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Stop Arguing With Guns: The Importance of Knowing When to Back Down

Mike Weisser   |   February 16, 2015    9:17 AM ET

As soon as the word got around last week that a middle-aged, white man allegedly shot three young Muslim-Americans in Chapel Hill, the net exploded with the usual speculation about whether it was a hate crime, an attack on the Muslim religion, a civil rights assault, and so forth and so on. While the police haven't yet ruled out the possibility of religious or ethnic bigotry, the preliminary indication is that the gunfire erupted during a dispute over a parking a car. It seems three young, lovely human beings are dead because nobody could figure out how to find an empty parking space in a wide-open suburban parking zone.

Last year, a highly-decorated, retired police officer walked into a matinee showing of a movie in a suburb of Tampa and found himself sitting behind a young man who was texting messages to his daughter before the movie began. An argument over whether the younger man should continue texting erupted, one thing led to another, the retired cop pulled out a gun and that was that. At the time that these two gentlemen decided that staying put was more important than one of them moving to another location and thus avoiding any problem altogether, the theater audience filled less than 30 seats.

If you haven't figured out the parallel between these two utterly senseless shootings, let me tell you what it is: Nobody knows how to back down. In each situation, a man was legally armed, no doubt walking around with a weapon to protect himself against crime. Of course, the armed guys weren't going to back down. Why should they? They had guns. As for the victims, they weren't about to walk away either. After all, who were they to back down from a dispute in which they no doubt were in the right?

For all the talk about why the good guys need guns to protect everyone from the bad guys, the truth is that more than 90 percent of the 31,000 gun homicides that occur each year are the result of someone's inability to back down. It's what we call a lack of anger management, and if your anger gets out of control, being able to put your hands on a gun won't result in protecting yourself against crime or against anything else, including anger directed at yourself. It will probably result in you or someone else being seriously injured or seriously dead.

According to the FBI, less than 15 percent of homicides each year occur during the commission of a serious crime; i.e., robbery, larceny, burglary or rape. On the other hand, at least 4 out of 5 homicides grow out of arguments, and these arguments involve people who know each other. And we aren't talking about casual acquaintances -- we're talking about people who knew each other on a continuous basis and had been arguing and fighting over a period of time. The personal connection between shooter and victim in domestic disputes accounts for virtually every single killing in which the victim is a female (who are 15 percent of all murder victims each year) and accounts for 100 percent of all suicide victims who, by definition, have allowed their anger at themselves or others to get out of control.

It's important to remember that even when we are dealing with violence as a criminal offense, more than 1 million violent crimes were reported to the police in 2013, of which only 1 percent involved homicides using a gun. And the fact that someone has a propensity to behave violently doesn't ipso facto mean that they would ever express this anger by using a gun. But there is no other form of personal behavior that is as dangerous and costly as pulling a trigger at yourself or someone else. And I don't think we will get very far just by trying to identify the most violent among us and then figuring out how to keep guns out of their hands. Wouldn't it be much easier to just get rid of the guns?

Killing of Muslims at Chapel Hill Used by Inside Edition to Set Up Segment on Parking

Negar Mojtahedi   |   February 13, 2015    4:32 PM ET

2015-02-13-northcarolina.jpg Friends and family sharing victims' photos on Facebook

Outrage is growing online after Inside Edition used the deaths of three North Carolina students to give advice on parking.

The host, Deborah Norville, gave a seemingly quick 20 second voice over, giving bare-bones background information on their murder to segue a segment on how to find parking quicker in the mall while avoiding disputes.

As Norville said, "finding a parking space is one of those things that can push some people over the edge, but there is always a way to find a spot at the mall."

The victims, identified as 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his 21-year-old wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were shot to death at a residential complex of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The 46-year-old suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, was arrested and charged with killing the three Muslim students.

Police believe the killing may have been motivated by a neighbor's long-simmering anger over parking, but hate crime has not been ruled out.

Hicks describes himself on social media as a supporter of "Atheists for Equality" and as a "gun- toting" atheist, expressing hate towards all faiths. The whole notion of three people being shot repeatedly in the head has been downplayed to sensitivities over parking. He may not have been a religious fanatic, but he had an ideology. Should we all ignore that he appears to be an anti-religious fanatic? Has the word terrorism by definition now changed to only include Muslims committing heinous crimes?

Whatever your answers may be, one thing's for sure, equating the deaths of three young students to trying to find a parking spot faster at the mall is simply tasteless. Would Inside Edition have presented the story in this manner if the roles were reversed? What if a "gun-toting" Muslim with open hatred towards secularism killed an innocent family of three atheists...?

Excerpt from Inside Edition:

"A tragic shooting over, of all things, police say, a parking space. Three college students in North Carolina are dead. Their neighbor has been charged. Initially, some said it was a hate crime because the victims were Muslim. The cops say they believe the dispute was over parking at an apartment complex. Now, finding a parking space is one of those things that can push some people over the edge, but there is always a way to find a spot at the mall. Jim Moret helps you break the code."

Change.org Petition

2015-02-13-ncwife.jpg
Newlyweds Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat. Source: Facebook page called "Our Three Winners"

Itchy Trigger Finger? How About Itchy Brain?

Wray Herbert   |   February 10, 2015    1:15 PM ET

Police work is very dangerous, often involving bad people with guns, and one of the most dangerous policing tasks is searching and clearing a house. This is where the police go through a building room to room in pursuit of a suspect who may be armed and dangerous. The police officer must be fully prepared to shoot -- finger on the trigger, mind alert -- in case he or she does confront a suspect who is armed and ready to shoot. But the officer must also have the self-restraint to refrain from pulling the trigger if he or she bursts into a room and confronts an innocent bystander.

