6:35 AM EST, January 20, 2013
The December shooting rampage that took the lives of 20 first-graders and six members of the staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has renewed the national debate on gun violence.
South Bend, mercifully, was spared this tragedy. But nearly every day, The Tribune reports shootings in our community that often have fatal consequences.
Last week, President Barack Obama's Gun Violence Task Force, released key recommendations, ranging from reinstatement of a ban on assault weapons and limiting the number of bullets in magazines to expanding access to mental health care.
Would these steps make our community safer?
Today, we share eight different perspectives on the problem and the search for answers.
Dan Myers is a professor of sociology, vice president and associate provost for faculty affairs at the University of Notre Dame.
Q. Because of the loss of innocent lives, people say the Connecticut school shootings are different. Will this reality become the new normal? Will the tragedy prompt any change in culture or law or fade from attention as earlier ones have?
A. The difference between this and prior domestic shootings is the age of victims. While all of our recent mass shooting incidents have had innocent victims, there is a special pain we feel when the life of a young child is snuffed out prematurely. Parents psychologically need to send their young children to school with confidence that they are going to be in a safe environment. That confidence was shattered by this incident. The Connecticut shooting reveals that motivated assailants can easily defeat reasonable security measures and, therefore, parents begin to feel there is no safe environment for their children.
Q. In efforts to curb such violence, what issues do you think should get primary focus?
A. New questions come into focus. Rather than thinking about how to prevent shootings through increased security measures, as this begins to seem impossible, we turn our attention to the supply of deadly force and the ease of access to it. Thus, although there is a strong tendency for the salience of any dramatic event to fade over time, this is an unprecedented moment that provides an opportunity to reconsider the role of gun control in our American society.
If leadership can quickly gather momentum, laws may change. That in turn may lead to a cultural shift, but a direct change in culture from any single incident is highly improbable.
Brad Rupert - General manager of Midwest Gun Exchange Inc., Mishawaka
Q. Gun stores, including yours, have reported the popularity of AR-15 style weapons. What are the distinguishing features of these weapons that make them so appealing?
A. People in or around the firearms industry know them as modern sporting rifles, while most people who do not have experience with firearms call them assault rifles. Assault rifle is a term originally used to describe full-automatic machine guns used by militaries around the world. Today's modern sporting rifles have the same appearance but not the same functionality of their military counterparts.
Of the group, the AR-15 has the highest popularity. It has the appearance of the M-16, variations of which are currently used by the U.S. military.
The popularity of these rifles can be attributed to many factors. While appearance plays a large role, adaptability is probably more important to most buyers. Owners are able the take a basic AR-15 and through the addition of accessories, caliber changes, optics and variable barrel lengths, are able to transform the firearm to fit their specific needs. The AR-15 rifle in its standard configuration has become very popular among "varmint" hunters. When adapted to larger calibers, AR-15s are popular for hunting larger game out West and in the South.
Long-range competitive target shooters have also taken the basic rifle and transformed it into an outstanding target rifle. While many people will try to tell you that these so-called assault rifles are not suitable for home defense, it is just the opposite. Obviously, people who want to ban these rifles are doing so because of their scary appearance. Since the first objective in home defense is deterrence, what would change the mind of an intruder quicker than seeing Mom or Dad in their pajamas pointing an AR-15 or AK-47 at them?
Lastly, some people buy them simply as part of a collection as an investment or a "just in case" rifle. Between terrorist attacks, large-scale natural disasters, border violence, financial uncertainty and a perceived increase in violent crime across the country, most Americans are realizing they cannot count on someone else for the safety and security of their family.
Q.Indiana requires background checks on gun buyers in stores such as yours. Is the system adequate?
A. Anyone who wishes to purchase one of these rifles, or any firearm, from a licensed firearm dealer must fill out a federal form and pass a background check that is called in to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System call center. The FBI checks the purchaser's personal information against several national and international databases. All past convictions or current indictments for felonies and some misdemeanors, including domestic violence prohibit a person from owning firearms.
A dishonorable discharge from the military, record of drug use, restraining order, along with immigration status will also determine if you are prohibited from owning firearms.
Having been adjudicated mentally defective as risk to yourself or others or having been committed to a mental institution also makes you ineligible to purchase or own firearms. With federal HIPAA privacy laws, most cases involving mental health issues making a person a danger to themselves or others are not reported to law enforcement, making it impossible for gun dealers or the FBI NICS system to identify and prohibit them from guns.
