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Beyond Mental Health and Gun Control Is This: Guns Make Death Too Easy

Lorraine Devon Wilke   |   January 15, 2014   10:13 AM ET

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Anyone who's dealt with anger and disappointment directed at another person, who's been bowed by heart-crushing sorrow and depression, who's experienced and gotten past a psychotic episode, or been pumped to irrationality by the adrenaline of rage and despair, knows -- at least in retrospect -- that those impulses coursing through bodies and brains in moments of heightened emotion will and do shift, change, and pass, just as the pitch of the moments do.

Afterwards, when the heat has cooled, when intervention has had impact; when the passage of time has lent greater clarity and less anguish to the situation, most of us can look back at a fight with a loved one and be stunned that a vase was thrown across the room in a fit of anger. We can reflect on a heartbreak that sent us into prolonged grief and question, with some incredulity, why we hit such a nadir of desolation. We can feel shame over an ugly outburst at a waitress, an overly aggressive response to a bad driver or an overwrought reaction to a belligerent child. We can wish we hadn't trashed a gift given to us by a departed lover or promise to be better about dealing with a divorced spouse. The common thread in all of these circumstances is the reality that we are given a new moment. A re-set is allowed, the opportunity to rethink, reassess, and reframe something that was -- is -- TEMPORARY. Transitory, changeable, reparable, forgivable. We often embrace that re-set with profound gratitude that we can do something differently, better, less charged; grateful that we didn't do anything... irrevocable.

What isn't irrevocable?

Responding to any of the above with a loaded gun.

Three gut-wrenching stories crossed my path today: a retired policeman shooting and killing a father texting his child in a movie theater, a student opening fire on fellow students at a school in Roswell, New Mexico, and a friend's nephew shooting and killing himself after his ex-wife picked up their daughter with her new boyfriend in tow. In each case, the matter of "mental health" will surely be invoked, cries for better gun control will be echoed, but what will not be as transparently and candidly discussed is the simple fact that, in each case, NOT having a gun would have completely changed the narrative.

Whatever anger, mental illness, fear, grief, rage or uncontrollable impulse drives a human being to act in violence, the one factor that is controllable is what objects are within that person's reach with which to inflict that violence. And regardless of hollow arguments about "guns don't kill people, people kill people" (is there a wearier trope??), the ability to -- in that moment of impulse -- pick up an item that can so easily and irrevocably end a life becomes a very salient issue. The theatergoer annoyed by the texting father might have raised his voice, raised a ruckus, even raised a fist, but by virtue of having that gun at his easy and clearly uncontrollable disposal, he took a very minor incident, one we have all experienced in our cellphone burdened society, and escalated it into an act of madness that ended a young father's life and forever changed his own.

The student in Roswell might have picked up a bat and smashed a few desks, knocked over some chairs or even broken a few bones. He might have trashed a locker, broken a window or spewed graffiti across a wall. But leaving a child critically wounded with a shot to the face? Only a gun can inflict that result.

My friend's nephew might have wept and mourned in anguish over losing his marriage and having to now share his beloved child with a man he didn't know. He might have drank himself to oblivion, slashed his wrists, or taken pills to extinguish his grief, but with each of those particular self-negations, there would still be time for him to change his mind or for someone to intervene towards his ultimate rescue. A gun to the head leaves no such options.

Some of the gun people I know insist that it is "protection" that drives their desire to own and accrue a cache of firearms. One fellow, a Texas conservative, gets all "cold dead hands" when the conversation gets to analyzing the role guns play in turning almost any adversarial encounter into something deadly. He, too, cites protection of his loved ones, his home, his belongings as reasons for perpetually packing heat and yet, even those situations can metasticize into unintended tragedy when the immediate response is to reach for and use a weapon that leaves little room for shifting circumstances:

In March of 2013, 16-year-old Caleb Gordley, a universally well-liked but typically rebellious teen, snuck out of his house after being grounded, got seriously drunk at a party, and, later that night, after being dropped off in his neighborhood of cookie-cutter homes, mistakenly climbed through the window of what he thought was his own house (identical to the one he entered). Once inside, he drunkenly made his way through the house to go up to what he thought was his room, but was confronted by the homeowner -- who was understandably terrified with no idea of who this person was clamoring through his home. With a 40-caliber pistol equipped with a laser and flashlight in hand, the man yelled at Caleb to get out of the house, but even as the confused and clearly inebriated boy turned to walk back down the stairs to do just that, the homeowner, according to autopsy results, shot him in the back. Not the leg, not the arm -- the back. The boy died, the homeowner was purportedly horrified once he realized what he had done; the family is destroyed... an all-around devastating situation for everyone involved.

We can anticipate gun aficionados clamoring that "who wouldn't point a gun at an unknown intruder in their home??" -- something we can all surely understand -- but let's play devil's advocate. What if there wasn't a gun? What if the homeowner, instead, had a stun gun, a bat; a knife? Isn't it likely that having that gun in his hand made it too easy for him to pull the trigger (reportedly four or five times) and kill an unarmed teenage boy already making his way out of the house? Of course it is. Guns simply make death -- accidental, intended, suicidal -- far too easy.