Getting this right is cognitively challenging, which is one reason innocent people get shot -- not just by the police but by soldiers as well. Shooting a gun involves a complex cascade of actions, each linked to a specific cognitive ability. From a psychological perspective, a police officer in this frightening situation must mentally inhibit an already initiated action -- stop in his tracks, cognitively -- in order to keep from sqeezing the trigger if an innocent person is detected. And it all happens instantaneously.

Psychological scientist Adams Biggs of Duke University has been studying shooting performance and cognition. As part of this project, he has been working with colleagues to link civilian casualties to failures of response inhibition -- and, more importantly, to see if civilian casualties might be reduced by improving trainees' cognitive inhibition abilities. Here's a description of their work:

The scientists recruited young men and women to play a video game called Reload: Target Down. This game is played on Nintendo Wii, which allows players to move a mock firearm in real space and squeeze a realistic trigger. Shooters enter either a simulated apartment or embassy and attempt to kill the bad guys without inadvertently killing innocent civilians or hostages. Each successful killing of a hostile target earns up to 100 points, depending on accuracy, while each accidental killing of a civilian costs 1,000 points. Shooters also earn points by killing the hostile targets quickly, so players are trying for both speed and accuracy at once. The competition for points is merely an incentive for shooters to perform their best under pressure.

The important statistic is total civilian casualties, which the scientists tallied for each volunteer over four rounds of Reload. After the simulated shooting, each volunteer completed four computer tasks, all meant to assess attention and response inhibition. Finally, they completed self-reports on impulsivity, ADHD and autism symptoms.

The idea was to compare each volunteer's response inhibition ability with his or her total civilian casualties to see if this specific cognitive skill is indeed linked to innocent deaths. And it is, clearly. Those with poor inhibitory control and high attentional impulsivity were more likely to shoot civilians in the simulated scenarios. What's more, attention deficits -- but not motor impulsivity deficits -- were significantly linked to innocent deaths, suggesting "an itchy brain more so than an itchy trigger finger."

This is intriguing in itself, but Biggs wanted to go further, to see if cognitive training might actually improve shooting accuracy and decrease civilian casualties. Only some of the volunteers were given three one-hour training sessions on two different inhibition tasks. Others, who served as controls, were trained in visual search techniques. Then all the volunteers played Reload again.

The results, reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, were dramatic. Those trained in cognitive inhibition killed significantly fewer innocent civilians this time around, while the controls showed no change. Importantly, subjects with high levels of ADHD symptoms benefited most from the training, suggesting that those with attentional deficits might be identified for training.

These findings could find a practical application, and soon, since response-inhibition training shows exciting potential as a training method for police and the military. The findings might also lead to more insights into cognition and firearms, insights with the potential to reduce society's death toll.

Follow Wray Herbert's reporting on psychological science on The Huffington Post and on Twitter @wrayherbert.

Constitutional Carry: Are the Inmates Finally Taking Over the Asylum?

Mike Weisser   |   February 9, 2015    8:55 AM ET

Before the ink was even dry on the 2008 Heller decision, the gun lobby began to agitate for an extension of this Second Amendment right to keep a gun in the home for self-defense to carrying concealed weapons outside the home as well. The CCW movement, as it is called, spread throughout the United States but with the exception of five states -- AK, AR, AZ, VT, WY. The residents of all the other 45 states must receive a permit for CCW that is separate from any licensing required simply to own a gun.

It's estimated that somewhere around 10 million people now have CCW permits, or roughly 10 percent of the people who admit to legal ownership of guns. To listen to the gun lobby you would think that armed citizens are responsible for the continued decline in violent crime, even though it's anyone's guess as to how many people are actually walking around armed each day. In 2013, roughly 450 people used guns in what is referred to as "justifiable homicide," while that same year at least 500 people accidentally killed themselves or others with guns. The FBI and CDC numbers may be a little off, but this is the only apples-to-apples comparison that can be made about whether guns help us or hurt us -- and please don't waste my time with the nonsense about how millions of crimes are prevented each year by people walking around with guns.

This hasn't stopped the NRA from endlessly screaming that "good guys" with guns will always stop "bad guys" with guns to the point that the movement to issue everyone a CCW license has now begun to shift to the idea that we should be able to walk around with guns, concealed or unconcealed at our option, with no licensing required at all. Called "constitutional carry," as opposed to "concealed carry," the loudest and most active proponents of this new credo can be found in the Lone Star State where this nutty idea sprang from a group of dissident NRA members who took issue with the gun organization's refusal to back the open carry of handguns. And the result was a series of guerrilla-theater events at which these dopes paraded outside and inside stores and fast-food franchises toting their ARs and AKs to show that they had the constitutional right to behave like jerks.

To their credit, Shannon Watts and her ladies have begun a social media campaign about this idiocy with the target being the Raising Cane fast-food chain, which seems to be a particular favorite venue for the crazies who want to show off both their guns and their lack of brains. The leader of this lunatic fringe appears to be Kory Watkins, who briefly posted a video showing him taunting a gun-owning state legislator, accusing the lawmaker of treason, and then stipulating that treason was punishable by "death."

Posting and then quickly deleting controversial messages is a favorite tactic employed by the folks who like to lecture America about their constitutional right to own and carry a gun. Last year, the NRA posted a statement that called the Texas crazies "weird" and asked them to keep their guns out of plain sight. The text was then quickly deleted and in its place appeared an apology to open carry activists in Texas for any "confusion" that the original statement may have caused.

Let me break the news gently to my friends at the NRA: You have only yourselves to blame for spending the last 20 years angrily denouncing anyone who dares to challenge your belief that guns represent a social good. You have only yourselves to blame for shamelessly pandering to imbeciles like Kory Watkins who is probably too much of a nitwit to understand the damage he causes people who genuinely want to legally own and use guns. You accuse Shannon Watts of not representing gun owners when she asks Raising Cane to make their venues gun-free zones. Whom exactly do you now represent?

