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Steven Hoffer   |   August 27, 2015    2:24 PM ET

Two North Dakota State University students got a scare when armed police officers mistook their telescope for a rifle.

WDAY-TV reports ( ) that Levi Joraanstad and Colin Waldera were setting up the telescope behind their apartment Monday night when they were blinded by a bright light and told to stop moving.

They couldn't see who was shining the light and presumed it was a prank by other students.

An officer on patrol had spotted the two and thought the telescope was a rifle. He also thought Joraanstad's dark sweater with white lettering on the back looked like a tactical vest. He called for backup and the officers confronted the students.

Police say the students were never in danger and that it was a situation of "better safe than sorry."

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Jonathan Cohn   |   August 27, 2015   11:21 AM ET

Would stricter gun laws have saved the lives of Alison Parker and Adam Ward? Probably not.

Would stricter gun laws have saved the lives of many other people? Probably.

That’s a fair reading of the latest research -- and something to remember now that Wednesday’s killing of the two television journalists, during a live interview, has politicians and pundits talking about gun violence again.

So far, the debate has played out in a familiar fashion. From the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest renewed the administration’s call for “commonsense” gun measures, such as extending federal background checks to private gun sales and limiting access to assault weaponry. Via Twitter, Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, said “we must act to stop gun violence, and we cannot wait any longer.”

Probably the most impassioned plea for government action came from Andy Parker, Alison’s father, during an interview with CNN: “There has to be a way to force politicians that are cowards and in the pockets of the [National Rifle Association] to come to grips and make sense -- have sensible laws so that crazy people can't get guns.” 

The opponents of gun legislation also reacted to the shooting, with every major Republican presidential candidate expressing sympathy and offering prayers. But in between the words of solace, some offered warnings about the dangers of new firearms legislation. “It’s not the guns; it’s the people who are committing these crimes,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a leading GOP candidate, told an audience in New Hampshire. “What law in the world could have prevented him from killing them?”

Conservative media outlets like the National Review had stronger responses, bemoaning the “tired and opportunistic gun control agenda” and arguing that the kind of legislation now under consideration in Congress probably would not have stopped the suspected killer, Vester Lee Flanagan, from getting a weapon.

About the specific circumstances of Wednesday's killing, these conservatives have a point. Law enforcement officials have told media outlets that Flanagan used a Glock pistol without a high-capacity magazine -- and that he bought the weapon from a licensed gun store, after passing a federal background check. A letter that Flanagan apparently faxed to ABC News earlier in the week suggested he planned the shooting in advance, while reports of his past behavior toward co-workers raise the possibility that he may have had some mental health problems.

But the video of Parker and Ward’s slaying, which played over and over on social media, merely made vivid something that happens all the time, even though few Americans see it. On Wednesday alone, at least 13 other people died from gunshots, according to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit corporation that tracks shootings around the nation. In 2013, the last year for which federally collected data is available, 33,636 people in the U.S. died.

No other developed country has a gun homicide or gun violence rate even approaching that level. (That’s true even though the rate is now much lower than it was in the early 1990s, likely because crime overall has declined.) And while America’s high rate of gun violence undoubtedly reflects many factors, researchers like David Hemenway, a widely cited professor from the Harvard School of Public Health, have found a clear, strong relationship between gun ownership and gun-related deaths. In places where more people have guns, more people get killed by them.

As Hemenway and others scholars are quick to acknowledge, this correlation does not prove that the availability of guns actually causes more gun deaths -- mainly because, as so commonly happens in social sciences, it’s impossible to run the kind of controlled experiments that would allow scholars to rule out other factors unrelated to the availability of firearms. But their research strengthens the case for a causal link.

Among other things, several scholars have found that states and countries with higher rates of gun killings do not have correspondingly high rates for other types of killings. In other words, when guns aren’t available, people don’t simply react by killing with different weapons. They actually kill less frequently. (There's also strong evidence linking gun ownership to suicide rates, which makes sense given that suicide is frequently an impulsive act, although the international data on suicide is fuzzy because different countries measure it -- and think of it -- in different ways.)

Demonstrating that gun laws might cut down on gun deaths is even more difficult than establishing a link between firearms ownership and the extent of violence. But here, too, academics have recently produced important scholarship that bolsters the case for more regulation. 

One recent study examined the murder rate in Missouri after that state repealed a law mandating background checks for all gun purchases, including ones that the federal system does not currently cover. The homicide rate increased once the gun law came off the books, the researchers found, even as the homicide rate in neighboring states -- and the U.S. as a whole -- was declining.

“There is strong evidence to support the idea that the repeal of Missouri’s handgun purchaser licensing law contributed to dozens of additional murders in Missouri each year since the law was changed,” Daniel Webster, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and lead author on the study, said at the time. Another leading researcher, Philip Cook from Duke University, told the New Republic that Webster’s paper “is probably the strongest evidence we have that background checks really matter.”

