Prosecutors Against Gun Violence

by Joyce Dudley, Santa Barbara County District Attorney 

Last year I joined the newly organized group of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence (PAGV). This group is principally made up of elected District Attorneys from across the country, primarily from major cities.

PAGV’s mission is to focus on gun violence prevention strategies ranging from policy advocacy to improved enforcement of existing laws.

Our first meeting was held in Atlanta, Georgia. At that meeting there were several excellent presentations on gun violence relating to a variety of topics including: Mental Illness, Trafficking Weapons, Domestic Violence, Legislation, and Mass Murders. At the end of that meeting we decided to create two future summits, one that focused on the nexus between gun violence and mental illness and the other on the link between gun violence and domestic violence.

Last week we met in Miami to discuss the nexus between gun violence and mental illness. I was one of the conference organizers. My role was to interview potential presenters. I interviewed and was most impressed by David A. D’Amora and Harold I. Schwartz. David is the Director of the National Initiatives Council of State Governments Justice Center in NYC. Harold is the Psychiatrist-in-Chief at The Institute of Living at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Harold also co-authored the Sandy Hook Report.

Mr. D’Amora explained that clinicians and policymakers who seek ways to reduce violence need to pay greater attention to demographics like age and gender. He also felt massive cuts to mental health care have impacted our ability to intervene early for those showing the beginning signs of mental illness. He additionally believes that we must protect against over-reaction and not leap to the false conclusion that there is a strong correlation between mental illness and gun violence. Finally, Mr. D’Amora reminded our audience to think beyond psychiatric diagnoses by prioritizing interventions that directly address trauma, substance abuse, anger, work, education, family discord, social isolation, and other criminogenic factors.

Dr. Schwartz was also deeply concerned about the lack of treatment for those suffering with mental illness but felt the criminal justice system should focus its attention on evidence-based risks such as: individuals who are convicted of violent misdemeanors; those subject to a temporary domestic violence restraining order; those convicted of two or more DUIs within five years; and, finally, those convicted of two or more controlled substance misdemeanors within five years.

Although not a speaker interviewed by me, I found Dr. Charles Nemeroff’s presentation to be the most illuminating. Dr. Nemeroff, Chairman of the University of Miami Department of Psychiatry, spoke about the strong link between those who were abused as children and those who later become perpetrators of violent crimes.

I came away from the most recent conference confident my office is on the right path by rigorously prosecuting child abusers, drug dealers, and those with relevant prior offenses, while at the same time vigorously supporting the efforts of those who seek treatment for trauma and addiction. I also felt proud of the fact that the laws and programs we have created in California are among the best, but are mere dreams for many prosecutors from other states. Still, we in California must continue to support our state legislators’ efforts to reduce gun violence in every way we can and to remain vigilant in our efforts to both educate and intervene whenever possible.

Mental Illness and Gun Violence

“… the data could support ‘dangerous persons’ gun removal laws, like those in Connecticut and Indiana, or a ‘gun violence restraining order’ law like California recently enacted. Such laws give family members and law enforcement a legal tool to immediately seize guns and prevent gun or ammunition purchases by people who show warning signs of impending violence.”

We need to stop talking just about the gun and address the reasons why individuals who have access to firearms hurt themselves or others.

Excerpts from a Duke, Harvard, and Columbia analysis appear in a special issue of the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, focusing on mental illness and gun violence.

An estimated nine percent of adults in the U.S. have a history of impulsive, angry behavior and have access to guns, according to a study published this month in Behavioral Sciences and the Law. The study also found that an estimated 1.5 percent of adults report impulsive anger and carry firearms outside their homes.

Angry people with ready access to guns are typically young or middle-aged men, who at times lose their temper, smash and break things, or get into physical fights, according to the study co-authored by scientists at Duke, Harvard, and Columbia universities.

Study participants who owned six or more firearms were also far more likely than people with only one or two firearms to carry guns outside the home and to have a history of impulsive, angry behavior.

“But now we have more evidence that current laws don’t necessarily keep firearms out of the hands of a lot of potentially dangerous individuals.” The study found little overlap between participants with serious mental illnesses and those with a history of impulsive, angry behavior and access to guns.