Whenever there is a question of a person's mental health or the possibility of intended misuse of a firearm, my store refuses the sale and contacts the appropriate authorities.
While in most cases of people with severe mental health issues obtaining firearms to commit evil acts do not involve legal sales, enough have slipped through the background checks to require us as a nation to at least have the discussion about privacy rights in the case of mental health and public safety.
Bobbie Woods, whose 28-year-old son, Terrill, was shot and killed in 2003 in South Bend, is one of the founders of Mamas Against Violence.
Q. What went through your mind when you heard about the Sandy Hook School shootings?
A. The pain that those parents were going through. Every time I hear of a senseless loss of a child or a young person, it brings that back.
I'd like to know how many members of the NRA have lost a child to gun violence.
Q. Vice President Biden's task force is examining a range of issues, including gun access, mental illness and violence in our culture. What do you see as deserving primary focus?
A. Access to guns and types of guns available. Why does anyone need weapons like the semi-automatic rifle used in Newtown and big ammunition clips? Nobody needs that for hunting or even to protect themselves in a home invasion. A .38-caliber handgun will stop somebody.
There should be home visits to make sure people who shouldn't have access to guns, like the shooter in Connecticut, can't get them.
Violence in the media, especially video games does play a part. Some kids cannot distinguish between what's real and what isn't. Many people don't buy toy guns for kids any more -- then why these games?
Q. Has your perspective on the Second Amendment changed?
A. No, I think people are just using those rights as an excuse to flood the community with guns. My son had said that when he was 14 he could have gotten a gun. Somebody's supplying those guns. What about our kids' rights to grow up safely?
Carole Schmidt- Superintendent of the South Bend Community School Corp.
Q. We know that armed security officers are on duty at all South Bend high schools. The NRA is suggesting arming key personnel in every school to better protect children. What is your opinion of this idea?
A. I don't see this as a solution. Arming more people sends the message that guns provide appropriate response to problems. While protecting students is a priority, the use of guns is not the answer. We have many measures in place, such as: cameras at all school entrances, locked and numbered doors, ID cards worn by all students and staff, regular safety drills, school Tipline for reporting potential threats, immediate notification of law enforcement technology, crisis response training for administrators and security personnel.
Q. SB schools, like many others, have discovered guns in the possession of students on school campuses. Much more often, our students are involved in gun violence in their homes or on the streets. What issues in our community do you see that most need addressing to solve this?
A. One issue is gun safety and security in the home. Students who have been in possession of weapons on school campuses most often bring them from home, frequently without knowledge of the parents. One recommendation is to have parents check backpacks and book bags before their child leaves home. Additionally, parents should monitor student computer activity, as well as have meaningful conversations about their child's school day and peer relationships. We call on all in our community to maintain vigilance and report any suspicious activity to law enforcement.
Q. What are you hearing from parents, teachers and community members on these issues?
A. Certainly, we understand the increased level of concern by parents in light of the most recent tragedy. Often, they want information about our policies and procedures as well as how they can support our efforts. Many parents and community members now have a better understanding of why we have rigorous procedures in place for building visitors.
Ray Wolfenbarger - South Bend Police Detective who was shot three times in 2001 during a traffic stop. He now works in the department's crime lab.
Q. How has the shooting you suffered changed your views, if at all, on the Second Amendment and guns?
A. My views on the Second Amendment and guns have not changed. I feel every taxpaying citizen who is capable and has a clean criminal record should be able to own and carry a firearm if they want to. In my case, the firearm I was shot with was an illegal firearm possessed by an individual who did have a criminal record and no firearm carry permit. As a matter of fact, the firearm was actually that of a relative who was a convicted felon. If you look at the overall picture, the firearm isn't the problem. It took an individual to pick up the gun and pull the trigger to shoot me.
Q. How has what happened to you impacted your life?
A. Every day and in every step I take I have a reminder of what happened. On Dec. 16, 2001, my life, and the lives of my family and friends were changed forever. My dream of being a patrol officer was stripped away.
At first, I was given a 5 percent chance of living (a 95 percent mortality rate). Once it was known that I was going to survive, doctors informed my family and I that I would never walk again, and that I had likely suffered brain damage and would have to use of a colostomy bag for the rest of my life. With the support of my family and extended family, we fought these struggles together.