Still more persuasive evidence on the effect of gun control comes from Australia, which -- following a highly publicized mass killing in the 1990s -- banned many types of weapons, introduced a more restrictive permit system, and then launched a buy-back program in which states paid gun owners for turning in weapons that the new laws made illegal. Homicide and suicide rates dropped substantially. And while the murder rates was also dropping before the laws took effect, researchers found that the decline was sharpest for the weapons declared illegal and in those states reporting the highest buyback rates. (Zach Beauchamp, of Vox, has an excellent summary of that research.)

Australia’s gun legislation was stronger than anything likely to get consideration in the U.S. Congress, let alone pass and become law. And expert opinion on gun control is still not unanimous, despite all the recent work. Probably the best-known critic of new laws is John Lott, who has held positions at several top universities and now runs a think tank called the Crime Prevention Research Center. Lott famously published research in the late 1990s suggesting that higher gun ownership actually deters gun violence, because people will use guns in self-defense.

But Lott’s own work has come under withering scrutiny, from fellow scholars and in publications like Mother Jones. Lott said that a computer crash destroyed some key pieces of survey data on which he'd based his work; subsequent surveys produced different results, although Lott maintained those results still vindicated his findings. At one point, he even admitted to using a pseudonym to attack his critics in online comments.  (Lott has said his critics misrepresent his findings, and sometimes their own, while ignoring evidence that would show gun laws to be ineffective -- or even counterproductive.)

The ambiguity of all evidence on gun violence, including those studies on Australia and Missouri, make it impossible to say definitively that laws would have stopped any individual act of killing. But that’s the self-perpetuating political problem of gun violence.

The shootings that feature large numbers of casualties or spectacular circumstances -- like those in Sandy Hook or Aurora, or the incidents on military bases -- become national stories and galvanize the public. The vast majority of killings, which usually take place in the home and are twice as likely to be acts of suicide than murder, barely register. Yet it’s on these routine killings, which happen by the dozens every week, that stronger gun legislation is most likely to have an effect.

Of course, the extraordinary and ordinary killings have one thing in common. They all end in a tragedy -- the extinguishing of human life. Wednesday's shooting, and the horrific video that emerged as a result, revealed to many Americans what a tragedy that really is.

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Senseless and Sensibility

Charlie Allenson   |   August 27, 2015   11:19 AM ET

The man asked me if I wanted to see the killing room. I declined. I was stuck in a chicken factory watching hundreds of live chickens hanging upside down on wire frames passing slowly before me as the conveyor system conveyed.

"First we spray 'em with salt water, " said the man in the protective food service cap. His name was Lyle. Said so on his badge.

I asked him why. "Salt water makes for better contact with the chickens."


"Electric shock. So we can stun 'em senseless before we kill 'em."


Senseless. A pretty innocuous and vague word commonly used in conjunction with acts of gun violence.

There's the Cincinnati cop indicted for the shooting death of an unarmed black man in his car. The Hamilton County prosecutor called the killing "senseless."

In Minneapolis a 16-year-old boy was shot to death in broad daylight. The Star Tribune called it, "senseless."

On the Aurora Movie Theater shooting, actress Anne Hathaway opined that it was an "Unfathomably senseless act."

Film director Christopher Nolan referred to the same massacre as, "A senseless act..."

Of the Lafayette movie shooting, Universal Studios put out this statement, "All of us at Universal Pictures send our heartfelt sympathies to the victims of this senseless tragedy and their families in Louisiana."

Tamir Rice: A 12-year-old boy. Senseless.

Sandy Hook: 20 children. 6 adults. Senseless.

Texas toddler kills self with grandfather's gun: Senseless.

Rebecca Eldemire, my 21-year-old niece: Senseless.

Senseless. When are gun deaths ever sensible? Anybody? Any hands up?

Gun deaths do not need a modifier. Except maybe "preventable."

As a country that claims to be religious - One nation under God, God bless America and all of that, we are more and more bowing before the Altar of the 2nd Amendment. We worship the 2nd Amendment with such fervor that it takes precedence over the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Especially the "life" part.

If the NRA had its way along with its political supporters, anybody who wants a gun would have a gun. No questions. No training. No taking of responsibility for actions resulting from the use of that gun. And if possible, let's blame the victim.

There's the Baltimore guy who was just cleaning his shotgun when it went off. Killed his 23-year-old son. And legally he wasn't even supposed to have a gun. "Oops." And double "Oops."

Or the Dallas guy who was just cleaning his gun, maybe whistling a happy tune, when he shot his own 3-month-old boy. "So-rrr---yyy."

Or the Georgia man who gave his pistol to his 12-year-old son. Daddy thought he'd unloaded it. Son played with gun. Pointed "unloaded" gun at 11-year-old sister. Son pulled trigger. Bullet left gun. Bullet entered sister's body. "My bad."

None of these killings were "senseless." All were preventable.

Nationwide, Nearly 1.7 million kids under 18 live in with loaded, unlocked guns in their homes. This means they're 16 times more likely to be killed in unintentional shootings.