“Gun violence and serious mental illness are two very important but distinct public health issues that intersect only at their edges,” said Jeffrey Swanson, Ph.D., professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke Medicine and lead author of the study. Researchers found that anger-prone people with guns were at elevated risk for a range of fairly common psychiatric conditions such as personality disorders, alcohol abuse, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, while only a tiny fraction suffered from acute symptoms of major disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Fewer than one in ten angry people with access to guns had ever been admitted to a hospital for a psychiatric or substance abuse problem, the study found. As a result, most of these individuals’ medical histories wouldn’t stop them from being able to legally purchase guns under existing mental-health-related restrictions.

Ronald Kessler, Ph.D., professor of health care policy at Harvard and principal investigator of the NCS-R survey, and Dr. Swanson, reason that looking at a prospective gun buyer’s history of misdemeanor convictions, including violent offenses and multiple convictions for impaired driving, could be more effective at preventing gun violence in the U.S. than screening based on mental health treatment history.

As for those who already own or have access to firearms, the researchers suggest the data could support “dangerous persons” gun removal laws, like those in Connecticut and Indiana, or a “Gun Violence Restraining Order” law that California recently enacted. Such laws give family members and law enforcement a legal tool to immediately seize guns and prevent gun or ammunition purchases by people who show warning signs of impending violence.

Credit: Shawn Rocco/Duke Medicine. The 2014 survey was conducted March 31 to Oct. 11, 2014, among 2,538 American adults. 

Safer in your home with a firearm, or in your vehicle with seat belts and airbags?

The Violence Policy Center’s (VPC) annual report states that gun deaths outpaced motor vehicle deaths in 14 states and the District of Columbia in 2011, the most recent year for which comprehensive nationwide data is available. In 2011, there were more gun deaths than motor vehicle deaths in the following states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington State, as well as the District of Columbia. Data is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and is the most recent available to compare death rates from both products.

In his New York Times article (7-31-14), regarding vehicle deaths, Nicholas Kristof said, “We’ve reduced the fatality rate by more than 95 percent — not by confiscating cars, but by regulating them and their drivers sensibly.” In this fascinating parallel, Kristof informs us that early efforts to require driver’s licenses, set speed limits or register vehicles were met with resistance. It wasn’t until the 1920s that courts routinely accepted driver’s license requirements, car registration and other safety measures. In today’s world regulations on auto designs and safety measures ranging from drunk drivers to restrictions for teenagers have proved to be effective and essential.

This is the third year the VPC has issued its annual report comparing gun deaths to motor vehicle deaths by state. Gun deaths include gun suicides, homicides, and fatal unintentional shootings; motor vehicle deaths include both occupants and pedestrians.

More than 90 percent of American households own a car while little more than a third of American households have a gun. In 2011, there were 32,351 gun deaths and 35,543 motor vehicle deaths nationwide. As a comparison, in 1999, there were 28,874 gun deaths and 42,624 motor vehicle deaths nationwide.

“Firearms are the only consumer product in America not regulated by the federal government for health and safety. Meanwhile, motor vehicle deaths are on a steady decline, thanks to decades of public health-based injury prevention strategies and proven consumer product safety regulation standards designed to reduce death and injury. Gun violence is a public health crisis with an unacceptable toll on human life. … To reduce gun death and injury, firearms must be regulated for health and safety just as we regulate motor vehicles and all other consumer products.” states VPC Legislative Director Kristen Rand.

In 1965 Ralph Nader shocked America with his book, “Unsafe at Any Speed.” This exposé of the American automobile industry’s disregard for consumer safety became a best seller that electrified the consumer advocacy movement. “Unsafe at Any Speed” showed how the automobile industry consistently ignored and even covered up the dangers their products posed for the public. The public outrage encouraged the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, which created a regulatory agency empowered to set design standards for automobiles.

Kristof points out that, “The NRA supported reasonable gun control for most of its history and didn’t even oppose the landmark Gun Control Act of 1968. But, since then, most attempts at safety regulation have stalled or gone backward, and that makes the example of cars instructive.”

