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Gun Violence – Revisited

On September 16, 2013 at the Navy Yard section of Washington, D.C.  a lone gunman took the lives of 12 people and wounded four more. Sadly, multiple shooting incidents have become more frequent.

A study by Scripps Howard News Service found that from 1980 through 2010, there were 20,223 cases of homicide involving at least two victims. The same study found at least 994 acts of mass murder, generally defined as the killing of four or more people in a single incident.

On average, there were about 32 acts of mass murder each year during the last 31 years (Scripps Howard News Service). The Scripps study did not include the New Town; Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, and the five other mass murders that occurred between 2011 and 2013 (Mother Jones).

In the aftermath of the Navy Yard shootings, experts are asking the same question: Are mass homicides preventable?

It is likely that a consensus among experts is that it is nearly impossible to completely prevent gun-related mass murders. However, they believe we can significantly reduce such incidents via preventive measures. Unfortunately, formulating a prevention model is problematic because it is difficult to come up with a national consensus about the root cause of mass murders and gun violence.

Varying points of view on causation include:

  • Gun advocates who believe mental illness is the main cause;
  • Those who are strongly anti-guns (especially assault rifles) would argue that gun control legislation is the key to greatly reducing all gun violence, including mass murder; and
  • Others who feel it is a combination of easy access to assault rifles and inadequate screening of gun purchasers for mental illness is the main cause of the persistent pattern of mass murders over the years.

It seems logical that a first step in preventing mass gun-related killings would be to greatly reduce the availability of, or eliminate assault weapons such as the AR-15 that are capable of killing or severely wounding many people in a very short period of time. It is important to note that the average time it takes a mass murderer, from the first shot to the last, is less that 15 minutes to initiate and complete a massacre. This is because with the rapid firing capability and the availability of high capacity clips, a huge volley of bullets can be discharged in a matter of seconds. Therefore, it would seem unreasonable to ignore the need for legislation that limits access to assault rifles and high capacity clips.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the role of mental illness as a factor in many of the incidence of mass murders in America. The assailants in the Navy Yard and New Town shootings and the Arizona shopping center shootings that injured former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and resulted in the death of six people were clearly experiencing mental illness and should not have had access to firearms, especially assault rifles.

While it is possible although politically difficult to put a national ban on ban assault rifles, implementing a national mental illness screening policy as a tool for preventing gun-related mass killing is very tricky and opens up many civil liberty concerns.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) warns against labeling all people with serious mental illnesses as potential mass murders.  Data supports NAMI’s concerns. In fact, relatively few people with serious mental illnesses commit a crime of violence as compared to members of society in general. Regrettably, there is a push to create a national mental health registry that would be used by gun stores for screening purposes. Conceptually, a national mental health registry would require each state to report mental health information to a federal database. Due to confidentiality reasons, many mental health advocacy groups are concerned about sharing mental illness information with a federal registry. In addition, many advocates are resistant to a mental health registry because of the potential for increased stigma associated with mental illness. NAMI’s position is that we must guard against using a mental health registry to suggest persons with mental illness are prone to violence.

It has been argued that there are confidentiality safeguards that can be built into mental health registry policies that would protect individuals with mental illness. One suggested safeguard is to only add the names of those that have been judged to be a threat to themselves or others to the federal registry (Boston Globe). NASW is concerned that widespread breeches of confidentiality and misinformation would occur with such a mental health registry. Therefore we oppose this approach.

Finally, discussions of gun violence cannot be complete unless we include the massive number of deaths and severe injuries that are caused by guns on a daily basis in America’s cities. It is ironic that just four days after the Navy Yard tragedy, there was another incident of mass gun related violence. However, this time it was in the Southside of Chicago when 13 young people, including a three-year-old child were shot during a playground dispute with a military-style assault weapon.  While this incident was indeed an attempt at mass murder, gun-related urban violence is usually relegated to a special category called black-on-black crime which implies a race-based causation rather than the proliferation of guns or mental illness. This potentially leads to racial disparities in addressing violence.

It is clear that all gun-violence that result in massively high deaths and injuries are both a criminal justice and a public health problem. This means that the development of prevention and early intervention strategies calls for a partnership between legislation/law enforcement (eliminating the purchase of high capacity magazines and assault rifles) and the public health system (such as modifying psychiatric commitment policies that allow for protective commitments that are less stringent that “danger to self and others”). Mass violence has the same result whether it is urban gang violence or isolated mass murder by a mentally ill gunman. They both should be treated with the same sense of urgency.



National Alliance for the Mentally Ill: Violence and Mental Illness: Myths, Facts, and How Mental Health First Aid Can Help.