Do we care? Hard to answer that question. It appears we care more about owning guns than saving ourselves from them. We care more about being able to carry them, defend them, shoot them, and justify the damage caused by them. We care so much about all that, wrapped in arguments of outdated constitutional amendments, that we've basically agreed, tacitly or otherwise, that we will live in a society where an irate moviegoer can kill someone for texting, an angry child can destroy a classmate out of anger, and a distraught father can end his life out of despair.

I do not want to live in that kind of society. Do you?

"Non-Violence" sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd photographed by Francois Polito @ Wikimedia Commons

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Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Twitter, and Rock+Paper+Music. Details and links to her other work at www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.

DIRK LAMMERS   |   January 15, 2014    7:52 AM ET

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Bullets and beer long have been part of the lore in Deadwood, the western South Dakota gambling town where Wild Bill Hickok met his demise during an 1876 poker game.

Now, an FBI agent nearing retirement hopes to tap that history by opening a combined indoor shooting range and saloon a block off Deadwood's historic Main Street.

Our Ever-Expanding Three-Way Arms Race

Tom Harvey   |   January 14, 2014    2:27 PM ET

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The overwhelming presence of guns in the United States is the result of an arms race -- a three-way arms race. Potential gun owners are persuaded to get guns with the newest technology designed to be more deadly in each generation. Much of the persuasion is by showing use by the idealized warriors of law enforcement agencies. These agencies are pressured and encouraged by their members and by industry get for themselves more extreme weaponry than the most outrageous real or imaginary "bad guys." And the actual criminals and lawless persons strive to keep up their image on the street while they get guns from gun owners and businesses by theft or diversion.

This triangle has become a cycle where each group drives the next into being ever more armed. The arms industry and gun culture media work to energize the cycle at each step; although they would deny deliberately encouraging the illegal armament of criminals. The important thing about a cycle is that every stage depends on all the others and it can be speeded or slowed at any point.

I'm going to start with law enforcement and it's effect on gun sales, interest and ownership by the public. As agencies have built up their firepower, the newsstands have been populated with slick magazines showing it off such as Harris Publications' Special Weapons for Military and Police. Many items such as submachine guns, short barrel shotguns and rifles and silencers are regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA) and require an expensive and difficult to get license for civilians and a substantial tax on each transfer. There has been a movement to expand the possible weapons that citizens can have without such regulation. Several states have passed laws such as the Montana Firearms Freedom Act that would override federal law and allow possession of such weapons made and held within the state without federal regulation. These laws are currently untested in the courts. At the same time manufacturers have employed a battalion of engineers to design weapons that are technically outside the NFA definitions but extend both actual firepower and aggressive appearance to new levels. A popular example is the KSG bullpup type shotgun such as the one recently returned to George Zimmerman. The non-NFA version for most non-law enforcement sales is built to the NFA rule and has the barrel extend deeply into the stock to meet the 18-inch barrel length minimum. It has two ammunition magazine tubes for double the number of rounds. But Guns and Weapons for Law Enforcement features the "sawed off" version. Bullpup and this KSG design is the new more aggressive shotgun. It's way beyond the Remington 870 used by the Navy Yard shooter who already could add ammunition to his gun at any time by just shoving shells into a hole. No need to change magazines for an indefinite shooting spree.

All of this technology and hype is exciting to a lot of people looking for something to put their time, interest and money into. Shooting can be a lot of fun. It's been decades since I was in the Army and fired heavy-duty arms, but I remember it well. There is lots of company and places to go and something new all the time. Hobbyists in general are obsessive and gun hobbyists especially so. They take in the media material and talk with their shooting friends and rush down to the gun store and buy loads of the new exciting models. The frenzy has only expanded since the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the expansion is still going.

All of the guns that cause trouble start out legally. Sometimes an owner turns bad but mostly guns are stolen and diverted to get into dangerous hands. The exceptions are small; gun smuggling is an export industry in the U.S., homemade "zipguns" are interesting but rare and losses from law enforcement are much smaller than the hundreds of thousands of guns stolen from dealers and users each year. The 3D printers in the news lately may create a problem with detectability but are way too slow and crude to be a factor in our mass gun problem, at least for the next decade or so .

A lot of our gun deaths and injuries come directly from guns in legal hands. Accidents, domestic homicides and especially suicide usually are from legal guns. But the big problem of so many nearly unregulated guns is that they go from legal to prohibited hands. A giant hole in the background check system allows any prohibited person to buy whatever he wants as long as he doesn't use a federally licensed dealer and winks when he tells the seller he's OK. Some states make it tougher, but there are no checks at the border between states and guns flow like water. Stolen guns are the other main source of guns going to criminals. The FBI gets reports of over 200,000 guns stolen per year, and it's likely that reports don't reach the FBI in most of the cases.

Illegal gun users such as gang members see the media hype too. They are looking for respect mostly from each other. When the media write about gun crimes, they focus on the most extreme examples. Just looking at DC, which is near to me, we have events like 12 killed or 13 injured in the last year and many smaller ones.

