The Missing Perspective on Gun Violence

Another mass shooting, another tragedy. Everyone has opinions on what to do. Pro-gun this anti-gun that. It's automatic rifles...no it's hand guns. Etc Etc Etc. All probably valid to one degree or another. Hell, I’ve been one of “those people” debating and arguing - sometimes with friends, sometimes with myself. Looking back at those discussions, I feel like something gets missed in the middle of all the conversation. I think it's the fact that we already have laws on the books and organizations dedicated to enforcing them. So instead of spewing statistics at you (although some of that is unavoidable), I’d like to take a moment to think about things we can do simply by using the legal infrastructure already in place.

For one, we can start by properly staffing the ATF. That’s the Bureau of Alcohol Tabacco and Firearms. The agency tasked with enforcing federal gun laws hasn’t had a permanent director for 8 of the last 10 years.

Now you may say “well that’s just the guy/gal at the top”. In doing so you'd be undervaluing the role of a leader and manager. I’ve been in various leadership positions and have studies leadership in school. I’ve served as a Naval Officer for 7 years and have gone on to managerial roles in several organizations. I can tell you that an organization without permanent, steady leadership suffers greatly. As the article rightly points out, permanent long-term management can have significant and positive consequences for an organization. Especially if the person is appointed by the Senate, which likely means they have at least some congressional pull. With such a gap, an organization is forced to rely on “acting Directors”, who likely have other responsibilities and are hampered in their ability to implement any kind of vision. Having adequately staffed leadership will go a long way to providing law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to do their job. Those tools aren't just needed at the Federal level, but also at the state and local level, especially in areas where gun violence is most prevalent. 

A statistic/issue that you’ve likely heard of is that most gun violence is concentrated in big cities that already have strong gun laws.  If you took those away, the argument goes, you'd have one of the world's smallest incidence of gun deaths in the US. There is truth in this, as there are metropolitan areas with some serious gun violence problems (and crime in general). But it's only part of the picture. On a state level, gun violence is actually more prevalent in states with the most lax gun laws. So it really depends on which statistics you choose to look at. 

In either case, I don’t see this as a “fuck them” or “it’s not a problem” or "urban vs rural" argument. Instead, it should be a call to action. Because a problem is a problem is a problem. The fact remains that there are urban areas that DO have a rather large and disproportionate problem with violence, specifically gun violence. So, let’s take a look at the most problematic cities: Baltimore, St. Louis and Detroit.

Michigan gun laws are actually fairly strict:

Same in Baltimore:

So what gives?

Well, laws are only as good as the ability of government agencies to enforce them. That’s why the statement “more laws won’t help” is true, whether you like it or not and no matter what side of this debate you’re on. Because more gun legislation won’t do any good, if we don’t enforce the legislation. So what can be done?

It's in our collective best interest to have more productive citizens and less gun violence. We can and should help the cities that are having issues enforcing laws. The FBI and ATF already have field offices in these cities and already cooperate with local law enforcement agencies. Maybe what’s needed is more cooperation with local law enforcement. It works incredibly well in counter-terrorism efforts, why not expand this model to combat gang and gun violence. It's absolutely crucial to support our law enforcement agencies in doing this. This is tough in the current environment, where their actions are highly scrutinized. Sometimes such scrutiny is blatantly correct, other times not. But we must be aware of the fine line between supporting law enforcement and tying their hands behind their backs. 

Maybe, just maybe, we can even attack the root of violence in inner cities – poverty and gang activity. Wouldn't that be revolutionary. 

The ways to do this are numerous, and we can debate on the best ways to do this until we turn blue in the face. But in any case, you cannot separate gun violence, or crime in general, from poverty. Remember that the next time you're debating with someone about the need for social programs, regardless of what side of the argument you're on. For instance, if you're point is that welfare doesn't lift people out of poverty - fine. But if you're point is that isn't your responsibility to do so, or that it isn't in our collective interest to do so, then think about the link between poverty and violence. Because whatever our solution, it's in everyone's best interests to live in a society with less violence. BUT, violence and gun-related deaths, aren't always the same thing. This brings me to my next, final and soberingly (is that even a word?) depressing point. Most gun deaths are suicides. Not homicides. 

That’s a bit of an inconvenient truth for a lot of anti-gun advocates. It means that most deaths with guns are not violence against someone else. Rather these deaths are a desperate act by an individual who thinks their life is hopeless. Now, this can be easily solved by taking away the easiest and most accessible method of suicide. This is a proven fact. But I promised a realistic approach in this article, so I'll steer away from this. We do have tools at our disposal to deal with this problem within the confines of the current climate. For one, you can spread the word about suicide hotlines. We have them and they work. Here's one:  

Share it on social media as much as possible. You’d be surprised what that can do for someone going through a hard time. If you have time, volunteer at one. They always need people. At the very least it will give YOU and understanding of other people's struggles. That's not a bad thing.

The easiest thing to do, however, is work to de-stigmatize mental health illness and treatment. It doesn’t take a law to ask people to be understanding of people’s personal struggles. By “understanding” I mean the following:

·       Watch what you say. Don’t use phrases like “she needs a fucking shrink” or “he’s fucking crazy”. I know it seems silly from your perspective, but such negative notions towards psychotherapy can be debilitating to someone who is considering their options

·       Watch your reaction. When gossip arises about a co-worker who seeks treatment, don’t encourage it by expressing it as something negative. Instead just say “good for him/her”. When/if  someone confides in you, express support and not judgement.  

·       Watch your actions and statements on social media: The field of mental health isn’t voodoo. You can’t just exercise more or suck it up or eat a magical fruit that helps depression. Unless you’re trained in the field, the only solution you should be “preaching” (if any) is the advice of a mental health professional. Keep your ideas of “natural” healing to yourself. Let the processionals do their jobs.   

This may seem like bullshit. It may seem like a cop-out used by the NRA. But as far as practical things to do that don't require additional laws passed by congress, this is a big one. The hardest thing for people seeking mental health treatment is the stigma associated with treatment and the judgement of others. Because of the fear of these, people suffering tend to hide their illness, many times until it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it.

 If we actually DID manage to do something nationally, we can place cards with such numbers inside gun boxes on new gun sales. Sort of like the surgeon general’s warning on cigarette packs. Maybe we can even ask/tell gun shops to hang posters to raise awareness. People who buy guns wouldn’t be affected, but if they ever ran into crisis every bit of encouragement encountered can help avoid a tragic outcome.

So what can we do? Well, on a personal level you can write your Congressman, Senator and President. Attend a town hall. Voice your opinion. Hell, circulate it on Facebook if that's what you're best at. A lot of people aren't even aware of the few things I've mentioned here. If these actions don't seem consequential, then I hate to inform you but you’re part of the problem (I know I am, because this isn't something I've engaged in). We still live in a Republic with representatives who depend on US for re-election. You may not be able to defeat the NRA (if you think that's what's needed), but you CAN have pull in your community and with your elected officials if you want to put in the time and effort to engage them.

In short:

  • Spread the word
  • Engage your friends
  • Engage your elected officials

I’m sure there are other things that can be done, and other practical ways to address the problem of gun violence. Leave a comment or shoot me an email if you have anything. I’d love to hear your thoughts. We need to discuss and implement practical action that can be taken within the context of the current environment. We need to talk and act without resorting to the kinds of gotcha arguments and back-and-forth name calling that often such conversation devolve into. It isn't just conversation. People’s lives depend on it.