After spending more than three and a half years in outpatient physical therapy, I walk with a cane. Is it a pretty walk? No, but I am walking. God has blessed my family and me with life. I am here to spend more time with my family, laugh and cry enjoying every day that I wake up still on this Earth.
I thank every single individual who was there and continues to be here for me, my family and friends, from the bottom of my heart.
What would you want lawmakers to consider from your experience in their deliberations of possible changes in the law relating to guns, mental health, etc.?
A. I feel there should be harsher sentencing with individuals who shouldn't be carrying them. Criminals and people with mental health issues should not possess firearms.
Richard Hess - A registered nurse who has practiced in critical care, emergency medicine and disaster response for more than 32 years. Hess is an avid hunter and shooting sports enthusiast.
He is president of Hess Karfomenos & Associates Inc., a medical legal consulting firm located in Middlebury and serving the tri-state area.
Q. In the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, discussion of combating such violence has involved issues of mental illness, guns, violence in movies and video games. What, if anything, can we do to make our communities safer?
A.This event highlights two problems that had they been appropriately addressed would have resulted in different outcomes. First, the firearms used in Connecticut were not the property of the shooter. They were purchased legally with appropriate background checks, etc., by the shooter's mother. She apparently failed to secure those weapons, even knowing her son's troubling mental health. It is the personal responsibility of every gun owner to secure their firearms preventing theft and misuse.
Legally owned and secured firearms are not to blame for a majority of violent crimes within our communities. Illegally accessed firearms most certainly are part of the problem.
Disintegration of moral, social, behavioral barriers cannot be ignored. Allowing our youth access to extreme violence via video games, etc., reinforces amoral behaviors and desensitizes them. It reinforces the use of violence at extreme levels without exemplified consequence -- only the rewards of winning a game.
Second, since the early 1980s society has made it more and more difficult to serve the needs of those within our communities with ongoing mental health support.
Focusing on legislation and funding of mental health care at local, state and federal levels would serve as a springboard to driving change through positive mental health maintenance and surveillance.
What is the case for private ownership of semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 and for large clips of ammunition?
A. Semi-automatic is a term that describes many different types and styles of firearms, from hunting shotguns to the plinking rifles we enjoyed in our youth. These are not weapons of war. They are not automatic weapons. Automatic weapons are strictly licensed and restricted to purchase and ownership/use by a very small segment of our society outside of law enforcement, military and collectors, etc.
Is a semi-automatic shotgun a problem? I would argue no.
The AR-15 is manufactured in many assorted calibers and is often used for hunting and target practice.
A common misconception is that an AR-15 and other firearms like it are instruments of mass destruction. They, however, fire no differently than my favorite shotgun that I hunt ducks with.
Magazine size is a very hot topic. As a hunter, I see no reason to use a large capacity magazine in any rifle. But conversely, when going to the shooting range, large magazines equate to less frequent reloading.
Q. How do you answer those who say that the danger from these weapons that fall into the hands of indiscriminate shooters outweighs Second Amendment concerns about restricting them?
A. The problem is not legal ownership. Criminals will always find access to their weapons of choice. Look at Chicago where firearm related death No. 500 was recently heralded. These are not the actions of sane, legal gun owners. These are the actions of people within our society that are amoral, of criminal intent or of questionable mental stability. Chicago has very stringent and restrictive gun laws. These laws severely limit the opportunity for gun ownership by the general public. Still, the criminal element is at times better armed than even the law enforcement community.
Prevention of any gun to fall into the hands of those with criminal intent is of paramount importance. I feel that the mission is accomplishable without compromise of Second Amendment rights. Society has a responsibility to teach accountability, morality and provide safety in our communities for all residents.
Stripping the legal gun owners of their right to the freedoms afforded by the Founding Fathers will serve only to hasten the spiral of societal collapse.
Greg Bingaman - A registered nurse and director of trauma services for the Memorial Leighton Trauma Center.
Q. How many gunshot wounds were treated in St. Joseph County hospitals last year?
A. Memorial Hospital of South Bend's trauma center saw an increase in the number of individuals who died as a result of either a gunshot or stab wound from zero in 2011 to 11 deaths in 2012.
However, within St. Joseph County, the overall number of penetrating violence (gunshot wounds and stab wounds) did not significantly increase between 2011 and 2012. Those who suffered these injuries typically were men and young men between the ages of 15 and 45, but we do have a number of injuries in men older than 45.