Law enforcement agencies have adopted service weapons with a large bullet capacity in order to be sure to have more than anyone they could possibly confront. They receive funds disproportionately to face rare but extreme confrontations. It seems that every agency has to have a SWAT team no matter how small the jurisdiction. In smaller and medium cities there is little for such teams to do and they have to justify their existence. So they don't wait for a hostage situation but they become proactive and serve warrants. While I don't usually agree with the Cato Institute, I am amazed by their map of "Botched Paramilitary Police Raids." Publicity hungry Sheriff Joe Arpaio has obtained and shown off the the press a belt-fed 50 cal. machine gun. Agencies get the weaponry for the funding, for show and for fun, but the process is driven by a perception of ever better armed adversaries. They, unfortunately, focus on rare extreme events such as the North Hollywood Shoot Out of 1997 where nearly 2000 rounds of ammunition were fired or the rogue ex-cop Christopher Dorner who had a 50-cal. Barrett sniper rifle.

So the cycle goes on and gives us a greater and greater number of more and more deadly weapons. To restore some sort of sanity and reduce the carnage, it will be necessary to slow this process at each corner of the triangle. We can get better leadership in our law enforcement agencies that works to stop the game of getting more and deadlier arms than actually needed. Leadership that takes command and recognizes the effect both inside and outside the agency of militarization police. We can regulate private ownership of guns to eliminate unchecked purchase and limit the most unsafe weapon types. We can block the diversion of guns by illegal sale and by theft. A good way to stop diversion is to require that gun owners have insurance that pays victims and remains responsible if guns are transferred by theft or otherwise to uninsured parties. Because this problem is a cycle, improvements in policy at each point will have a cumulative effect.

DON THOMPSON   |   January 13, 2014    7:23 PM ET

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A state lawmaker proposed Monday that California extend its requirement that gun buyers undergo background checks and register their weapons to anyone who assembles a firearm in their home.

The legislation by state Sen. Kevin de Leon is part of a growing effort across the country to pre-empt the spread of undetectable guns that can be made using 3-D printers. His bill also would apply to anyone who buys parts that can be assembled into a gun.

I Never Thought My Son Would Play With Guns

Vered Benhorin   |   January 13, 2014   11:02 AM ET

I woke up this morning to my nearly 5-year-old son, his big blue eyes close to mine, saying "Mama! Let's play!" Somehow, I dragged myself to the living room where he had set up dinosaurs. He told me the rules: "My dinosaurs have superpowers and yours don't. Mine find yours and then kill them with their power!" That woke me up.

I wondered if I should say something to him about killing -- again. I tried to redirect the violence in the play by having my dinosaurs offer friendship and joint living in a cave. He didn't bite. "No! they are not friends! OK mama? OK?" "OK," I said, in resignation. Because at that moment, it felt like I had lost that battle.

What happened to my gentle little boy who would cradle his dolls if they happened to fall on the ground? Where is the boy who would never consider the possibility of intentionally hurting another? And where did this one, who pretends to shoot others, come from? "My son will never do that," I used to say.

As usual, parenting is humbling.

Guns first showed up last year. Amidst his love affair with Mary Poppins and Annie, he also started asking about weapons. He wanted me to cut a gun out of cardboard so he could take it to school. Mortified, I imagined his teachers' reactions when they saw it.

We talked about how guns are best used for protection, only by those whose job it is to protect -- the police, the army. I told myself that he was interested in guns in the same way he was interested in a policeman's pad, handcuffs and hat -- fun tools of the trade.

Eventually, he didn't accept my explanation and started asking questions I didn't have the answers to. And they were questions that I ask myself all the time. Why would we need protection? From whom? Does protecting mean hurting someone else?

As a therapist, I am fully aware of a child's need to use play as a way to experience anxiety in a non-threatening situation. Through play, children can express what they find confusing, exciting and overwhelming about the world.

As a mom, it's not that simple. A therapist is trained to put her own issues aside, or to use them in a way that will benefit the patient. But as a mom, my ego is wrapped up in my son. His behavior often feels like a reflection of who I am and how I am perceived. I know this feeling is detrimental, but it is sometimes hard to shake.

My own associations to guns and violence are not the same as my son's. At just the mention of guns, I feel a wave of sadness and despondence. I think about school shootings, accidental shootings in homes with guns, and wars.

My son's interest in guns has to do with his developmental stage as a kid and as a boy. He is becoming more aware of his own agency. He experiments with being defiant. "You are not a good mama!" he says, when he is upset at me. "I hate this food!" he says, about dishes he loved a day earlier. Then he looks up at me with red cheeks to see if he has crossed the line, wanting to make sure that there is indeed a line.

He divides the world into black/white, good/bad, yes/no, perhaps as a way to simplify a world that he is beginning to sense is not so simple.

He is becoming more aware of those around him and how their actions reflect on him. He sees fellow students who are older and more competent than he is in certain areas and feels disempowered, just by their presence.

That's why he loves superheroes. Playing games with a clear bad guy to defeat --and a clear good guy who usually has a little extra power born out of goodness -- makes him feel safe again. I get that. It is the preoccupation with weapons and violence that stops me in my tracks. I struggle with whether his play stems from the desire to HURT another, or OVERPOWER another.

So, what do I do?