This much carelessness and our cultural addiction to guns results in so many killings--or let's be more precise and call them murders -- of our children, sisters, mothers, fathers, brothers, husbands, cousins, lovers, friends and total strangers that we no longer know how to use the right language for this plague. This has to change. This has to stop.

There are about 270 million guns across our great nation in only 32.4 percent of American households. This means, if you're betting on gun sense, the odds are not good.

This reality is what's truly senseless.

We owe it to our children, sisters, mothers, fathers, brothers, husbands, cousins, lovers, friends and total strangers to remove politicians who are in the NRA's pocket and elect public servants who will serve the greater good by passing common sense gun legislation. Only then will we never again have to hear the word "senseless" used with the word "gun."

Trump l'oeil, Virginia Tragedy Edition

  |   August 27, 2015   10:29 AM ET

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Preschool Lockdown: Why I Support Gun Reform

Barbi Appelquist   |   August 24, 2015    4:44 PM ET

This afternoon, I read the piece about the Pokemon Championships in Boston and the police's recent discovery of "a 12-gauge shotgun, an AR-15 rifle, several hundred rounds of ammunition, and a hunting knife" during a warranted search of a vehicle belonging to an 18-year-old and 27-year-old, two hopeful attendees of the Championships. How did these kids get their hands on these weapons and ammunition?

Some people have asked me why I care about gun control. I don't own a gun. I've never been trained on how to shoot a gun. But I have been directly impacted multiple times by guns. And I know that many people across the U.S. have been similarly impacted by gun violence. That is why I support Everytown for Gun Safety's push to close the loopholes in the background check system.

I'm from a Midwestern family. Both of my parents grew up on farms and my father served in the U.S. Army for 20 years. On my maternal grandfather's farm, between 5-10 shotguns were lined up on the wall outside the master bedroom. I remember once asking my grandfather, a World War II veteran, what his guns were for. It was the early 1980s and I was about 7, the same age my daughter is now. "Those are for shooting coyotes that try to kill my cattle." I was never taught how to shoot a gun or how to store a gun. But I respected that guns had a purpose. And that was for the adults to deal with. I couldn't reach the shotguns anyways at that age.

In 1990, I had a very different experience with guns. I was living in southern San Diego with my mother and her boyfriend; my parents were in the process of getting a divorce. I was in 9th grade coming home from school to find our rental home surrounded by police. My mother's boyfriend, a recently discharged soldier, had locked himself in our home with his weapons and threatened to kill himself and anyone else who came into the house. I was able to reenter my home later that night and we never saw him again. Unfortunately, he would not be the only person in my life who attempted or died by suicide using a gun.

But the most difficult experience for me related to gun violence was when my daughter was 5 years old. On June 7, 2013, the President of the United States was visiting Santa Monica. Traffic was a bit scrambled already. I dropped my daughter off at preschool around 9:00 a.m. Then, at 11:52 a.m. John Zawahri went on a shooting rampage at Santa Monica College, less than five blocks away from her preschool. Her preschool went on lockdown. These children are 2.5 to 5 years old and their school is on lockdown. Lockdown. Why? Because of a nearby mass shooting.

According to data available at USA Today, there have been more than 200 mass shootings since 2006. Not every shooting is the same but many share common traits. Many of the shooters had histories of some sort of family or intimate partner violence, mental illness and/or drug abuse. Many guns used in mass shootings, like the handgun procured to kill Valerie Jackson and her six children in Houston, Texas on August 9, 2015, were reportedly procured legally because of loopholes regarding the lack of background checks for handgun sales sold through unregistered online dealers. Some guns, like the one used in the July 23, 2015 Lafayette movie theater shooting, would not have been procured legally had procedures been followed, like background checks.

Today, I am focusing on closing the loophole regarding background checks and online, unregistered gun retailers. The data is compelling. Since 2006, many states have tried to adopt regulation to restrict access of certain guns or block purchase to certain individuals. According to a recent Washington Post article citing Richard Florida's 2011 study, there was a significant negative correlation between gun-related deaths and tighter gun control laws, in particular a ban on assault weapons, a trigger lock requirement, and a safe gun storage requirement. Some will argue that correlation does not mean causation. But something has to change. This will require the most significant bipartisan effort to close the loopholes, a tough thing to achieve during this contentious election cycle. There is much more that can be done but we have to start somewhere. Help close the loophole.

And if the mention of "gun reform" bothers you, think about the people in your life who have guns at home, those who might not be as gun-smart, gun-safe, or gun-savvy as you. Do they have a history of mental illness, substance abuse, family or intimate partner violence? If yes, what would you do to keep them safe? What would you do to keep those around them safe?

Something has to change.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Governor Pence Perpetuates NRA Fiction With 'Training' Program for National Guard

Mike Weisser   |   August 24, 2015    3:43 PM ET

If there's anything the NRA has been able to accomplish in its quest to be the defining voice in the gun debate, it was taken care of for them by Indiana Governor Mike Pence. He decided to arm his National Guard after the Chattanooga shootings and then authorized America's 'oldest civil rights organization' to conduct training classes on concealed-carry of handguns. The NRA announced that their "world class" training program would be cost-free to any Guardsman.