Overall injuries classified as penetrating, including stab wounds, gunshot wounds and other instruments has remained steady at 9 percent of our total trauma population at Memorial hospital during the past few years. Violence-related injuries also include assaults, with or without firearms.
General abuse injuries carry a high rate of death when compared to others, such as those involving motor vehicle and falls. Death rates related to firearm injuries is typically about 10 percent to 12 percent.
Q. What type of injuries and outcomes did your gunshot patients experience?
A. The biggest problem with gun-related injuries is that bullets do not travel in a predictable manner. You can have a patient with what would appear to be an isolated wound that should not have hit any vital organs only to investigate with CT scan and find major internal injuries.
Most major injuries related to GSWs require immediate surgical intervention. Surgery is performed to prevent loss of blood and restore previous function. Injuries to major organs such as liver, spleen and intestine can cause long-term problems even after the patient is stabilized. The resources needed to care for an acute shooting victim are extraordinary. Not only highly skilled personnel, but equipment and blood products need to be ready within minutes, 7 days a week 24 hours a day. It is not unusual for a victim of a shooting to be taken to the operating room in less than 10 minutes of arrival. Cost of care can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for one patient.
Q. What kind of damage does a semi-automatic assault weapon, such as the one used in Connecticut, inflict on a human body compared to other weapons?
A. There are many factors involved in damage done by firearms. From the medical standpoint any injury related to firearms can be potentially fatal or leave a person with lifelong disability. You can die just as easily from a small-caliber weapon as you can from a large-caliber weapon.
Daniel Kinesy - Medical director of Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, the community mental health center for Elkhart and St. Joseph counties.
Q. The mentally ill, we're told, are more often the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of violence. How possible is it to identify in advance those who might lash out like Adam Lanza did in Newtown, Conn.? And how can communities more effectively intercede?
A. One in four Americans experiences a mental health problem in any given year and one in 17 lives with a serious mental illness. Most violent crimes are not committed by persons with mental illness, although we're all aware of tragic exceptions where the killers were obviously disturbed.
While there are no foolproof ways to predict who might commit such an act, there are typically warning signs. Intervention starts with communication and awareness and we need environments where parents, teachers, co-workers and friends can be alert to troubling behaviors and name their concerns. Given the stigma of mental illness, people are often reluctant to tell others of emerging problems. Taking this step also requires reasonable access to support and mental health services.
There is work in northern Indiana to develop integrated systems of care, where various people and agencies work together to identify and treat those with mental illness. These systems include traditional mental health, but also criminal justice, courts, housing providers, emergency rooms and the faith community. Oaklawn has been part of this movement to coordinate services by local agencies and providers who can offer hope to those who suffer from mental illness or who are affected by trauma.
Q. Are there root causes communities should focus on in the search for solutions? Is restricting access to firearms part of the answer?
A. Unfortunately, it is often easier to buy a gun than to access mental health care. While limiting access to firearms might be a part of the answer, that's only one facet to this issue. The problem is complex. Consider the stigma which makes it difficult for families to seek help. In general, we rally around people with medical conditions such as diabetes or cancer and we tend to shun people with symptoms of possible mental illness. This sense of shame isolates and alienates those who most need interaction and compassion.
Other significant barriers include the large number of uninsured who can't afford services; the lack of parity in mental health coverage for those who are insured; and the shortage of mental health professionals including psychiatrists. Any combination of these issues can be challenging for someone who wants to seek care and can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Q. Where does the local safety net most need strengthening?
A. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill reports that since 2008, America has cut $4 billion from the public mental health system. People are unable to get help until they go into crisis, resulting in unnecessary hospitalizations and jail time.
A strong community mental health center is very important as a safety net, whether people are suffering from acute and serious mental illness or time-limited issues based on life stressors. The best source of care includes mental health professionals who are well-informed about all community resources, who are willing to work collaboratively with other caregivers and who bring the special blend of professional training and heart for the mentally ill. Mental health services must be available to all and adequate funding is essential.
Sometimes institutionalization is needed. However, more than 4,000 psychiatric hospital beds have been eliminated since 2008. This is especially problematic because the funding was diverted away from mental health, rather than allowed to follow the clients into the community. Community-based services can be very effective in giving the mentally ill the support and skills they need to live successfully among us. In addition, flexible, affordable and safe housing is critical.
Psychiatric oversight is crucial to ensure that medications are appropriate and available as needed. It is time to make mental health care a continual national priority, not just in the days after tragedies.
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