When I can I play with him, hoping that if he acts out the dynamics of good and bad, powerful and weak, healthy and injured, he is releasing some of his anxiety.

On some days I allow him to defeat me with his powerful dinosaurs. I let him make up the rules and I pretend to be scared of his strength. He becomes exhilarated and later seems to be much better company during the dinner/bath marathon.

On other days I fight back, unable to put my own sense of powerlessness aside. My army people find a place to hide, my dinosaurs demonstrate their own strength and I try to outsmart him (we all know it is impossible to outsmart a kid).

On my worst days I freeze up. He mentions guns and I wonder where I went wrong. I feel as though the future is bleak and full of pain and war, and I couldn't do anything to help, not even raise a mensch. In those moments, I don't allow him to be him.

I talk to him about the difference between play and real life. I tell him that, in real life, guns and weapons can hurt people to the point of death. We talk about what it means not to be living anymore.

This afternoon we sat down to play again. I was prepared to let him express his every desire and overpower me in whatever way he chose, even if it scared me. This time, he told me that our dinosaurs were cleaning up with sponges connected to the bottom of their feet. No violence, no drama. I was ridiculously disappointed, because for a moment, I thought I had figured out a tiny little aspect of parenting my son.

And then the doozy hit at dinner. What does he want for his fifth birthday? A light saber! Lego Chima! Sword! Stay calm. He needs to play it out to understand it, and he needs to play with someone he feels safe with.

Little does he know that this playing partner is still trying to work it all out herself, and sometimes feels just as terrified and confused as he does.

JORDAN SHAPIRO   |   January 12, 2014    1:17 PM ET

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Having failed in an earlier effort to bar federal agents from enforcing gun regulations in Missouri, conservative lawmakers are trying a new tack this year: banding together with other like-minded states to defy certain federal laws at the same time.

Supporters believe it will be more difficult for the federal government to shrug off such statutes if more states act together.

Sheriff Swaps Capone-Era Tommy Guns For AR-15s

David Lohr   |   January 10, 2014    1:57 PM ET

Faced with the expense of rearming his deputies with new weapons, a North Carolina sheriff managed to turn two dusty old vault finds into dozens of brand-new AR-15 rifles.

"We were disposing of all types of equipment in preparation for a move, when we found these weapons in our vault," Forsyth County sheriff William Schatzman told The Huffington Post. "We did some research and found out they were very valuable."

The weapons, Schatzman said, were two vintage Thompson submachine guns, commonly known as "Tommy guns." The sheriff said the weapons had been out of service for about 50 years.

Made in 1928, the fully functioning automatic weapons had been donated to the sheriff's department by the RJ Reynolds tobacco company in the 1930s.

"They are [the same type of] weaponry once used by Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde and FBI," Schatzman said.

The sheriff's department, which is made up of about 500 officers, who protect some 350,000 residents, was cash-strapped and in desperate need of new weapons. Schatzman said he decided to solve the problem by selling the two guns.

"We [cleared it with] the ATF and offered them up to our law enforcement licensed suppliers of weaponry. They bid on them and the winning bid was $60,000," Schatzman said.

The sheriff pushed for a trade, rather than cash and ultimately netted 88 new Bushmaster AR-15 rifles. But that's not all, he also managed to get dozens of Glock .45-caliber magazines and other parts in exchange for 14 Smith & Wesson revolvers that were also collecting dust in the Forsyth County armory.

"We were able to get equipment we needed, instead of destroying [something of] value to a collector," Schatzman said.

The weapons, the sheriff added, also proved to be of great value to local citizens, who were ultimately saved a great deal of expense.

"This was an opportunity to save tax payers here some money, so we jumped on it," Schatzman said. "Anytime we can be more efficient we do that."

Mollie Reilly   |   January 8, 2014    3:39 PM ET

A Kentucky state lawmaker accidentally fired her handgun in her legislative office Tuesday.

State Representative Leslie Combs, a Democrat, was unloading her gun in her Capitol Annex office when it went off. Fellow state Rep. Jeff Greer was also in her office at the time, but no one was hurt in the incident.

"I'm a gun owner," Combs said Wednesday, according to the Courier-Journal. "It happens."

“I was purposely disarming it to put it up because I didn't like it and I didn’t want to use it any more," she continued. "I had had it in my purse I carry usually, and I thought I'm going to put that sucker away."

As the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, Combs has a concealed carry license, which she says she obtained several years ago "as I travel widely and sometimes at night."

Combs said she will continue to carry her handgun.

"I strongly support our Second Amendment rights and our state's concealed-carry law, and believe just as strongly that gun safety and education must be part of that equation," she said.

According to a statement from Combs' office, Kentucky police investigated the incident and determined that no portion of the round fired went anywhere outside her office.

The Correlation of Gun Laws and Gun Homicide

Paul Heroux   |   January 7, 2014    4:20 PM ET

Previously, I wrote that when we look at all 50 states we find there is a correlation between states with strict gun laws and low rates of homicide. I noted:

For example, the states with the strictest gun laws are among the states that have the lowest gun violence. Also, states with higher gun ownership and weak gun laws lead nation in gun deaths. These are true findings, but these do not prove gun bans work. It could be than laws or it could be the culture in those states; it could be police funding; it could be an excellent mental health or an excellent school system. It could be any number of third variables.
I questioned the assumptions I was working under. As it turns out, when I used my own methods instead of relying on the methods of others, I did not find a correlation.