The NRA was founded as a training organization in 1871, and while most of its current activity involves lobbying for more lenient gun laws at the federal and state level, it still maintains an active training department and claims to have certified somewhere north of 120,000 trainers of whom 13,000 are 'active' in law enforcement training. Getting certified as an NRA trainer isn't exactly the same thing as getting certified as, let's say, a Honda mechanic. For the latter you not only have to take an intensive training program at a company-certified training facility, you also have to pass a battery of written and hands-on tests to demonstrate that you can actually repair a car. Regarding the requirements to be certified as an NRA trainer, I'm being generous and polite by saying that the requirements are basically that you show up at a range, a classroom or someone's house, sit through an eight-hour recitation of the training manual, take a short-answer written test that nobody flunks and you're good to go.

I suspect, of course, that the NRA probably took a more direct hand in the Indiana Guard training, because it's one thing to conduct training for every Tom, Dick, Harry and Louise who wants to carry a gun (although very few states actually require specific training to qualify for CCW), it's another to become a training partner for the U.S. military. And if you think that the National Guard only gets called out for local emergencies and disasters, think again. Half the troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been Guard units, and one out of ten troops killed in the war theater were from the Guards. So if you're training the National Guard, you're training front-line, military troops.

Now don't get me wrong. The NRA isn't doing the basic firearms training for the M-4 battle rifle carried by the Guard both here and overseas. To date the training is being offered to Guard members who want to carry a concealed handgun which has evidently become an aspect of the beefed-up security measures that Pence and other governors ordered in response to the Chattanooga shooting deaths. Indiana has no training requirement whatsoever for state residents who want to walk around carrying a gun; the state police website says: "Please be safe and responsible whenever and wherever you carry your handgun."

I see two problems with the decision by Governor Pence to engage the NRA to train his Guard. First, it's yet another manifestation of off-loading government functions onto the private sector, in this case, government functions involving security and armed defense. Nobody's going to tell me that the NRA 's approach to certifying firearm instructors is even remotely close to how the U.S. military trains and equips its own. But let's not forget that Pence is running for re-election, and it never hurts to cozy up to the gun-owning lobby when you're up for office in a red-meat state.

The bigger issue, however, is whether there's any proof that sticking a handgun in your pocket makes anyone safer at all. Using a gun for protection involves a lot more than just learning how to aim and fire the damn thing. What it really requires is extensive training to know if armed force is required at all. Someone points a gun at you is a no-brainer. But what if he walks up to you with one hand behind his back? Sorry, but reading a few sentences about 'being alert' from the NRA manual doesn't quite work. At least not for me.

Andy Campbell   |   August 20, 2015    3:59 PM ET

Another round of shots, good sir!

Commissioners in Daytona Beach, Florida, approved a measure Wednesday that will allow the opening of a 12-lane gun range connected to a booze-filled restaurant. Commissioners were "leery" at first, because alcohol and guns don't mix, but they came around to the idea, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

The paper reports:

I've gone back and forth on this," said Commissioner Pam Woods, who later cast a yes vote.

"I was leery," echoed Commissioner Patrick Henry, who also supported the business.

Commissioner Ruth Trager wasn't won over by the new business' developers at the meeting who explained the precautions they'll take, and she cast the lone no vote. She drilled the business partners with questions about how they'll know if someone is sober or a felon.

They were reportedly swayed by the business' strict rules against shooting after drinking. Everyone who eats or drinks at the restaurant will have to submit to an ID scan, and if they've had alcohol, they won't be allowed to shoot at the range that day, WFTV reports. In addition, guns won't be allowed in the restaurant, though commissioners pointed out that the policy won't stop people with concealed carry licenses from entering.

Patrons who go to the gun range will also have to sign an affidavit promising they're not drunk.

But why risk it by allowing booze in the restaurant in the first place? Co-founder Ron Perkinson says the eatery wouldn't be profitable without libations.

"Safety is obviously key and number one for not only me, but everyone else there. Everything is going to be revolved around safety," he told WFTV.

He said he would consider installing a metal detector at the restaurant if the commissioners asked for it, but they didn't.

Dangerous in Paradise

  |   August 18, 2015    7:33 AM ET

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The Unthinkable Lives of So Many Black Boys: Where Are the Caring Adults?!

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The NRA's Favorite Doctor Is At It Again

Mike Weisser   |   August 10, 2015    1:47 PM ET

It didn't take seventy-two hours following the publication of a reasoned and respectful JAMA editorial on physicians counseling patients about guns before the self-appointed NRA medical sycophant, Timothy Wheeler, issued his usual pronouncement that doctors represent the enemy when it comes to anything having to do with guns. Actually, I blame the Hospital and Health Networks blog for letting Wheeler crawl out from underneath his proverbial rock, because the truth is that to present him as some kind of medical authority on gun violence is to grant him a level of professional credibility that he doesn't deserve.

