become a deadly weapon when the situation arises. The problem actually lies in the lack of social support services available to individuals in need, living a society where inequality at different levels — economic, social, racial, etc. — is very much present. Firearms are also too easy to purchase legally.

Seung-Hui Cho — a victim of bullying at a young age — exhibited a number of odd behaviours signalling that he wasn’t okay. Cho wrote “dark” poems, stories and plays, and took photographs of the legs of female classmates. A teacher recommended counselling after these incidents, but he didn’t seek help. Two years later, Cho managed to legally obtain two handguns, went on a shooting spree at Virginia Tech and took his own life at the end.

Jared Loughner, a young man who also had a number of personal issues, opened fire against a crowd in Tucson, Arizona. He had been told to seek counselling, which didn’t happen. He was able to purchase a gun and ammunition through various local Walmart stores. Loughner was found incompetent to stand trial after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Following intensive psychological treatment, he pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges and was sentenced to life in Nov. 2012.

Most recently, Adam Lanza opened fire against teachers and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A number of sources report that Lanza was quiet, a loner, socially awkward and may have suffered from Asperger syndrome. Lanza’s weapon — an assault rifle — was purchased legally by his mother.

In a number of states, the main requirements include being a US citizen; 18 or over for a rifle and 21 or over for a hand gun; not being guilty or indicted of a felony; and have no history of mental health issues.

No law in any state is explicit in what an individual must present as proof of “no history of mental health issues.” Thus, the honour system applies. It’s then easier for anyone whose mental health issues aren’t on record to walk to the nearest shop and purchase a firearm.

The ease of obtaining a firearm and the meaning given to the weapons — specifically protection — has turned the US into a “gun culture.” Simply put, any act of violence and mass violence perpetrated by firearms can be solved by inserting more firearms into the equation — never the opposite.

The US has taken steps in the wrong direction to combat firearm violence. Instead of focusing on the way they can assist those who are mentally ill and more prone to violent or anti-social outbursts because of their condition, a number of states, including Arizona and Los Angeles have chosen to place armed police officers in schools. Other states have contemplated certifying teachers to carry concealed weapons.

The amount of resources that are going to be spent in placing armed personnel in schools could easily be spent on training teachers to better understand how to spot and address problems of mental illness. A system must also be implemented where counselling recommendations are followed.

At the end of the day, “gun culture” has produced a number of unjustified killings. It won’t solve the problem of firearm violence; rather, it will result in justifying this violence by fear.

Christian is a Master’s student in the department of sociology.

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