I based my assumptions on the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which suggests which states with tougher gun laws have fewer gun homicides. The Campaign selects states that make its point. While their intention and heart are in the right place -- to prevent gun violence -- their methodology is not useful or scientifically rigorous.

If we look at all 50 states, as I did using 2010 census data on the homicide rate per state and correlate that with the Brady's state ranking of strict gun laws, we find a correlation of about .05, which is to say there is no correlation. Even when I looked at the five states with the strictest gun laws and the five states with the least strict gun laws, I did not find a correlation. I also did not find a correlation between the 10 strictest and lest restrictive gun laws states. I looked at the extremes and excluded the states in the middle because there may be a tipping point that could result in a correlation. There was not.

Qualifications

Now, it is extremely important to qualify correlation or the lack thereof and what does and doesn't mean.

  • My approach should not be used by gun rights advocates to make any point. My approach is not conclusive, and it is not meant to be. Correlation is not a useful tool to make a point for or against gun laws and their relationship with gun crime.

  • Correlation is not causation. Everyone knows this, yet both sides of this issue like to violate this rule. Just because you have a correlation, it does not mean there is a causal relationship.

  • We can have causation without correlation. Strict gun laws may result in lower gun homicides, or they may not. Just because we don't find a correlation it doesn't mean that the gun laws don't help. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. The point is that correlation is not a useful scientific measurement tool to determine causation or the lack thereof.

  • I only looked at one year's worth of data. This is insufficient to draw any conclusions about a correlation or the lack thereof.

  • I only looked at gun homicide rates. In looking at gun homicide rates, I am not including gun suicide rates or shootings that did not result in a death.

Often times supporters of the Second Amendment like to point out that Chicago has perhaps the strictest gun laws in the nation but one of the highest homicide rates. This is a cherry-picked example. The other side can also point to New Orleans and its very high rate of gun violence and the very loose gun laws. Cherry-picking is done by both sides of this issue and it does not advance gun safety or a better understanding of what works and what doesn't.

The point of this article is two fold: 1) It is important and responsible to question assumptions and revise statements when something new is learned. This is not flip-flopping as opponents like to say. It is a responsible use of facts and research methods. Both sides of this issue need to do this. And 2) I previously urged caution with the use of correlation and I am further urging caution on this. I want to slow down the loose use of correlation as a way to prove or disprove that there is a causal relationship between strict gun laws and gun homicide rates. Maybe there is, maybe there isn't. Correlation is not going to answer this question.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. He previously worked for a prison and a jail, and he has a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com.

Paige Lavender   |   January 6, 2014    9:05 AM ET

Jerome Hauer, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's director of homeland security, reportedly used the laser sighting device on his handgun as a pointer during a presentation to a foreign delegation, according to the Times Union.

The Times Union reports the incident happened October 24 in Albany at the emergency operations center below State Police headquarters, according to public officials who described the incident:

These officials, one of whom claimed to be an eyewitness, said that three Swedish emergency managers in the delegation were rattled when the gun's laser tracked across one of their heads before Hauer found the map of New York, at which he wanted to point.

Hauer, commissioner of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, was disabled by a stroke a few years ago and can be unsteady. He isn't a law enforcement official. He carries the loaded 9-millimeter Glock in a holster into state buildings, an apparent violation of state law barring state employees from bringing weapons to the workplace, several witnesses say.

The incident with the Swedish delegation occurred during a two-hour briefing at the operations center concerning the state's response to Superstorm Sandy, according to one of the officials.

In an earlier report, the Times Union said Hauer told a reporter who asked about the Glock to search his name on Google. Hauer said he carried the weapon because he'd received threats, likely referencing those who've criticized his work as New York City’s emergency management director during 9/11.

Cuomo nominated Hauer as Commissioner of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services in October 2011. He was unanimously confirmed in January 2012.

Hauer said he looked "forward to serving the mission of the division and protecting the public safety of the 19 million residents and countless visitors in our great state."

Read more at the Times Union.

Media Coverage of Mental Illness and Violence

Robert David Jaffee   |   January 5, 2014    6:38 PM ET

Are those with a serious mental illness more likely to be violent than those who are not mentally ill?

That depends on whether or not the seriously mentally ill are in treatment, whether or not the definition of violence includes being the victim of a crime, how the questions are asked by interviewers and how they are interpreted by subjects who may be in a psychotic state.

On Friday, Jan. 3, I spoke by telephone with Professor Jeffrey Swanson, a leading epidemiological researcher on mental illness at Duke University Medical School. Professor Swanson's 1990 study, which was cited in a front-page Dec. 22 article in the New York Times by reporters Michael Luo and Mike McIntire, indicated that 33% of those with a serious mental illness but no substance abuse problems reported violent behavior in the past. By contrast, only 15% of those with no diagnosable disorder reported past violent behavior.