The JAMA editorial, co-authored by two noted gun researchers, Drs. Marian Betz and Garen Wintemute, represents a very important step forward in the discussion about doctors and guns. It follows from a "call to action" issued in April by eight professional medical organizations (plus the American Bar Association) that urged physicians to become more engaged in the issue of gun violence, notwithstanding the heavy-handed effort by the gun lobby to legally de-franchise medical professionals from any connection to this issue at all.

The NRA has been pissing and moaning about public health and clinical views on gun violence for more than 20 years, and Wheeler is often quoted whenever relevant research is published and, in time-honored fashion, the media needs a comment from the "other side." I wouldn't mind if Wheeler had ever conducted any research at all to justify his views on guns, but in fact he is a polemicist pure and simple whose pro-gun opinions come right out of the NRA playbook but are delivered with heightened authority because his name is followed by the initials 'M.D.'

His latest salvo, written in response to the JAMA editorial, asserts that, "Physicians get no training in firearm mechanics, safety, or tactics in medical school or residency. They simply are not qualified to counsel patients about firearms." There was a time when physicians didn't focus on health risks like obesity and tobacco companies routinely showed doctors inhaling a Lucky Strike cigarette in their ads. When the medical community decided that enough research had been conducted to classify obesity and tobacco as risks to health, doctors learned how to counsel patients by asking questions and, based on responses, dispensing appropriate medical advice. Wheeler has never attempted to deny the reams of medical research that shows that the risks of gun ownership far outweigh the gains. Instead, he pompously and falsely accuses physicians of using that research to promote a 'political' point of view.

What kind of advice does Wheeler feel is appropriate for doctors to share with patients about guns? You can find the answers in a book he published, Keeping Your Family Safe. Most of the book is devoted to a warmed-over version of NRA training materials that describe how guns work, how they should be cleaned and how they should be stored. Wheeler, incidentally, has absolutely no professional credentials in any of these areas, nor in self-defense laws and self-defense tactics, both of which are covered at length in this book.

I have absolutely no issue with anyone pushing guns as a means of self-defense; what offends me is the notion that guns represent the only or even the most effective way to respond to a possible or actual criminal event. It's not true, and there is no evidence-based research that proves it to be the case. In fact, the latest research demonstrates that using a gun for self-protection is not only a rare event, but is no more effective than other protective actions, such as running away or calling 911.

After medicine took the lead in anti-smoking campaigns, the end result was that one out of two adults who smoked dropped to one out of five. Imagine what would happen to the gun industry if gun ownership followed a similar trend. If Wheeler wants to save the gun industry, he should stop pretending to be a medical expert and do what he does best, which is to figure out ways to sell guns.

The Second Amendment Hatchet Issue

Robert J. Elisberg   |   August 6, 2015    2:17 PM ET

One of the old chestnuts we always hear from the corporate-owned NRA every time there's a mass gun-shooting tragedy is "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." After yesterday's incident at a movie theater in Antioch, Tennessee, however, we now have a far more clear picture of what the reality is.

In the two mass gun shootings at movie theaters in Aurora, Colorado, and Lafayette, Louisiana, there were a total of 14 deaths and 79 injuries. At the movie theater attack in Antioch, where a hatchet was used, a total of zero people were killed.

After most mass gun-shooting tragedies, we tend to hear someone say that "People could just as easily could have been killed with a knife. Or a baseball bat." I think we can now safely say that the phrase "just as easily" should never be used again in this connection.

The next time you hear someone fighting against controlling gun violence, just ask them simply if they would rather have been at the movie theater in Columbine, or the movie theater at Antioch. Or at the movie theater in Lafayette, or the one at Antioch. Or at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or at Antioch. Or inside Columbine High School, or wandering the campus at Virginia Tech, or at the movie theater at Antioch.

My guess is that you're not going to get an answer.

My guess further is that any response that you do get is almost certain to include the phrase, "Yes, but..." But that's just a rambling attempt to change the subject because there's no "Yes, but" here. The question being asked doesn't have any "Yes, but" to it.

The incident at the movie theater in Antioch was terrible. Thank goodness that none of the patrons inside were killed. Or even injured, unless you include being pepper-sprayed. But I'm sure those people count themselves incredibly lucky, given the usual pattern in movie theater attacks like this. However, I do think there is one good thing to come out of what happened yesterday. It's showed as clear as possible that in an incident where there is an attack against a group of people, it is far better if the perpetrator is using a hatchet. Or pepper spray. Or knife. Or baseball bat. Or really pretty much any weapon other than a gun or explosive device.

Just for the sake of perspective, whenever I hear someone say that guns don't kill people, people kill people, I always make sure to correct them and say that the proper phrase is actually, "Guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people."

Because it's clearly a whole lot more difficult with a hatchet.