Are We Really Safer From The Gun Threat?

John A. Tures   |   February 9, 2015    8:35 AM ET

Shortly after the latest school shooting, a murder-suicide, the University of South Carolina announced "the threat has passed." But has it? A rash of potential suicidal gun wielders may make us rethink our safety. And it's been on my mind since we've had two murder-suicides within four miles of my house.

Four miles from where I live in LaGrange, a man, Thomas Jesse Lee, is suspected of gunning down several members of his family, and a girl staying with his step-daughter (who he allegedly asphyxiated), which had our whole county on edge. Two of my students who had graduated were his neighbors. My daughter, who heard it at church, was trembling that night as we tried to tuck her in. Within seconds of learning that the suspect was captured on Monday night, our Cub Scout Den parents happily relayed the news to everyone. The threat had seemingly passed.

But it was the second such shooting in our neighborhood. Four miles in the other direction from our house, another potential murder suicide happened in January, where a man is suspected of killing his girlfriend during the argument and then turning the gun on himself.

As I began writing this column, another man is suspected of killing his ex-wife and several children before shooting himself, just an hour north of us in Douglasville, Georgia. At least five are dead, and we're told on local news that the number could climb, as seven were shot.

In each of these cases, we're told that threat passed, as the alleged shooter kills himself, or herself (an ex-wife is suspected of killing a University of South Carolina professor, and then is suspected of shooting herself). But has it?

The good news is that crime is going down, including violent crime, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Murders are down six percent from the first half of 2014, below the first six months of 2013, though the violent crime rate declined more in the Midwest and Northeast, than in the South and West.

According to the National Institute of Justice, "familicide" is often perpetrated by a white male. The NIJ cited research from the Violence Policy Center where "in 591 murder-suicides, 92 percent were committed with a gun. States with less restrictive gun control laws have as much as eight times the rate of murder-suicides as those with the most restrictive gun control laws. Compared to Canada, the United States has three times more familicide; compared to Britain, eight times more; and compare to Australia, 15 more."

It would be nice if we had a simple solution. The alleged LaGrange shooter, Thomas Jesse Lee, went to a church in Mississippi after killing his family. They were kind enough to buy him a ticket to Alabama, and drive him to the bus station, not suspecting his past or motives.

And why would someone, who fled all the way to Mississippi, be heading back to east Alabama? The threat for this particular case might be gone, but not in general.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.

  |   February 5, 2015    4:39 PM ET

It’s been two years since the push to expand background checks for gun purchases in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre fell short in the Senate. Since then, the gun-law debate has receded in Washington.

Where's the Gun Ban Predicted by Republicans?

Jason Salzman   |   February 2, 2015   12:27 PM ET

ColoradoPols did us a favor yesterday by trotting out some of the ridiculous misinformation delivered by opponents of gun-safety laws when Democrats passed those laws in 2013. And Pols pleaded with local reporters to correct such falsehoods if they pop up this year.

As a example of what should be done, see a 2013 Denver Post editorial that corrected GOP Sen. Kent Lambert's statement, cited in the Pols post yesterday, that lawmakers had "effectively banned gun ownership."

Labert's statement, the Post wrote, was "not supported by the facts."

Duh, you say, but as Pols pointed out, that's what we need when our elected leaders stray from the obvious facts.

And it's also what we need when elected officials stray into wild hyperbole that may not be demonstrably incorrect per se but should be called out... as wild hyperbole.

Last time around, for example, we heard this from respectable people under the gold dome:

  • Lambert said, "And now, you know, with everybody having their guns confiscated or taken away here over the next couple years, almost completely overturning the Second Amendment, what's going to happen to our crime rate?" (BigMedia editorial comment: Two years have passed! Every legal gun owner still has her gun.)
  • State Rep. Kevin Priola compared banning some ammunition magazines to putting Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.
  • State Rep. Kevin Lundberg said on the radio that Colorado is getting "so close" to the point where he'll be having his gun pried away from his "cold, dead hands."

It's bad when a guy like State Sen. Randy Baumgardner claims falsely, as he did in 2013, that "hammers and bats" killed more people in America in 2012 than guns did.

His facts should be corrected.

But the scare tactics about gun confiscation should be confronted as well,  with the simple fact that it's been two years now and not a single legal gun holder has lost her weapon.

Mike Bloomberg Wants to Indoctrinate the Media, But He Can't Fool the NRA

Mike Weisser   |   February 2, 2015   10:09 AM ET

In mid-January the NRA warned its members about an insidious effort by Enemy Numero Uno (Mike Bloomberg) to make yet another attempt to rob Americans of their Constitutional right to gun ownership by sponsoring what they call an "anti-gun indoctrination camp" to teach gullible reporters and other media folks how to research and write about guns. What Bloomberg's really trying to do is foist his own 'discredited' research on attendees at this conference in yet another effort to distort and cover up the real (i.e., positive) truth about guns.

The program is organized by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia School of Journalism (dartcenter.org/) and during this two-day workshop in Phoenix this coming May, attendees will actually hear from both sides in the gun debate, a significant and I believe first-time coming together of scholars and influencers whose views run the spectrum of the good news and the bad news about guns. On the one hand we have Garen Wintemute, an ER physician out of California, who has been a thorn in the side of the gun industry since he published studies on the manufacture of small, cheap handguns whose only real use was to arm people who wanted to commit crimes. At the other end of the spectrum, showing up to push the "guns are good" message, will be S.E. Cupp, whose attacks on Bloomberg and other gun-control 'threats' gets her airtime on the usual red meat outlets like Fox and Blaze, while also showing up on the other side with appearances on MSNBC.