Even if we leave aside the fact that the statistics were obtained from interviews in the 1980s and might need an update, there are a few caveats to the numbers mentioned in the Times' article. As Professor Swanson told me over the phone, the 33% figure represents acts of violence "over the course of a lifetime." When the subjects of the study were asked whether or not they had engaged in violent behavior in the past year, only 7% of those with a serious mental illness indicated that they had been violent, as opposed to 2% to 3% of those with no diagnosis.

In addition, the study was randomized and as a result included a "mix of people in the community," said Professor Swanson. What that means is that some of the subjects who met the criteria for serious mental illness were in treatment and "some were not," as Swanson said.

When we spoke over the phone, Professor Swanson agreed that the seriously mentally ill who are in treatment tend to be no more of a threat to others than those who have no diagnosable disorder. Swanson mentioned other "compounding" factors that make someone with a serious mental illness more likely to be violent: a history of past violence, substance abuse and the incidence of violence in the neighborhood in which the subject lives.

When I mentioned to Swanson that those with a serious mental illness are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crime, he did not dispute that and noted that his 1990 study did not break down whether or not the subjects had been victimized.

I can say from personal experience that it also matters how an interviewer asks a question. When I checked into the UCLA psych ward in January 1999, my late psychiatrist, Dr. Michael McGrail, about whom I wrote a glowing tribute in the L.A. Times after he passed away, and his colleagues asked me if I was a threat to myself. I said yes.

Then they asked me if I was a threat to anyone else. I, who had been off my medication for roughly a week and who was in the throes of psychosis, told them that I thought I might have to defend myself given that I feared that I might be assassinated.

Based on my response, they unfortunately wrote down that I was a threat to others, and they held me involuntarily for 72 hours, even though I had never been violent in my life and I had walked more than 20 miles to get to UCLA. No one had to force me to enter the psych ward. I did so of my own volition.

I mention all of this because it shows that those with a serious mental illness, particularly a psychotic disorder, are not only more likely than others to misread a situation and possibly get into a violent confrontation; they are also more likely to be misread by those interviewing them.

This leads me to conclude that the New York Times' recent, front-page, lead article on mental illness and guns, followed by its editorial a week later, could have benefited from a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the issues that have an impact on the studies involving those with a serious mental illness.

For the record, I agree with President Obama's recent executive actions on gun control, and I agree with the overall tenor of the Times' coverage, although I cannot agree that those who have been mandated to receive inpatient or outpatient care should be characterized as "obviously risky citizens," as a Times' Jan. 4 editorial, "Stopping Mentally Ill Gun Buyers," proclaimed. I was never an obviously risky citizen even though I was involuntarily hospitalized.

While I have argued in this space numerous times that those with a serious mental illness should be barred from owning firearms, the reason is not because the seriously mentally ill are necessarily more of a threat to commit a homicide. It is because those with a serious mental disorder, in particular men, are much more likely to take their own lives if they have a gun.

Mark Bowes   |   January 3, 2014    9:45 AM ET

As expected, Virginia gun sales set a new high in 2013 with nearly 480,000 transactions statewide, breaking the record set a year earlier.

Gun transactions in Virginia totaled 479,253 for the year, a 10.8 percent increase over the previous record of 432,387 transactions in 2012, according to Virginia State Police figures of mandatory criminal-background checks of gun buyers released Thursday.

State police said 2013 represents the highest yearly volume of transactions since the inception of Virginia's background check program, which began Nov. 1, 1989.

Gun sales were brisk in the first four months of 2013, with month-over-month increases of 115.8 percent, 38.5 percent, 41 percent and 28.4 percent for January, February, March and April, respectively, police said.

Gun sales on Black Friday also set a record, but overall sales in November and December dipped from 2012 sales for those months.

"While 2013 was another record-setting year for gun transactions, the rate of growth slowed from previous years," noted Thomas R. Baker, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's L. Douglas Wilder School of Government Affairs who specializes in criminology theory and has an interest in gun-related issues.

Baker noted that Virginia saw a 16 percent increase in 2011 and a 34.6 percent increase in 2012, but only a 10.8 percent increase last year.

"In fact, for the first time in the past three years there was a decline in gun transactions in four months in 2013 from what we saw in 2012," Baker said. "This may be a signal that concerns over restrictions are beginning to wane or that those concerned about increased restrictions have made their purchases."

However, Baker had noted last year that another gun-buying frenzy could occur in Virginia if Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who favors increased gun restrictions, proposes any state-level gun legislation this year.

2010 2011 2012 2013 Change from 2012 to 2013

January 21,405 23,655 27,226 58,760 115.82%

February 24,804 31,004 39,624 54,896 38.54%

March 25,091 29,632 35,239 49,687 41.00%

April 21,904 25,110 29,402 37,765 28.44%

May 17,657 19,922 24,266 29,685 22.33%

June 16,144 18,640 24,762 28,122 13.57%

July 20,630 22,547 29,072 27,565 -5.18%

August 21,883 22,315 31,016 31,851 2.69%

September 21,686 24,640 32,524 32,219 -0.94%

October 25,048 28,275 33,893 35,148 3.70%

November 28,588 33,469 50,243 43,456 -13.51%

December 31,925 41,957 75,120 50,099 -33.31%

Totals 276,765 321,166 432,387 479,253 10.84%

"We could see another surge in sales similar to those in response to fears about national gun control legislation," Baker said.

