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The Depressing Absence of Solutions After the Thousand Oaks Shooting

(Source: newyorker.com)

Stories published about mass shooters in the days following their devastating acts of violence contain an almost rote, prewritten quality: here’s the section about previous disturbing incidents; here’s the part about prior mental-health issues; and, finally, here’s the litany of opportunities that law enforcement missed. The accounts emerging about the gunman who killed twelve people at the Borderline Bar & Grill, in Thousand Oaks, California, are no exception. The shooter, Ian David Long, was a former marine who had served a combat tour in Afghanistan and had a history of violence. People around him worried that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. Neighbors said that they heard loud arguments—and sometimes gunshots—coming from the house he shared with his mother. In April, sheriff’s deputies arrived at the home, and a mental-health crisis team talked with Long but decided not to take him into custody for further evaluation or treatment.

California has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. The mental-health specialists who encountered Long in April could have delivered him to a psychiatric facility, and, if he were deemed a danger to himself or others, he could have been placed on an emergency psychiatric hold for as long as seventy-two hours. He would then be automatically prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms for five years. California is also one of the few states in the country with a so-called red-flag law, which gives family members and law enforcement the ability to petition a court for a restraining order that temporarily bars a person from purchasing or possessing a gun—a provision that was passed in 2014, after a troubled college student killed six people and himself near the the University of California, Santa Barbara. It is unclear whether such an order was ever considered for Long, and it is one of the open questions about law enforcement’s encounters with him and whether authorities could have done more.

While retrospective analyses about where laws failed, or might be strengthened, are certainly worthwhile after such tragedies, they can also start to feel futile. The challenge, as Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Duke University School of Medicine, told me on Friday, is that the risk factors for gun violence are widely varied, complex, and nonspecific. “They tend to apply to many more people who are not going to do what you’re trying to prevent,” he said.

Balancing the rights of those with mental-health issues and the desire to safeguard the public is, arguably, the most vexing dilemma in the gun-control debate. The vast majority of people with histories of mental illness will never be violent. Yet studies, including research by Swanson, have shown that people with serious mental illnesses do pose an increased risk of violence compared to those without, and the problem is made far worse when coupled with substance abuse. The puzzle for lawmakers is that predicting violence is maddeningly inexact.

As long as the discussion about gun control continues to start from the premise that an individual has a right to bear arms, finding solutions that make an actual dent in the number of mass shootings will remain elusive. America’s current political debate on guns begins with the idea that every person should be able to have one for self-defense. As a result, access to guns is far easier in the United States than in any other wealthy, industrialized country. A recent study estimated that there are three hundred and ninety-three million civilian-owned firearms in the United States, a rate of 120.5 guns for every hundred residents, making the country’s firearms-ownership rate twice that of the second-highest nation, Yemen.

“Gun control in our country is not really gun control anymore—it’s people control,” Swanson said. “We have to figure out the people who are so dangerous that it’s justified to limit their Second Amendment right. That’s really hard to do.” Swanson contrasted the task in the United States with that faced by authorities in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan, where guns are, by law, rare. In those countries, “do people have the right to walk around with a handgun for their personal protection? They say, ‘No, it’s too dangerous.’ ” The root of the gun-violence problem, Swanson continued, “is baked into our country.”

More Info: newyorker.com

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