Standing in the middle will be an economist by training but a remarkable gun researcher by vocation named Philip Cook, who has been conducting important and valid research on the social utility of guns for more than forty years. In general, Cook's work has focused on the economic costs of gun violence and his conclusions in these studies, as well as other work on gun violence, leaves no doubt as to where he stands; i.e., he's no friend of the folks who claim that Americans need to own more guns. But this past year Cook and his colleague, Kristin Goss, published a balanced and reasoned summary of the gun debate, and while they didn't attempt to hide their own concerns about the proliferation of guns in American society, they also found good reasons why many Americans don't want to give up their guns.

The fact that the NRA should attempt to malign a public conference whose speaker's list contains one of their most ardent supporters shows you how unwilling or unable they have become when it comes to listening to any voice other than their own. But a quick look at some of the information that has lately appeared on their own website makes me think that perhaps the NRA research and editorial staff might benefit from attending a conference where they might learn how to understand and explain facts.

I am referring to a story that just appeared on the NRA-ILA website attacking Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by Gabby Giffords, for what the NRA says is a 'bogus' claim that the number of people who die from gunshots each year equals the number of people killed in accidents involving cars. The story is bogus, according to the NRA, because the number of people who die from shootings that are ruled as accidents are a tiny fraction of the number of dead people pulled from vehicular wrecks. But of course that's not the point of the ARS story at all, unless perhaps we should figure out and compare gun deaths to the number of car accidents in which a driver actually tried to kill someone else using his car.

That Mike Bloomberg is asking professional media folks to come together and listen to both sides of the gun debate is a refreshing and important event. Refreshing because it hasn't happened previously, important because public policy is only successful when it reflects every valid point of view. I hope the conference is a great success.

Stray Bullets Are No Accident

Robert Muggah   |   February 2, 2015    8:43 AM ET

Thirty-two bullets. That's all it took to shatter the lives of just as many innocent men, women and children in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro last month. It is an unspeakable tragedy. The victims consist of toddlers and senior citizens -- all of them going about their own business. Most of them are residents of low-income neighborhoods, especially the city's sprawling north zone.

The blame game is in full swing. The state's Secretary for Public Security has condemned drug trafficking groups, alluding to a "nation of criminals" with brazen disregard for human life. Meanwhile, human rights activists say that the military police are also to blame. Caught in the crossfire, locals are throwing up their hands in resignation. Yet there is nothing accidental about these incidents -- they are indicative of a failure of public policy.

The January shooting spree is just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the statistics. According to public data, there were 61 victims of "stray bullets" in Rio de Janeiro in the first six months of 2012, the last year for which official information is available. This compares to 88 in 2011, 139 in 2010, 193 in 2009 and 236 in 2008. Since the government does not collect data on a regular basis, it is impossible to tell which direction the trend is moving.

A closer inspection of these incidents reveals that most shooting incidents occur in the poorest parts of Rio de Janeiro. A small proportion of them -- less than 5 percent -- result in fatalities while the rest generate terrible physical and psychological scars. Yet these cold statistics conceal the reign of terror generated by shoot-outs. Citizens are no longer able to move about for fear of falling victim. School absenteeism in dangerous neighborhoods is increasing and locals are reluctant to make the perilous journey to work.

Brazilians are not the only ones gunned down by stray bullets. While surely an under-estimate, the United Nations recorded 617 victims of stray bullets in 27 Latin American and Caribbean countries between 2009 and 2013. About 47 per cent of them died of their gunshot wounds. Half of the victims were male while the rest were women and girls -- most of them under 18. Although gangs played a role, police were involved in a disturbingly high proportion of reported cases.

Stray bullets can be prevented. To do so requires national, state- and metropolitan-level strategies that prioritize violence reduction, especially in poor and unstable neighborhoods. This should not translate into more forceful police operations. Instead, interventions should focus purposefully on hot spots, support at-risk youth, and guarantee the protection of civilians. These measures must also be pursued alongside targeted efforts to regulate illegal firearms and ammunition and destroy surplus to prevent leakage into criminal networks.

Brazil's current approach to dealing with stray bullets borders on negligence. Supposedly random shootings are treated as collateral damage -- an unavoidable outcome of a tough on crime approach. If this gun-violence epidemic is to be reversed, urgent steps must be taken. This includes enforcing a coherent doctrine regarding the proportional use of force by the military police. It also means rethinking the wisdom of arming police with high-caliber military-style weapons with a range of 2-3 kilometers. And rather than reducing the state´s spending on public security -- as is currently anticipated in the 2015 budget -- Rio's politicians need to dramatically increase it, alongside social and economic investments in making the city safer.

Nationwide Wants Us Afraid of the Wrong Things

David M. Perry   |   February 2, 2015   12:00 AM ET

Nationwide wants us to be afraid of the wrong things.

During the Super Bowl, Nationwide showed an ad that showed cute kids saying they never got to do things, with the kicker, "because I died." Then they showed an overflowing bathtub, an open cabinet under the sink, and a crashed flatscreen TV.

What they didn't show was a gun. Of course, they don't want to offend the gun lobby. But what they also didn't show is the #1 danger to children in America. Read down to find out what it is. Do you know?

Here's the commercial.



According to the Children's Defense Fund report, a child or teen is injured by a gun every 30 minutes. Seven are killed every day. And this number is apparently often under reported.

Now, falling TVs do send a child to the ER every 30 minutes, but only 215 died from 2000-2011. A relatively tiny number.

There are about 20,000 accidental child-poisoning-related calls every year, but the "most serious" ones all involve adults.