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.

Learning to Eat What You Hunt

Bil Hitchcock   |   August 4, 2015    8:11 AM ET

Like most of us I have read about the brave dentist, Walter James Palmer from Bloomington, MN who paid $50,000 to shoot Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe.

It made me think about my father and his parents on an April morning in 1938.
Daddy grew up on a farm in Louisville, GA. Like a lot of boys who grew up in the rural South, he was given his first shotgun at age 11...April 6, 1938.

For a young boy in the South, this was a coming of age event...a step towards manhood...because guns were needed on the farm.

He knew roughly what he was getting...he and his dad, Gilbert Bell Hitchcock, the man in this picture, a man I called Papa, had visited a store in Louisville, Daddy had looked at various shotguns with him...they had discussed the merits of different he knew he was getting one, just not which one.

April 6th, his 11th birthday dawned. My grandmother, whose first name was Marie, which for some reason was the name Daddy called her, as did I....possibly the best cook in the Southeast, made homemade yeast biscuits so light that they would nearly fly off the plates for every meal. Every meal.

So she had prepared a wonderful breakfast and the three of them sat down to eat and Daddy was presented with his brand-new shotgun. I can picture him, thrilled to be getting it....while Papa explained the rules.

"A gun is a responsibility. When we go in the woods and look for something to shoot, this is something we will be eating. You don't just go out and shoot anything that you see."

Daddy nodded his head. He understood...he really did. He finished breakfast, went outside in the side yard and promptly shot a blue jay. My grandfather, hearing the shot only a couple of feet from the table where he was finishing his breakfast walked outside. There stood Daddy with his new gun...and a blue jay at his feet.

Papa picked the blue jay up.

"Good shot Billy, you have learned well." Papa took the blue jay with him, along with Daddy's new shotgun.

Marie, used to serving just about anything on the table in those dark days of the Great Depression.....rabbits, squirrels, all sorts of birds, often almost anything that could be found in the woods... had never dressed and cooked a blue jay before. But she did it.

Daddy was outside in the barn doing some chores when he was called inside to lunch. Marie had outdone herself with fried chicken, those wonderful biscuits and all sorts of vegetables grown there on the farm. The smells were wonderful and Daddy was starved.

At his plate was the blue jay that he had shot. Fried.

Papa spoke. "That really was a good shot Billy. I am surprised you were able to hit him the very first time you used your new gun. I hope you enjoy lunch."

And so Daddy ate the blue jay, along with a lot of crow, but he had learned a lesson, one that took so well that he told me the story I now tell you many times. Sport hunting is not for real boys or hunt to live, you hunt to put food on the table, and you eat what you shoot. That was the last blue jay Daddy ever shot...and he was a good shot, and helped put many things on his parents' table that they did eat.

It's too bad that Walter James Palmer didn't have parents like Daddy did.

The South Carolina Tragedy, Common Ground, the Entrenched Mind of the Gun Debater and the Path Forward

Eric Korn   |   August 3, 2015   11:32 AM ET

The profane and painful events that occurred in Charleston recently once again bring the issues of firearms rights and appropriate public policy into the forum of public debate, and not without good reason. The crime was senseless, tragic, and horrific. At moments like these we wonder how members of our city on a hill are capable of such atrocities. We blame those with opposing ideological viewpoints for the role that their beliefs played in what we see as a broken system. We create cognitive defenses around our own world-views to defend our closely held, and occasionally incorrect, assumptions about the way the world works. Most saliently, we go on the attack. We simplify complex issues into single-solution silver bullets that are easily consumable on social media, and we fire those simple solutions at all opposition. We consume media that fits our view of the world to the exclusion of differing points of view that may contain more truth than our own, and we commiserate with like-minded compatriots to build defensible cognitive battlements in a vacuum. This pursuit gives us comfort, but it does little to provide durable solutions to complex problems. The tragedy in Charleston is nothing if not societally complex. The relevant dynamics include firearms rights and laws, race relations, issues of mental illness, religion, civil liberties, and a host of other topics on which our fellow citizens are deeply divided. At the center of the debate is the senseless loss of life and a passionate need to pursue policy changes that prevent these types of occurrences in the future.

Full Disclosure

It is worth stating that I am the CEO of one of the larger firearms training organizations in the country, a firearms safety trainer, and a person who carries a firearm for self-defense regularly. This being said, I am also a social scientist who is dedicated to help craft policy that fosters a society where the use of firearms against others is far less necessary. I believe that there are significant areas of commonality that can move the conversation forward, rather than leave us bickering at the same intersection with so much at stake.

Myths About the Gun Community

As a member of the gun community, I can confidently say that no person, even the most staunch firearms supporter, ever wants a situation to arise in which they are forced to use their firearm in self defense. In fact, most of us who carry daily do so because we value our personal security and tend to be far more cautious than the general population about placing ourselves in situations that may require the use of deadly force. We are far from the oft-slanted public perception of the reckless, gun totin' survivalist. More often, we are your mechanic, attorney, nurse, or restaurant owner who is willing to bear the significant burden of carrying a loaded firearm in order to protect ourselves, and those around us.