Mother Jones Magazine: A Guide to Mass Shootings in America | Mother Jones.

Centers for Disease Control: The Public Health Approach to Violence Prevention.

Social Work Today:  Understanding Traumatic Grief — Mass Violence, Shattered.


Mel Wilson, LCSW, MBA, Manager of NASW’s Department of Social Justice and Human Rights



One comment

  1. Gary Bachman MSSW

    Thank you to the NASW for bringing this issue back before us.

    This topic represents an important dialog we must have in this nation. It is also a dialog fraught with bias, passion and a load of misinformation. As social workers, either individually or as a group, it occurs to me that we may be uniquely prepared to facilitate such discussions. Are we up to this challenging responsibility? Have we the courage? Have we the patience? I hope so.

    Having thrown down that gauntlet, you may want to consider that I am also writing this as a gun owner. See, it was the carrying of firearms into the woods as an adolescent that honed my skills of observation and sparked my passion for the out-of –doors, nature and the environment. Later I paid for a portion of my undergraduate education as manager of the gun department in a sporting goods store. And firearms have long been a part of my life. And it was those observational skills I learned so long ago that have served me well throughout my personal as well as professional life. To be clear, I’m not afraid of guns, I don’t hate guns and I’m certainly not “anti-gun.” I AM anti-stupid. There is no questioning this reality: in matters of interpersonal violence: firearms manifest a level of force necessary to conclude any difference summarily and fatally. Firearms make it easier to kill. And modern firearms make it easier to kill with a quick and voluminous efficiency unimagined by our forefathers.

    To be clear, the Navy Yard murders, and the public slaughters that are now a part of our shared history, are only a thin slice of reality. Such tragedy is visited upon our neighbors every day, one here, two there another one down the block, with-out hardly a mention in our newspapers, our classrooms or our statehouses. It’s as if we have become accustomed to such slaughter when it only accounts for three or more innocents at a time; or if the deaths occur in particular “safe” neighborhoods or at a late hour. The presumption seems that innocents and innocence are neither one a basis for our joint action. It also occurs to me that the policy lessons of “red lining” may have current relevance in other factors than real estate marketing.

    Through my experience as a trauma center social worker, I grew frighteningly accustomed to the reality that it was firearms in the hands of anonymous strangers and in the hands of the upset and the hands of the hateful and in the hands of innocent children, which killed and maimed. Every day. Piercing flesh and destroying lives, families and communities. And today, modern technology combined with ease of access and a well-orchestrated NRA marketing scheme under the guise of Constitutional privilege, all combine to sustain a fatal vision for our individual future as well as that of our nation.

    Through-out my professional life, I’ve personally sat with dozens of families as they learned the fate of their loved ones. Each struck down, somehow, by a bullet from a firearm, often one purchased for safety’s sake. Some of those children died, some suffered permanent disfigurement, others, the fortunate others, came away relatively unscathed. But it was never easy and it never got easier. Recognizing that we are each someone’s child, (or parent or brother or sister) the number I’ve personally encountered reaches into the hundreds. And it never once has made sense. But I did learn that hydrogen peroxide would get blood stains out of my clothing.

    And yes I’ve seen other children injured and dying from injuries that did NOT involve firearms: in-fact I’ve only worked 2 multiple killings of children and neither involved firearms. The first involved a 16” length of ½ inch black steel pipe. The other was a truck packed full of explosives in Oklahoma. But is that really the argument someone wants to make? (Peculiarly, it would seem that for some, the answer is yes.)

    Yeah, yeah, guns don’t kill people. PEOPLE kill… Look, ignorance and hate and fear and intolerance and short sighted political jingoism, paired with the preferential embrace of cold steel or synthetic polymers rather than anyone who is perceived as “different,” yes, these things are what kill people. But we don’t stand a chance of changing this reality by altering just one compound in the formula. Yet that is exactly what the concealed carry movement and the NRA are all about: the changing of reality through the MARKETING of a peculiarly twisted and short sighted mentality that says more guns for self-defense are somehow a valid solution. And that any discussion of regulation must certainly digress to the imagery of Charlton Hesston’s cold, dead hands tightly embracing a Kentucky Long Rifle.

    Do not underestimate the reach and financial influence of the NRA. They have lobbyists working in every state and they substantially underwrite or undermine political candidates in every state and national election. How deep is their influence? The US Senator that represents the district where my university is located, employs as his chief of political affairs, an individual whose previous job for the seven years since graduating from college, was as a lobbyist for the NRA. And as someone in my household is a “registered” republican (I’m not naming names…) we have had almost routine phone calls since over the past couple of years seeking financial help to fight “Obamas plan to take away our rights and our guns.”
    The gun lobby has effectively made this debate about provoked fear, a skewed interpretation of constitutional freedoms the necessary expanding concealed carry, and the arming even of teachers!