So firearms are definitely an issue, but it turns out that most of the 0-19 year old deaths from firearms are homicides. Here's the whole data on unintentional injury from the National MCH Center for Child Death Review:

  • In 2010, there were 83,267,556 children aged 0-19, of which 45,091 died.
  • 8,684 died from unintentional injury. 1027 from drowning, 365 from fires, 1,176 from suffocation and strangulation, and 134 from firearms.
  • 4,419 from motor vehicles.

So let's get real. Not only could Nationwide have shown us a gun, but if they really wanted to show us what kills children, all we have to do is look to all those lovely cars featured in about 50 percent of the Super Bowl ads throughout the night.

Cross-posted from thismess.net

Amanda Gutterman   |   January 29, 2015    3:33 PM ET

It seems like a relatively obvious equation: The weaker the gun laws and the higher the rate of gun ownership in a given state, the more deaths from gun violence that state will see.

That's the conclusion of a report released Thursday by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that researches the public health impact of gun violence.

Alaska has the highest rate of gun fatalities in the country, according to data from 2013. The state saw 19.59 deaths per 100,000 people, which is significantly above the national average of 10.64 deaths per 100,000. VPC's report indicates that Alaska also has the country's third-highest rate of gun ownership, with firearms in 60.6% percent of households.

The study found a similar correlation between gun ownership and gun deaths in the rest of the country. Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Wyoming, the states that followed Alaska in terms of highest gun death rates, had some of the nation's largest percentages of households owning guns.

VPC also noted that states with weaker gun laws tend to see higher gun death rates. All five states named above have gun restrictions that the report's authors describe as "lax."

The study defined states with weak gun laws as those that don't add extra provisions to federal gun laws, such as banning assault weapons or requiring a permit to buy a gun. In addition, states with open or concealed carry laws were considered to have weak gun restrictions.

States with the lowest gun death rates -- the top three were Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York -- were found to have strong gun laws as well as low rates of gun ownership. A separate 2013 analysis from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence similarly found that these three states were among those with the strongest gun restrictions in place.

A number of previous studies have linked gun laws and gun ownership with deaths by gun violence, challenging the "more guns, less crime" hypothesis that suggests a higher rate of gun ownership makes communities safer. The Violence Policy Center published a similar study last year, using data from 2011. According to the two studies, between 2011 and 2013, the five states with the highest percentages of gun-owning households saw a noticeable spike in gun deaths per 100,00 residents.

Another recent report from researchers at Johns Hopkins and Stanford Universities found a positive link in all 50 states between right-to-carry laws and a rise in violent crimes.

States have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to gun laws. It is up to individual states to determine whether to perform background checks, what types of weapons and ammunition can be sold and where firearm owners can bring their guns.

Hawaii, the state that had the fewest gun deaths in 2013, has only 9.7 percent gun ownership and a gun death rate of 2.71 out of 100,000. Yet VPC's analysis noted that those numbers are still far higher than in many industrialized countries. For instance, in the UK, where very few people own guns and do so under tight restrictions, the gun violence death rate in 2013 was 0.23 deaths per 100,000.

The 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, focused global attention on America's gun crisis and resulted in a pledge from President Barack Obama to work to remedy the situation. Since then, however, Americans have stockpiled more ammunition and firearms than before amid weakened gun laws in many states.

Guns, Steel, Grit and Grief

David Katz, M.D.   |   January 26, 2015   10:12 AM ET

Michael Davidson, the cardiothoracic surgeon shot and killed in Brigham and Women's Hospital last week by the distraught son of a woman on whom he had operated some time ago and who died in November, was a medical student of mine at Yale back in the early 1990s.

Some few of my former students, including our newly minted surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, became friends of mine, and we stayed close over the years. I didn't know Dr. Davidson that well, but seeing his photo in the Boston Globe, I certainly remember his face. It's a good face.

I can't speak to Dr. Davidson's character corresponding to that good face, but others can -- and have. According to colleagues, he was one of the greats, the kind of doctor every medical student wants to be, and the kind of doctor every patient wants to have. By all accounts, including those of patients, he was deeply caring. He was thoughtful, expressive, and clear. Peers credit him with the grit to wield the steel of scalpels in situations where other surgeons would balk, great surgical skill, the brilliance of innovation, and an extraordinary work ethic.

In addition, Dr. Davidson had a life outside the hospital. That life, according to the Boston Globe, included a wife -- also a physician -- and three children, with another on the way. That baby, of course, will now never meet his/her father.

The story line of this tragedy is almost unbearably heart rending.

And there's more. The shooter, who also took his own life, left behind a complicated legacy of love, anguish and disbelief. He had four grown children, and siblings, who say he was nothing but a good guy who was devastated by the death of his mother, with whom he was very close. Rightly or wrongly, he blamed his mother's death on an adverse reaction to medication, and rightly or wrongly, he apparently implicated Dr. Davidson in the use of that medication.

From the information available thus far, it could be that the medication had nothing to do with the patient's death, and that Dr. Davidson had nothing to do with prescribing the medication. Either way, there is nothing in the record to suggest any misstep in the treatment; just a bad outcome. Unfortunately, sick people die sometimes despite all that modern medicine can offer, and even when everything is done right.

Of course, sometimes patients die because something is done wrong, too.

But accuracy about who did what, when, and whether or not it was appropriate is not a priority in a moment of anguished passion. Passion clouds the mind, and tenses the muscles -- including those of the finger, on the trigger.

Admittedly, Mr. Pasceri might have hurt, or even killed Dr. Davidson without a gun. And he might have killed himself without one, too. But both scenarios are a whole lot less likely. Try to remember the last time you heard about a murder/suicide involving, for instance, a knife.

I myself was stabbed long ago, on a train while traveling in Europe. I fought back with no weapon, and lived to tell the tale. If my assailant had used a gun instead, I suspect it would have been the end of the line for me.