Gun dealers and other observers have cited President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012 and the fears of increased gun restrictions after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut in December 2012 as the driving forces behind the leap in gun sales.

"My only comment would be that the gun industry and its mouthpiece organizations seem to be able to drum up fear endlessly even though, as time passes, none of the predictions on which they base their fear mongering come to pass," said Andrew Goddard, president of the Virginia Center for Public Safety and one of the state's leading gun control advocates.

"At what point will gun owners realize that they are being duped into artificially boosting gun sales for no valid reason?"

Goddard said there is no way of knowing what proportion of the guns are being purchased by first-time buyers, and therefore there is "no way of knowing who or where the guns are actually going to."

Goddard believes Virginia continues to have a "rampant" gun trafficking problem both within and outside the state, along with "a relaxation of laws that would curtail that." Consequently, "the increased sales could be boosting trafficking by providing a larger pool of 'legal' guns available for diversion to the illegal market," he said.

Goddard said the latest available Virginia gun death figures for 2012 show a slight increase in child deaths and accidents, despite a drop in homicides and suicides. "This is a predictable result from increasing the number of guns owned, which increases the frequency of contact between children and guns in the home," he said.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, one of the state's leading gun rights groups, had a much different take.

After Sandy Hook, Van Cleave said, gun owners saw the "anti-gunners" coming out in force and "going berserk, deciding that now they could pass every gun control measure in the world because they had the blood of dead children" to exploit.

"And indeed they did that, I mean they really pushed hard," Van Cleave said. "We saw all kinds of stuff going into the General Assembly during that time. And in the end, we beat every one of them back. None of them got out of committee."

Van Cleave noted that several states after Sandy Hook "rushed into passive massive gun control" measures -- and in the case of New York, "doing it in the middle of the night" -- to the dismay of some local governments and police.

"We saw California and Colorado reacting -- all of these reactions got gun owners' attention here in Virginia," he added. "Anytime you threaten to ban guns, to make more restrictions, all you're going to do is make sure there are far more guns out there than if you just kept your mouth shut. The other side hasn't learned this."

Exact sales of firearms in Virginia are neither reported nor recorded, but the background check records provide a rough estimate of the number of firearms sold.

There is not a one-to-one correlation between background checks and the number of guns sold because some customers buy multiple firearms. Also, about 1 percent of the background checks in Virginia typically result in people being denied permission to buy a weapon.

The background check figures also do not reflect activity between private parties, such as family members or collectors at gun shows, because federal and Virginia laws require background checks only for sales from commercial dealers with a federal firearms license.

Virginia gun dealer sales estimates, which are compiled separately and provide an even better accounting of the number and types of firearms sold in the state, are not yet available. ___

Little Boys: Doves vs. Dynamite

Tarja Parssinen   |   December 31, 2013   12:17 PM ET

Looking back at 2013, I can tell you that my 5-year-old son really put a damper on my 21st century, gender-neutral, Bay-area parenting agenda.

Pacifism is in, but it is very hard to talk troop-withdrawal with the troops because the troops are interested in protecting and fighting and good guys and bad guys and war and guns -- LET US NOT FORGET THE GUNS. But we're not going to call them guns, we're going to call them "lasers" or "blasters" or "laser blasters" and most definitely not what they really are, but if they're "water laser blasters" then that's okay, especially when directed at a squirrel.

Also, just so no one gets the wrong impression, my son was not a soldier for Halloween. He was a Viking, which is completely different. Vikings were all about peace and love (Haight Ashbury has nothing on 9th century Iceland) -- and that is not a sword, it's a scythe of prosperity. Besides, I'm pretty sure his backup costume was John Muir, the famous naturalist and advocate of wilderness preservation.

It all comes down to a feel-good word choice, just like with the laser-blaster-not-a-gun. A "viking," "ninja" or "knight" sounds better than a "soldier." Although, let's be honest, they're all soldiers who will kill you dead, even if it's with nunchucks and not guns. Combatting the combat of little boys is a game of linguistics. Like Words With Friends, but Words With Synonyms: say anything but the word! And the kids are on to us. They know how to slip-slide right through the verbal booby-traps: LOOK MOM, A BOW-AND-ARROW NOT A GUN!

It gets tiring. I wonder if Mia Farrow -- whose life work is humanitarian aid! -- ever came back from the grocery store only to discover her children had whittled the USS Arizona out of wood and were re-enacting Japan dropping the bomb on Pearl Harbor. Did she ever contemplate going on a hunger strike to enact a less masculine approach to playtime? I become a real bitch when I go into starvation mode, so I think I would have to do something like a Reverse Dessert Strike where I eat the kid's candy to teach them a lesson.

And let's face it, mainly I'm fighting the judgement I feel from others. The visceral reaction when my son says the word "gun" at a playground, the recoiling at aggressive play, the intense discomfort at young boys engaging in the play of good vs. bad. It is the hypersensitivity of today's world pitted against the nature of little boys.