The Gun Problem

One of the simple scapegoats at a time like this is always the gun. An easy, early thought is "If the perpetrator had not had access to a firearm, surely this horrible course of events would not have happened." It is a simple but powerful argument against private firearms ownership that, when spoken amongst the ideologically congruent, becomes a rallying cry for the pursuit of well-meaning policy change. While this sentiment is not without merit, it fails to give credence to the complexity of the issue. "Let's do away with all the firearms" prematurely ends a needed conversation with the proffering of a nearly logistically impossible task, instead of furthering movement toward a more harmonious dynamic.

Take Away the Guns

There are currently over 250 million firearms in the country, making a broad effort to take them out of private hands nearly impossible. Further complicating any logistical issue is the paradox of the criminal. If measures to collect and destroy firearms were implemented, only the law-abiding element of society would comply en masse. Firearms belonging to criminals would slowly find their way in to the hands of law enforcement, but the process would likely take a hundred years if not more. Even with the goal of taking the amount of firearms in private hands to zero, the criminal element will likely still find ways to manufacture and steal the guns they desire to make their ill mark. The criminal element has always found a way, even in areas with moratoriums on private ownership. If demand were to spike due to sweeping policy that outlawed private ownership of firearms, those desiring to commit crimes for which a firearm would aid them will get what they need by stealing or manufacturing them themselves. What you end up with is a disarmed law abiding populace and a still-armed criminal element.

The Police Will Protect You

With very few exceptions, police forces in the United States are competent and well trained. Mistakes are made, and occasionally systemic issues do arise, but the overwhelming majority of citizens live in jurisdictions where they feel they can trust those that protect them. Without question, it is the goal of every sheriff and police captain to bring crime rates down to zero in their areas of responsibility, however our system is not designed (or budgeted) to allow this to happen.

Police officers operate as a deterrent to crime through their presence, and a solution backed with deadly force when necessary. Their mission is not to protect the singular person, but rather to protect all people under their jurisdiction. The protection of the individual is limited to those who can afford private security and public figures. According to American Police Beat, the average police response time in the US is around ten minutes, while situations when an individual's life is threatened frequently unravel in less than one.

Although very capable, police assistance is frequently too late, assumes that the individual who needs help is able to call for it, and requires that the officers not put themselves in harm's way to assist. Furthermore, reliance on others for protection assumes equal treatment by law enforcement to all races in all areas, an assumption that has come under fire in recent months. As with one's health, or financial well-being, or professional growth, the first line of responsibility for safety has always been, and will always be, oneself. It is not that those tasked with defending you are not willing and able; in most cases they are. The issue is that modern police forces are not funded or designed to protect the average individual at every hour of every day. If they were, civil liberties would be severely constricted, and citizens would be heavily taxed to support a one-to-one ratio of police officers to citizens.

The Common Ground

It is at this point in the evolution of our culture that we need to find what the political parties and media have worked so doggedly to hide from us, our common ground. We agree more than we think we do, and there is too much at stake to give up and walk away.

Passionate partisan bickering in the last two decades has slowly displaced thoughtful public conversation on the topic of firearm rights in the United States. The battle lines are drawn, and entrenched parties who irresponsibly and knowingly dole out inaccurate information in order to defend their position fuel the debate. We are all guilty of reading an irresponsibly written article that points a finger at the other side and allowing it to anger us, despite it being completely wrong or unrepresentative of actual events. Unfortunately, very little thought is given to the significant areas of common ground that exist on the topics of firearms. From both sides of the ideological spectrum, there are commonalities providing confidence that the issues plaguing our society can be dealt with as we move forward.

Unquestionably, individuals on both sides of the aisle agree that mass shootings are intolerable, and need to stop. Additionally, all agree that we wish using firearms in self-defense was unnecessary. Nearly all also agree that firearms are useful in the correct context, but shouldn't be in the hands of individuals intent on committing crime. Finally, nearly all agree that because firearms are to be present in the US, gun safety training is important, whether as an informal passing of knowledge from mother to daughter, or in demonstrable coursework from qualified professionals.

Toward the Solution

It is my sincere desire to live in a society where the individual does not need to be vigilant about their personal safety, but we do not. In fact, one has never existed. We learned as children that it was important to defend ourselves, and the lesson is no less important as adult members of this great society. To move toward a solution where the tragedies such as recently occurred in Charleston happen far less often, we need to strip away the ideological flights of fancy that result in prematurely ending the conversation and talk logically about solving the issue. There are several places to continue the dialogue.