There is a bitter irony underlying this dreadful story that has torn holes in two families at least. The shooting took place in the hospital where our new surgeon general worked, prior to his confirmation. That confirmation was held up for months and months because Dr. Murthy had stated publicly that guns were a public health issue. So here we are, in the immediate aftermath of that long forestalled confirmation, and a current colleague and former classmate of the surgeon general was shot dead with a gun also used to kill its owner, in a health care setting.

The irony is too thick to cut with a knife; you would have to shoot through it. Of course guns are a public health issue, if suicide is; if bleeding is; if emergency surgery is.

The public discussion about who has guns when, where, and for what obviously includes rights related to the use of such arms. But it cannot exclude the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- all taken from Dr. Davidson. It cannot exclude the need to do what is right.

A finger on a trigger in a moment of acute grief is very unlikely to result in the right thing being done. In a moment of aggrieved passion, beastly and beatific look the same; it's a particularly bad time to pull a trigger.

That makes it a bad time to be holding a gun. That's where my sad ruminations on this tale take me. Guns and acute grief make for a very bad combination.

Whatever my own beliefs and preferences, I am not currently challenging any contentions about the right to bear arms, or the value of guns in self-defense. I am merely asserting this: if liberal gun policies mean more guns carried by more people more of the time, the likelihood of a gun in the hands of any given transiently, passionately aggrieved person goes up. This is a statement of statistical fact. Guns and such grief are a volatile mix.

Killing any other way requires real intimacy, and that's hard. Guns don't kill, people do, we are told. But guns allow those people an antiseptic, insulating distance. They make killing easier, and more efficient. One's hands need not even get dirty.

And in that way, they can convert the kind of emotional devastation we have all felt at one time or another into an irrevocable tragedy such as played out in Boston last week.

Guns and grief are a bad combination. Our judgment is clouded and undone in moments of aggrieved passion; we are least suited at such times to take on the roles of both jury and judge, leaving aside the illegality of such vigilantism. We may, in the throes of passion, misconstrue causes and misdirect blame. But we may hope to live through such moments, and see in a calmer, clarifying light.

First, though, we need to live through such moments at all. Guns in aggrieved hands make that tragically less likely.

-fin

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity

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Author: Disease Proof

ReThink Review: American Sniper -- Can There Be Heroes on the Wrong Side of History?

Jonathan Kim   |   January 23, 2015    8:28 AM ET

If you've followed my reviews for these years, you know that one of my biggest pet peeves in American films (and America in general) is our unhealthy, dangerous worship of soldiers, where every American soldier is considered a hero who defends American freedom even if they did nothing heroic, America's freedom was never at risk, and the real reasons for waging the war were far from noble. All of this results in unquestioning, knee-jerk, bipartisan public support for any American war, regardless of the war's justness or logic, where critics of those wars are accused of desiring the deaths of American soldiers. For some strange reason, I thought American Sniper, based on the book and true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, might somehow be different. But with conservative Clint Eastwood directing, American Sniper continues America's worship of soldiers and our obsession with guns in a film that ignores the fact that the Iraq war in which Kyle fought is arguably the worst debacle in American history. Watch a clip from American Sniper below.

Bradley Cooper, who also produced American Sniper, plays Chris Kyle, a Texan whose father installs a savior complex in Chris as a child that makes him believe that his purpose in life is to defend others (meaning other Americans). Outraged by attacks against Americans overseas, Kyle joins the Navy SEALs and uses his natural gift for sharpshooting to become a sniper. After the 9/11 attacks, Kyle is deployed to Iraq, where he claims his primary goal is to protect the lives of American soldiers, whether it's picking enemies off from a distance or leading Marines doing house searches. We then watch as Kyle returns home and then back to Iraq on multiple tours, ignoring the symptoms of PTSD he's exhibiting, the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and the protests of his wife (Siena Miller) who is left to raise their two young kids alone while living in constant fear for her husband's safety.

American Sniper is competently made. Cooper gives a nicely natural and understated performance as Kyle, with him being humble and effacing while others are eager to do the praising. The action scenes are sufficiently tense, though I would've liked to know more about the special training snipers receive to mold their minds and bodies for such a specialized task instead of the film's more typical gunfight scenes that are similar to those found in nearly every military action movie.

And that's about all of the good things I have to say about American Sniper. So now let me get into what I dislike about this movie and why its six Oscar nominations are as regrettable as the five nominations earned by 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, a film that lied not only about the efficacy and morality of torture, but in the role torture played in locating Osama bin Laden. There are some spoilers here, unless you already know what happened to the real Chris Kyle.

Kyle as portrayed in American Sniper is a character with little or no emotional arc. He maintains the same naïve, simplistic beliefs throughout his life in the existence of evil and his role as a uniquely violent protector against it as he did when his hardass father rather menacingly imposes the idea on him as a child. Kyle serves four tours in Iraq, witnessing all the horrors of war, but his views on war, his role in it, and killing people do not seem to change him at all. He does not seem haunted by any of his over 160 confirmed kills and states outright that he has absolutely no regrets about any of them aside from the targets that got away. Throughout the film, he maintains zero empathy for or understanding of the Iraqi people and repeatedly refers to Iraqis and anyone he's fighting as "savages", which is gross, ignorant, and racist. With all he experiences -- and despite seemingly having PTSD, which he seems to conquer by toughing it out without any real treatment -- Kyle ends the movie as the same affable, soft-spoken, gun-loving guy with a savior complex he was at the start of the movie, despite having killed hundreds of people.

All that may be faithful to what Kyle was like in real life. But in the stories we love, the main characters usually go through some kind of journey or experience where they gain insights about the world, humanity, or themselves that changes them forever. But in American Sniper, the only thing that changes about Kyle is that he finally understands that his wife needs him at home and will divorce him if he doesn't stop leaving her to raise their kids alone, and that he can help American soldiers without killing people. Other than that, Kyle is completely unchanged, with his war experience simply confirming everything he believed about himself and the nature of war that he thought before he had ever fought in one, apparently never regretting, questioning, or even dwelling on the morality and rightness of anything he did or the war itself.