As a kid, my father regaled us with stories of growing up on a ranch, BB gun in one hand, sling shot in another, John Wayne coming over to go hunting with Grandpa. A different era, certainly, and with the next generation -- my brother -- the BB gun was traded for a little plastic gun, and off he would go to play "Cowboys and Indians." Three generations out and I have instinctively deleted "gun" from the family dictionary. The hitch is that the family dictionary and the preschool dictionary do not mesh. Like roses growing in Harlem and cockroaches surviving nuclear fallout, there's no stopping the information flow. Boys are going to stake their male identity flag in the ground, with or without your guidance.

As it turns out, my son is not interested in the game "Cowboys Who Start A Land Re-Distribution Program and Help Native Americans Plant Corn." In fact, most of the pacifistic monkey wrenches I throw in my son's games end up making me look like a complete fool. "Honey, the word 'battle' is an alteration of the Latin battualia which are fencing exercises which is almost like dancing and hey, let's have a dance party!" Surely there is a better way to toe the line between being the fool of a false reality and raising a boy without bloodlust.

To the countless queries and comments each day -- "What's war?" "I want to be a Navy SEAL." "What do fighter pilots do?" "We're gonna battle today!" "Watch this ninja spin!" -- I tell myself: He is the explorer, you are the sherpa. Guide him away from the precipices, the avalanches. Admire the views despite the altitude sickness. And when times are tough, when you can't see one foot in front of you, find yourself a sherpa -- someone who will carry that load with you. Someone who will teach you that imaginative play -- and not reality -- is the perfect place to work through the complexities of good and evil.

At the end of the day, I do a ninja spin into bed and pilot my way into the imaginary battles of a good book. At the bottom of the heap on my nightstand is Tolstoy. Whether I'll ever read him or not is irrelevant, he simply serves as a reminder, like How to Parent a Spirited Child and 1,2,3 Magic. Tolstoy did, after all, have ten children and War and Peace was probably a treatise written for his sanity -- but he is a token of all that murky, treacherous material you must wade through to get from war... to peace, two words that cannot be so simply defined by "bad" and "good."

2014 will continue to be an adventure of wading through the unknown, and fun will be had despite my unease. There will be bands of merry men and swords in stones and super spying and lots of rescuing and while my son sits next to me on his brave steed -- sword raised! ready for battle! -- I'm going to raise an olive branch.

It's time I gave peace a chance with myself as a parent.

Unavoidable Year-End Challenges to Redeeming the Soul of America

Clarence B. Jones   |   December 31, 2013   11:27 AM ET

TV and print media are preoccupied with looking back at the "worst" and "best" things or people in 2013. Most comment about the obvious people or events: the Republican Party-induced government shutdown, Edward Snowden's disclosure of the magnitude of NSA surveillance into our personal privacy, the botched online rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the attempt to pass gun legislation following the Newtown massacre, judicial and legislative validation of the rights of LGBT people, the Supreme Court declaring unconstitutional the "pre-clearance" Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and more.

All of the above, and more, were important events during 2013. But underlying all of them is the unresolved, over arching issue of just what kind of nation are we today? Perhaps best exemplified by the question asked by Pope Francis, "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"

To Pope Francis' question can be added, what kind of country are we that our Congress can fail to provide the $19 billion needed to fund a three-month extension of unemployment benefits for 1.3 million recipients?

Underlying a resolution of ALL of the above is the issue of two contrasting concepts and views about the role of government in addressing social and economic issues. The view of our Republican-controlled House and their allies in the Tea Party is that the best government is no government at all in connection with the needs of the poor or unemployed. As a nation, we have got to decide which "side" are we on?

Probably no issue requires resolution more than that of the attitude of a substantial number of white Americans toward Barack Obama as president of the United States. An irrational mindset still believes he is not legitimately qualified to serve as president because he is not an American citizen (was born in Kenya, not Hawaii), is a Muslim, not a Christian, and a closet "socialist" committed to take their lawfully purchased guns away from them. I could go on and on.

Added to this is the frequent presence of Confederate flags at some anti-Obama rallies.
Few if any of the media pundits are willing to tell it like it is: in 2013 there are still a substantial number of white Americans who are fundamentally opposed to President Obama because he is an African-American man.

The Confederate flags represent a mindset from slavery that 24/7 seeks to destroy and emasculate the African-American male. Fearful of being challenged by the allegation of "playing the race card," most media pundits shy away from or are unwilling to publicly say that the "driver" underlying much of the opposition to Obama is fundamentally because, pure and simple, he is not a white male.

Regrettably, Obama fueled this opposition by "shooting himself in the foot" in terms of retaining the trust and confidence among a significant segment of the most active part of his voter base. This is a consequence of his failure to deliver on his pre-election pledge to close Guantanamo Bay, a perceived excessive use of drones, compounded by the Snowden disclosure of NSA's invasion of our privacy, an "uncertain trumpet" of foreign leadership in response to the military coup in Egypt, the civil war in Syria under President Assad, and of course, the Keystone Cops-esque roll out of the Affordable Care Act.

No issue, however, is more central to the redemption of the soul in America in 2014 than that of gun violence. Controls to assure the responsible ownership and use of guns are unavoidable if we are serious about redeeming the soul of America. I urge all people interested in participating in this effort to check out the website of EVOLVE.com.