CEASE FIRE: In Newtown's aftermath, experts, local officials and our readers grasp for solutions to gun violence
by Tim Lockette
Dec 22, 2012 | 4777 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Stuffed animals and a sign calling for prayer rest at the base of a tree near the Newtown VIllage Cemetery in Newtown, Conn. Photo: Charles Krupa/The Associated Press
Stuffed animals and a sign calling for prayer rest at the base of a tree near the Newtown VIllage Cemetery in Newtown, Conn. Photo: Charles Krupa/The Associated Press
Rep. Barbara Boyd can't go to church without hearing gunshots.

Just a few weeks ago, Boyd was leaving a service at a church on Mulberry Avenue in Anniston when someone held her back.

“They said, ‘Don't go out there, there are young people with guns,’ ” said Boyd, a Democratic state legislator from Anniston. “And in a little while, it was ‘pow, pow, pow.’ ”

Before Sandy Hook and Aurora and Gabby Giffords, there was this: the gun violence that seems to percolate even in small cities like Anniston. Twenty-four people died of gunshots in Calhoun County in 2011. Across the state the death toll was 778. No one even knows the number of non-lethal gunshot wounds.

Some were killed by others. The Alabama Department of Health lists 284 gun homicides statewide in 2011. Twenty-nine people, just enough to fill a college classroom, died in gun accidents. And 450 used guns to take their own lives.

Death by gun was, and is, literally a daily occurrence in Alabama.

But something changed, at least briefly, on Dec. 14, 2012. When a gunman killed 20 children in an elementary school in Connecticut, the nation took notice. Longtime partisans of the gun-control culture war held their tongues. The president wept, and promised to take action, in a nationally televised speech. The nation's mood was changed.

The Star spent the week after the Connecticut attack talking to readers, researchers and local officials, asking them to take their best shot at offering a solution to reducing gun violence. It was a free-ranging conversation that covered everything from spree killing to suicide to kitchen-table arguments that turn deadly.

Everyone agreed on one thing: something must change.

Little support for gun control

Boyd wants the government to keep a closer watch on the gateway to gun ownership. But she knows she's in the minority. Most Alabama politicians, she said, don't want to get in trouble with the National Rifle Association.

“I'd like to see more use of background checks for people who want to buy a gun,” she said. “But that won't happen, because of the NRA.”

The Star's attempts to reach officials from the NRA last week were unsuccessful. Spokesmen for group made few public comments, and gave no interviews, in the week following the shooting. In a media event Friday, Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, proposed a plan that would post armed police officers in every U.S. school.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.

Getting a gun in Alabama is fairly easy. You don't need a permit to own a long gun — that is, a shotgun or a rifle. Pistols require a permit. Under federal law, gun purchasers must undergo a background check to determine whether they're felons or illegal immigrants or have a conviction for domestic violence.

But it's possible to make a person-to-person sale and skip the background check. That problem, called the “gun show loophole,” has long been a focus of gun control advocates, but past proposals to close the loophole have gotten nowhere in Congress.

Still, there are those who believe even passionate gun owners can come to accept some new controls on guns.

“Gun owners are reasonable people,” said Garen Wintemute, an emergency room doctor and professor of medicine at UC Davis in California.

Wintemute studies guns as a public health issue, poring through data to find politically feasible ways to reduce gun deaths.

“If you ask people in Alabama if they want someone to take their guns, of course they're going to say, ‘No,’” he said. “But if you ask if there should be restrictions for violent criminals or people with drug problems, the answer might be different.”

Wintemute said that compared to other gun owners, those who abuse alcohol are much more likely to kill themselves or others. By banning people with DUI convictions from owning guns, he said, governments could make a big dent in the number of suicides by gun.

Wintemute sees it as non-controversial. But it's a hard sell in Alabama.

“Don't get me wrong, I don't feel sorry for somebody who gets in the car drunk,” said state Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston. “But unless we can show that he's really unfit to own a gun, I'd be skeptical of that.”

Wood said he carries a gun often, and believes it is a right that shouldn't be taken away without clear cause. He was more open to one of Wintemute's other suggestions — banning gun ownership by people with misdemeanor assault convictions — but said he needed to study the matter.

While much of the country seems to be shifting toward more gun control, some Alabama politicians are holding their ground. State Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, told The Star he's standing behind a bill that would allow people to have guns in their cars at work, even if the employer prohibits it. Rep. Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, told The Huntsville Times that the House agenda includes a bill that would change Alabama to a “shall issue” state — taking away much of the authority of local sheriffs to deny pistol permits.

“We really do not need to do this,” said Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson. Under current law, he can deny a pistol permit to someone based on their criminal history, even if it doesn't rise to the level of a felony.

Amerson said thousands of people in Calhoun County have pistol permits, which allow them to carry concealed weapons. He said he rejected about 30 permits in the past year.

More guns, less violence?

“Do some research and find out how many lives are saved because of a gun,” wrote reader Kevin Bridges of Alexandria. He was among a number of readers who suggested that if more law-abiding citizens owned guns, the crime rate would actually go down.

There's little evidence that solution would work.