And that's a big reason why American Sniper lost me for good.

While we rightly admire people who make great sacrifices for a just, worthy cause, Kyle was fighting in the Iraq war, probably the biggest foreign policy clusterfuck in American history, and arguably one of the worst fuckups by any government ever. We invaded and occupied a country based on utter lies -- or, to be generous, an incomprehensibly massive intelligence failure -- directly and indirectly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, destabilizing the entire region, wrecking America's image and legitimacy around the world, costing American taxpayers trillions of dollars, and turning us into a country that lies about torture, then endorses and commits it unapologetically.

That leads me to the key issue I have with soldier worship and American Sniper specifically: Should a soldier be celebrated as a hero for serving bravely while fighting on the wrong side of history in a war that is neither just, moral, or even legal? Is it possible to be heroic in the act of committing a crime by saving the lives of the criminals? Because what Chris Kyle was doing was "protecting" American soldiers who were part of the illegal occupation of a sovereign country based on the thoroughly debunked lies that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks, possessed weapons of mass destruction they would give to terrorists, and that occupying Iraq would prevent terrorist attacks elsewhere. Kyle's father explains to him that there are three types of people in the world, and that Chris is a "sheepdog" given "the gift of aggression" to protect the naïve and helpless "sheep" from the evil "wolves" who "use violence to prey on the weak." As we watch Kyle and a group of Marines bust down a family's door and point guns at the heads of women and children, could Kyle have once entertained the notion that who the "wolves" and the "sheepdogs" are might be perceived differently from the wrong end of a rifle?

I'm guessing a lot of people would say that a soldier's heroism has nothing to do with the so-called "politics" of the war he's fighting in, and that what makes a soldier like Chris Kyle a hero isn't that he was fighting in a just war for a good cause (since he wasn't), but that his actions saved the lives of his fellow soldiers. But if we accept the definition that a soldier who kills his enemies to protect his comrades is a hero, should we call Mustafa, the Syrian sniper depicted in the film as Kyle's nemesis (though barely mentioned in Kyle's book), a hero for protecting his fellow fighters from American troops? Don't all soldiers on any side of every war attempt to save and protect their comrades? Or as Seth Rogen noted, what about the fictional Nazi sharpshooter Fredrick Zoller in Quentin Tarantino's World War II film Inglourious Basterds, who Germans in the film consider an inspiring war hero for singlehandedly killing 200 Allied soldiers, and is even the subject of his own movie celebrating his skill, bravery, and commitment? If the "politics" of the side of the war you're fighting on are truly irrelevant, wouldn't we call a real-life Zoller a hero for saving the lives of countless Nazis soldiers?

Now before anyone says that I'm calling Chris Kyle a Nazi, I'm not. What I'm saying is that when it comes to calling people war heroes, fighting on the wrong side of history trumps whatever you do in service of that wrong side, regardless of the skill or bravery it required. The Germans know this, which is why you won't find any war memorials in Germany celebrating the accomplishments of "heroic" Nazi soldiers who protected their comrades by aiding in the defeat of Allied soldiers. And I suspect those who claim that the "politics" of a war have no bearing on a soldier's heroism also know this, which is why you'll never hear them call anyone who has ever fought against American troops a hero, regardless of their skill, patriotism, bravery, or lethality.

Contrary to what people like Kyle think, good and evil are rarely absolutes, especially in war, and determining which is which more often comes down to the perspective from the side you're on and the clarity that hopefully comes with experience, knowledge, and time. However, these are nuances Kyle seems incapable of acknowledging, never wavering in his belief that he and his fellow Americans are unequivocally the righteous good guys while anyone fighting against them is an evil savage. But when pressed, I think that nearly everyone, whether conservative or liberal, would agree that there are no heroes on the wrong side of history. And it has become nearly impossible to claim that George W. Bush's deceitful war of choice in Iraq was not a quest to free the Iraqi people, but was nothing less than a shameful, costly, unnecessary tragedy.

So what are we to make of American Sniper's Oscar nominations and its record-breaking success at the box office? Regarding the nominations, I think it points to how deep and bipartisan America's soldier worship goes, where even liberal Hollywood wants to celebrate a soldier who killed hundreds in service of a lie and a crime as long as he seems like a likable person. Second, it exemplifies America's obsession with guns, where I'm sure gun nuts couldn't watch American Sniper without creaming their pants and dreaming of the day when they'll be able to kill someone with moral and legal impunity as Kyle did, which is also one of the fantasies at the heart of "stand your ground" and "castle doctrine" laws.

And third, it shows how desperate many Americans, and especially conservatives, are to find any silver lining about the Iraq war. Even though a recent poll showed that more than half of all Republicans and nearly 40 percent of all Americans continue to believe the lie that the US found active WMDs in Iraq, it's becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to feel that the war was worth fighting and that it achieved any goals worth the money, effort, and lives it cost. For Americans who believe that the US is always right, noble, and unbeatable, accepting the harsh truth about our occupation of Iraq would shake them to their core.

But instead of an indictment of those who deceived us into invading Iraq and a soul-searching examination of why Americans supported the war for so long, we get the lionization of Chris Kyle, who is simply another color of lipstick applied to the stinking pig that is the Iraq war. Instead of dealing with the tragic reality of a war based on lies, we're supposed to celebrate a guy who either believed the lies, never cared about the truth, or convinced himself that all of the killing he did was simply the noble defense of the innocent instead of being a part of an illegal occupation that destroyed a country. In my lifetime, the US has never fought a war where America's safety or way of life was ever at risk, so let's dispense with the oft-used falsehood that I owe soldiers serving now for my ability to live my life and write this. Repeating a lie and believing it with all your heart doesn't make it true, and you don't get points for standing up for your beliefs if your beliefs are not only wrong, but destructive and counterproductive.