With gun deaths outpacing vehicle deaths in 14 states, approximately two-thirds of the non-gun owning public is hoping and waiting for someone like Ralph Nader to take on the gun industry.

Ed. Note: The full report can be read here: http://www.vpc.org/studies/gunsvcars14.pdf 

UC Santa Barbara: DIVEST FROM GUN MAKERS!

The organization Campaign to Unload has started a PETITION to the University of California Board of Regents and President of the University of California Janet Napolitano, which says:

“Students and faculty at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) are understandably shocked by the hate-filled rampage of a UCSB student Friday night, in which six UCSB students were killed and 13 wounded just off campus. America mourns with the families and we embrace the responsibility to work together to stop this madness. “Not one more,” as Richard Martinez, father of 20-year-old Christopher, one of the students who was killed, heartbreakingly challenged us. We are up to the challenge. 

“To that end, we call on the University of California Board of Regents to examine whether the system’s $88 billion endowment is contributing to more senseless destruction by being invested in companies that profit from gun violence, obstruct commonsense gun legislation, and fund the NRA. University endowments led the way in divesting from apartheid South Africa and should do so again in divesting from the gun industry. 

“There have been 72 shootings on school campuses since the Sandy Hook massacre. We cannot afford to invest in gun companies. We are paying too high a cultural price to financially benefit from stock prices that climb even as our young people fall. The University of California, where this latest horror occurred, should stand with its community and ensure that it is not funded with the blood money from these killings. The UCSB community is grieving, but there is a way to stop the madness: divest.”

SIGN PETITION!

Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG)

Mayor Helene Schneider, a member of MAIG, forwarded this announcement, parts of which have been excerpted below. 

When we started Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) in 2006, we knew that building a movement of like-minded mayors and citizens wouldn’t happen overnight. The gun lobby had a multi-decade head start, and we understood that creating a strong coalition that could compete with their resources would require time, money, and grassroots engagement.

Continue reading “Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG)”

America’s Gun Violence Culture: The New Normal?

Americans cannot allow gun violence to continue to happen in towns across the country at the frequency it is occurring, and to the degree in which it’s now being considered the “new normal.” Instead use the empathy and compassion expressed by many as inspiration in the continuing growth of our community. We must understand that killing our fellow human beings is not an acceptable response to anger or resentment.

At the UCSB vigil May 24, 2014, we lit candles in solidarity for the pain and suffering felt by families and friends who lost loved ones the day before, giving strength in response to senseless violence with compassion. We are grateful for the millions who choose to respond to the vicissitudes of life not with hate and confrontation but with knowledge and understanding.

Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence responded to the Isla Vista tragedy:

“Neither current federal nor state policies adequately reduce access to firearms by individuals who are at an elevated risk of violence, whether due to mental illness, a history of violent crime, perpetration of domestic violence, or alcohol or drug abuse. Individuals at high risk of committing gun violence should be disqualified from purchasing and possessing firearms. Families in crisis need tools. A gun violence restraining order could help. Such a practice would allow people to petition the court to request that guns be temporarily removed from a family member or intimate partner who poses a credible risk of harm to self or others. Respondents to an order issued through such a process would be prohibited from buying guns and required to relinquish all firearms in their possession for the duration of the order.”

Most counties in California use a mental health treatment standard based on a person’s likelihood of being dangerous instead of using a more progressive ‘need for treatment’ standard. California has a law regarding highly symptomatic individuals with severe mental illness that counties may choose to implement. Laura’s Law, operant in Nevada County, allows courts to compel individuals, with a past history of arrest, hospitalizations, threats or attempts of serious violent behavior towards self or others, to get mental health treatment provided by the county as a condition for living in the community.

Across the nation doctors are speaking out against gun violence. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine indicates that gun ownership does not make a country safer. The report also found another factor in the level of gun violence: “Mentally ill people who are not in treatment, are more violent than the rest of the population.”

Mass shootings shock the nation into awareness, and yet another horrific slaughter of innocents by gun violence keeps occurring. The American people must take action to prevent these tragedies from happening. And happen they do every day.