    This is a marketing strategy masquerading as a political mandate, one that dwells on our fears as well as our differences. And fear sells. It also compels the dummying down of American into polar reactionaries that see issues as black and white, liberal or conservative, (or socialist!) pro-gun or anti -gun, pro-life or anti life, with me or agin’ me. There is naivety on both sides of the debate. We must relinquish our embrace of rampant horror as well as mindless quick fixes.

    I must also acknowledge that there are many upstanding, intelligent, well trained and well prepared individuals out there who have their concealed carry permits and who are ever vigilant of the responsibility that accompanies such authority. Some are dear friends, some are family, and some are students. And I’m not remotely arguing here that their permits should somehow be revoked, never mind taking away their firearms. As a social worker and educator, I recognize that this is a complicated debate, but I am appalled by the narrow minded and fanatical embrace of seemingly simple solutions (like the carrying of firearms or total banning of) by otherwise bright and intelligent people. And that’s a fair part of why I don’t want anyone bringing firearms into my classroom.

    We social workers might reflect upon the emerging new version of “Blaming the Victim.” Indeed, it has already been widely suggested that if the principal at Sandy Hook, or one of those murdered teachers or the school psychologist or that nurse cowering beneath her desk, had been armed, that whole episode might have had a different ending. Yes obviously, ones failure to arm them-selves 24/7 is our latest manifestation of blaming the victim.
    Concealed carry proponents will certainly, and perhaps justly argue THEIR right to self-defense. But let me offer an opposing perspective:
    What about MY “right to life,” (threatened by perhaps well intended people who may not understand the nature of any particular threat) “liberty” (intimidated and silenced by armed class mates who may possibly see my politics, sexual orientation or religion, as a threat) and “the pursuit of happiness” squashed by the implicit sense of threat and dread provoked by the arming of classmates and faculty against any potential, anonymous, unidentified, and as yet only a speculative threat. Who wins when ones’ rights violate an others?

    In church recently, our opening hymn included the verse,

    “God, teach us peacemaking in every role.
    In each relationship make peace our goal.
    Yet give us insight that keeps us aware
    Justice and mercy in balance to share.”

    Indeed, Insight and awareness is invaluable. That is what we should be arming our students and faculty with. Not Glocks and Rugers and Smith & Wesson’s.

    When I reduce all of my own opposition (to the proliferation of high capacity – rapid fire weaponry, campus concealed carry and the arming of educators) down to its essence, there are two key elements that remain; one, the blood and horror I have personally SEEN and experienced and; two, the sense that there is a better, smarter, larger, more meaningful solution to violence in our society.

    From the depth of my soul is the belief that to give-in to the fear and to resign ourselves to carrying concealed firearms or high-powered assault style weapons (as a solution too and) in anticipation of any uncertain threat, is a personal and societal failure of grand scale. It’s a short cut that doesn’t remotely address the core issues.

    Yes, we could as a society tolerate universal concealed carry or even open carry and still pursue macro solutions. But as a society, we (the big WE) as individuals, have a sorry tendency not to look at things in the big picture. Our society is increasingly one that embraces convenience and immediate gratification over real substantive solutions. (And gunfire tends to result in VERY immediate solutions. Or say, consequences.) Do any of us really want our communities to reflect fanciful imagery of the American west portrayed in “Gunsmoke,” “The Rifleman,” or “The Lone Ranger.”

    Look, we are smarter than this. (Aren’t we?) I propose that we have an opportunity here to clearly contribute something significant and palatable to our communities: to take some measure of responsible leadership in buoying this issue mid-stream in our universities, our communities and at our dinner tables. This responsibility, although hardly ours alone is spelled out for us in that item called a Code of Ethics that we so readily encourage our students to read and abide by. We dare not to set back and wring our hands. Ours is a profession of service and integrity, respecting diverse lives as well as livelihoods while pursuing and sustaining opportunities for individual dignity and social justice.

    One final point. It serves us no advantage to imagine that everyone thinks like us, even within the scope of this profession. I have had communications from with other social work who have very firmly planted opinions and perspectives, contrary to what I’ve offered here. Most of those communications have been civil and sincere. A couple have not. But those individuals are still our friends and neighbors and colleagues. And due our civility. Such is life.

    There is a lot of work before us all.

    Sincerely, Gary E. Bachman MSSW, LSCSW

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