There's a feeling that, after the surprise of American Sniper's six Oscar nominations, a lot of Academy members are now taking a closer look at the film and the disturbing implications of honoring such a film and person, similar to what eventually happened with Zero Dark Thirty, which was a Best Picture frontrunner that faded late in its bid as its claims about the efficacy of torture and how it was integral to finding Osama bin Laden were debunked at the highest levels in a film whose main character, in a just world, would be convicted as a war criminal.

I see soldier worship as harmful because it so easily morphs into support for wars, no matter how unjust, by letting our affection for our fellow citizens in uniform and our desire to see them come home alive obscure the truth behind what they're supposedly fighting and dying for, which is rarely as black and white as we are told or wish it to be. But this is exactly what American Sniper does and what makes it such an empty, misleading, but apparently effective piece of jingoistic pro-war propaganda. There are no heroes on the wrong side of history, but you can trick people into thinking there are by lying about the history or claiming that history doesn't matter. By inferring that invading Iraq was the correct response to 9/11 and that the most important thing about the war was protecting American soldiers while ignoring the lies that put those soldiers in danger in the first place, Chris Kyle and the makers of American Sniper seem to have done both. And bullshit like that doesn't deserve awards.


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War in Two Directions

Robert Koehler   |   January 22, 2015    7:49 PM ET

"Sometimes they have drug and alcohol problems and when they feel that the VA is ignoring them, not answering the phone, failing to return calls for assistance or there are long wait times, they get more and more disgruntled. The VA is ripe for a mass killing but no one is listening to us."

The speaker is John Glidewell, former chief of police at the Cheyenne, Wyo., VA medical center, who was quoted in a Washington Post story a few days ago. As I read his words, I realized they sounded a far deeper note of desperation than the story was addressing, even though, my God, the events being reported on were the fodder of scandal.

The story was a follow-up about a murder that took place at another VA clinic, in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 6. Jerry Serrato, an Iraq vet whose claim of PTSD, and the subsequent treatment and benefits, was denied, fatally shot the clinic's chief psychologist, Timothy Fjordbak, then killed himself.

Beyond the terrible details of the double killing and the fact that "there have been a string of shootings and violent incidents in VA medical centers across the country," the story managed to sound only a superficial warning, it seemed: about the lack of metal detectors and surveillance cameras at VA clinics, and, of course, the need for a larger, better trained staff to deal with all of America's distraught vets.

All of which leads me back to Glidewell's quote and its implicit linking of "disgruntled" and "mass killing" -- as though the transition from one to the other in American society is obvious and fully accepted by now and armed irritation, you might say, is simply the way things are.

Yes, by all means, the VA is failing American veterans terribly, with wholesale claim denials and scandalous waiting times and a general, contemptuous dismissal of the psychological and physical wounds American vets are coming home with -- that is, a rich man's investment in the waging of war, to the tune of many trillions of dollars, but a pauper's investment in its aftermath. Something else is going on here as well, however, that's deeper and darker and not limited to the failure of government programs.

In a column I wrote almost a decade ago, I reflected: "Bush's war to promote terror -- the perfect self-sustaining fear machine -- isn't just generating an endless supply of hardened enemies beyond our borders. It is also creating the conditions of social breakdown and psychological blowback within our borders. Guess what? Under Plan Bush, we'll never be safe."

This seems to be coming to pass. If a word like "disgruntled" -- which describes, at worst, an everyday sense of being mistreated or snubbed -- can flow seamlessly into "mass killing," then America is at a serious precipice. We're becoming a heavily armed, mentally ill society. And our primary institutions are either contributing directly to the situation or, at best, failing to notice it.

The obvious mega-contributor to our social breakdown is the unending War on Terror, of course. It's a war cynically waged in two directions: at the enemies beyond our borders that we've manufactured and the collateral-damage-in-waiting who live with them; and at the lower and middle classes (the 99 percent) here at home, who have the nerve to expect a reasonable share of the empire's wealth.

The War on Terror is our first prolonged post-Reagan war, waged in the context of social austerity. Sorry, vets. Sorry, poor people. There's almost no social safety net anymore, even to care for those who used up their physical, emotional and spiritual health participating in that war. There's only... more war, in the form of domestic surveillance, militarized police departments and the like. This is the making of a broken, Fourth World, emotionally disturbed society, which sees enemies everywhere and addresses all of its spiraling ills militarily.

Consider another recent, tragic news fragment: the death, this past Sunday afternoon, of Johnathan Guillory, a 32-year-old vet who served in both Iraq and (as a contract worker) Afghanistan. He was shot and killed by two police officers at his home outside Phoenix. He was married. He had two young sons.

Why he died isn't completely certain, but he was clearly caught in the jaws of America's war on itself. He suffered, or claimed to suffer, from PTSD. His wife told Phoenix TV station KTVK: "Sometimes he couldn't even deal with day-to-day life. It was a struggle for him to get through each morning, but he did."

He once sought emergency help from the VA but, "they turned him away," his wife said. "They told him there was no room, and that he'd have to make an appointment."

Neighbors said there were occasional disturbances at the couple's residence. On the afternoon in question, police went to the house in response to several 911 hang-up calls. Police say Guillory pointed a gun at them and they fired in self-protection. His wife denies he had a gun and said there had not been a disturbance. And this is where the story ends: in a she-said, they-said mystery. The news cycle moves on.

We don't know what really happened. All we know is that a vet and dad is dead (another one), and our militarized insecurity marches on.

- - -
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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