We can agree: There are too many gun deaths in America – averaging 87 per day = over 30,000 yearly – making gun violence a public health menace.

We can also agree: guns are here to stay. No one’s going to take your gun away. That’s a gun lobby fear tactic. Gun violence prevention organizations don’t talk about banning all guns. They talk about reasonable gun policies and work closely with law enforcement and elected officials.

We must take action. If you have a gun in your home, perhaps it’s time to consider it not as a means for safety but a dangerous killing instrument – unwanted in your home. CAGV, in collaboration with the Santa Barbara City Police Department is holding the first-ever Gun Buyback on the Central Coast • Sat., June 14th 8 a.m. – Noon • Earl Warren Showgrounds. More info: (805) 564-6803.

I HAVE A DREAM

by Anastasia Fenkner

I have a dream that one day all people in this nation will enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I have a dream that one day in the woods of Connecticut the victims of gun violence and the supporters of gun rights can walk arm and arm.

I have a dream that one day even in the NRA’s head office, the rights of gun victims will be defended with the same intensity now reserved for gun owners.

I have a dream that my two sisters and I will one day live in a nation where safety and security does not come from the barrel of a gun but in the love for one another.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of our reality, where violence is glorified and might makes right, will be transformed into a place where arms are used for hugging, not hurting.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the 30 thousand Americans who die of gun violence each year will not die in vain. I have a dream that one day they do not die at all. They study, they work, they giggle, they laugh, and they live.

I have a dream today.

There will be a day when children go to school without fear. When walking down the street, visiting a shopping mall, or going to the post office does not end in a random, senseless, mind-numbing tragedy. I have a dream that one day we will wake up and the nightmare of gun violence will be over.

 

This will be the day when all Americans will stand up and pledge allegiance to a non-violent country. “I pledge allegiance to the United States of America…One Nation, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

“I wrote this essay as a school assignment. We had to write about something we think is unfair in the world, using Martin Luther King’s style. I am soon to be 12 years old. I go to 6th grade at Washington Elementary School. I have 2 sisters, Natalie and Sophia. I like to bake, read and sculpt.” 

 

Anastasia Fenkner, daughter of Tatiana Fenker, CAGV Steering Committee member. 

DOES A GUN IN THE HOME MAKE A WOMAN SAFER?

Statistics and studies suggest owning a firearm could make a household more vulnerable NOT safer. 

The fact is, not a single study to date has shown that the risk of any crime including burglary, robbery, home invasion, or spousal abuse against a female is decreased through gun ownership. Though there are examples of women using a gun to defend themselves, they are few and far between, and not statistically significant.

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“CIVIL IMMUNITY”

GUN MANUFACTURERS ARE NEVER LIABLE

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act bans lawsuits against gun dealers and manufacturers “for the harm caused by those who criminally or unlawfully misuse firearm products.” The law was passed under intense pressure from the National Rifle Association (NRA) amid a number of lawsuits by city governments that accused the gun industry of creating a “public nuisance” by encouraging the proliferation of weapons. The NRA thanked President Bush for signing the Act, for which it had lobbied, describing it as, “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years into law.” In the years before passage of the act, victims of firearms violence in the United States had successfully sued manufacturers and dealers for negligence on the grounds that they should have foreseen that their products would be diverted to criminal use. The purpose of the act is to prevent firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held liable for negligence when crimes have been committed with their products. Passage of the act curtailed lawsuits pending from dozens of individuals, 30 cities and the state of New York.

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Stand Your Ground Laws + Guns = Deadly Mix … or “GO AHEAD MAKE MY DAY”

Are‘Stand Your Ground Laws’ and guns too deadly a mixture, questions Scott Martelle’s Op-Ed, 2/19/2014 L.A. Times, excerpted in part below.

“These are not abstract issues, particularly with the current legal and legislative debates over regulating concealed weapons. Is an armed America a more aggressive America? And does the existence of stand-your-ground laws make confrontations more likely to turn violent?” Continue reading “Stand Your Ground Laws + Guns = Deadly Mix … or “GO AHEAD MAKE MY DAY””