The first conversation concerns the care and custody of the mentally ill. Our growth as a society toward caring for those with psychological struggles has only barely reached its adolescence. We must retool the legal system, which underpins the ability (and financial means) for authorities to retain custody of citizens who are a danger to themselves or others. Our lack of understanding of the treatment of the mentally ill has led our society to simply give up the fight, to the detriment of us all. I don't have all the answers, but I'm sure there are those in the field of mental health care with better solutions than simply giving up on the mental well being of those who need help, many of whom come from the most vulnerable subpopulations in the country. Our system is currently structured to err on the side of the rights offered in the Constitution, and rightfully so, however public policy has not kept up with gains in our ability to determine who among us is a threat to law abiding citizens. An individual willing to commit mass murder upon strangers would almost certainly rise to the level of defined anti-social behavior, although a causal link between mental illness and mass murder with firearms continues to elude researchers (Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). What we know is that many who perpetrate random murders with firearms are mentally ill, but most mentally ill individuals do not commit such acts. This makes it a challenge for us to adopt policy that keeps firearms out of the hands of those who have a high likelihood of using them to commit violence. We could do better, and understanding the mediating social variables present will almost certainly help us get there. More research by our best and brightest, and better access to raw data are necessary, but I am confident that better understanding will help lead to better public policy.

The second conversation regards firearms access, specifically the proper storing of firearms to protect them from those who may use them for criminal reasons. This issue relates to those who gain access to firearms through legal means, such as acquiring them from a friend or family member. We can do a better job of restricting access. To deter individuals from acquiring firearms from familiar sources, gun owners should bear more liability when their gun is used in a crime. If a crime is not committed in order for an unauthorized person to gain access to a firearm that is then used in a crime, the legal owner should then share some of the culpability for the crime. More specifically, unauthorized users should virtually have to commit a crime to gain access to the firearm. If this is not the case, and access is easy, the legal owner should share some of the culpability for the crime. We in the gun community should be responsible for what our firearms are used for unless a crime is committed to gain access to them.


It is my belief that the vast majority of those on both sides of the firearms argument are far closer to workable solutions than we give ourselves credit for. We will find a solution that makes occurrences like the Charleston tragedy a less common occurrence, but the lines of communication and logical public discourse must remain open.

Appeals Court Gives Gun Industry Reason to Celebrate

Mike Weisser   |   August 2, 2015    8:50 PM ET

It's a red-letter day for the pro-gun community and boy, are they celebrating the news out of the 11th Circuit. From the NRA to the red-meat blogs, let the word go out: Gun owners don't need to worry any more about those 'nosy' doctors taking away their guns. According to the majority decision written by a judge who was appointed to the Federal bench by Richard Nixon, if a physician in Florida asks a patient whether he owns guns, the physician is violating not only the patient's privacy, he's also not delivering "good medical care."

I thought that how a doctor figured out what to do or say to a patient only became a legal issue if the patient's condition following medical treatment turned worse. And if anyone, including a Federal judge, thinks that a physician can get around the privacy injunctions of HIPAA compliance, better the judge should be laying brick.

Want to make a million dollars in the gun business? Start with two million. The only time gun sales ramp up is when a high-profile shooting creates talk about gun control which provokes all the gun nuts to run into gun shops and buy more guns. Am I saying that the gun industry needs a Sandy Hook from time to time to promote sales? That's exactly what I'm saying. If gun violence really disappeared, the NRA would have a hard time selling the idea that every attempt at reasonable gun restrictions was an attack on our God-given right to defend ourselves with a gun.

The Florida gag law is nothing more than an extension of the attempt to push physicians out of the gun debate because their views on the medical risks of guns were cited by supporters of the Brady bill in 1994. Payback was the NRA's attack on CDC-funded gun violence research, a cynical attempt to silence a professional community whose commitment to patient health required speaking out about the risks of gun access, notwithstanding the fact that patients are always free to reject a physician's advice on any issue related to their health. Judge Tjoflat's statement that a patient is "relatively powerless" and "must submit to a physician's authority" may have been true when he was appointed to the Federal bench 45 years ago, but it's utter crap to promote such nonsense in the current digital age. Or perhaps Tjoflat's never heard of Facebook, Twitter or

The 11th Circuit's opinion also refers to the issue of privacy, as if asking a patient about guns is a greater threat to personal well-being than asking about using drugs or tobacco at home. All of a sudden, the NRA-supported dopes who go parading around Starbucks with AR rifles in full view suddenly become so reticent when a physician asks them to talk about their guns. And of course the same jerk who doesn't want to disclose gun ownership to a physician will expect, in fact demand, the right to protect himself from being attacked in the physician's office by bringing along his gun.

The leading medical organizations plus the American Bar Association believe that "deaths and injuries related to firearms constitute a major public health problem in the United States." This consensus is not going to change because some judge thinks that doctors should avoid the issue of guns. It took fifty years to reduce smoking from nearly one out of two adults to one out of five. And along the way there was plenty of talk that tobacco wasn't injurious to health. We hear the same nonsense about guns from the NRA and many well-meaning people believe it to be true. Only it's not, and sooner or later, like the Martians in Area 51, the so-called benefits of gun ownership will be understood for what they are -- nothing other than a way to sell more guns.