As a general rule, states with more guns also report more violence, said David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health.

While the idea of guns for self-defense is compelling, Hemenway said, nobody really knows how often guns are used to ward off attackers. Studies vary widely, with some reporting about 69,000 instances of gun self-defense per year, while others report 2.5 million.

Hemenway has done his own surveys, and he followed up with respondents who said they had used guns in self-defense.

“Their stories were mostly about escalating arguments,” he said. “‘I'm arguing with my neighbor, he throws a beer at me, and I get my gun.’ ”

Most gun deaths are the result of rash acts, researchers say, and access to guns makes those acts easier to commit.

“If I bring a gun into the home, it increases the chance that a woman in the house will be killed,” Hemenway said. “A gun increases the chance someone in the house will commit suicide.”

Mental health crisis

Readers, researchers and public officials all seemed to agree on one thing: better access to mental health care would reduce gun violence.

“It's been a great help to us to have an officer dedicated to mental health,” Amerson said. “Every law enforcement organization should have that.”

Most readers mentioned mental health care as a way to circumvent would-be mass shooters. Amerson said it would cut down on more everyday acts of violence. And it would almost certainly cut down on suicide, the top cause of gun death.

While public support for mental health services seems to be growing, Alabama's Department of Mental Health has spent the past year cutting back. The department announced layoff of hundreds of workers this summer, as well as plans to close some of its hospitals — all because of a reported $14 million deficit.

Repeated attempts by The Star to get an interview with Commissioner Jim Reddoch of the Mental Health Department were unsuccessful. His spokesman, Jeff Shackelford, said the department had no comment.

Jim Dill, director of the Alabama Council of Mental Health Boards, said there's more demand than the mental health care system can supply.

“There's a price to be paid when you don't understand the relationship between public safety, quality of life for everybody and funding of services,” Dill said.

Dill represents the various community-based mental health care services that were set up by state law almost 50 years ago. They're funded largely by Medicaid payments. Alabama is more restrictive than most states in who can get Medicaid, and the services it provides. That leaves thousands without care, he said.

Things could get worse. A state commission is looking at how to reform Medicaid, with an eye toward trimming money.

Dill said the mental health situation could improve dramatically if Gov. Robert Bentley were to expand Medicaid eligibility to an additional 300,000 people under the Affordable Care Act. Bentley has so far refused, even though the federal government will pick up most of the tab for expansion.

“He said he wouldn't expand Medicaid under its current structure,” Dill said, noting that legislators plan to consider Medicaid reform next year. “I hope that means there's still a chance.”

Attempts to reach Bentley's office for comment were unsuccessful.

Guns in schools

Banyon Allison wants an armed guard in every school.

Allison, the assistant principal at Alexandria High School, wrote to The Star to say that there should be a full-time police officer in every school. Barring that, he wrote, one teacher in every school should be trained to use deadly force.

“Banks have armed guards,” he noted.

Allison isn't the only person to have the idea. Bedford, the Senate minority leader, also told The Star he'd like to post an officer in every school, as well as panic buttons and security cameras.

School-based police officers have become a part of everyday life in the years since the Columbine massacre. In Calhoun County Schools, there's one officer for every elementary-and-high-school pair.

But bumping up to one officer per school could be pricey. One estimate, by an Alabama-based association for school police officers, put the price tag at $125 million statewide.

Training and arming teachers would be cheap by comparison.

Calhoun County Schools security chief Mike Fincher hates the idea.

“Police officers undergo rigorous training to be qualified to carry a firearm,” he said. “Part of it deals with the emotions of using your weapon in a tense situation. It's not easy.”

Teachers could complete that training, he said, but most don't see themselves in that role. And refresher courses, common for police officers, would take a lot of their time.

Arming teachers would put guns within reach of both shooters and students, he said. If a shooter killed an armed teacher, he'd have a second gun on hand.

“It's never good to introduce another gun to the situation,” he said.

Culture change

Fincher thinks the entire culture will have to change before America can make a dent in gun violence.

“It will take a generation to deal with this,” he said. “There are so many firearms out there already, nothing's going to change overnight. Our attitudes about violence are going to have to change.”

The role of culture figured prominently in comments from readers, too. Some blamed violent video games and movies for spree killings. Some said the solution was to “put God back in schools,” an apparent reference to government-sponsored school prayer.

Some advocates of school prayer argue that the number of homicides has gone up since the practice was banned in 1963. It's true — but the number of Americans has gone up, too.

The homicide rate, however, is about where it was in 1963 — around four homicides per 100,000 people, according to U.S. Justice Department numbers. That's down significantly from peaks in the early 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Some researchers attribute the drop to growing rates of incarceration.

Still, there's a widespread sense that something in the culture is broken.

“Firearms per se are not the problem,” Amerson said. “It's the change in society that's made it seem glamorous to shoot them.”

When Amerson got his start in law enforcement, he said, deputies carried six-shot revolvers and shotguns. Now each carries a Glock s pistol, a shotgun and an M-16. They've armed up, he said, because the populace has armed up.

For culture reformers, however, the difficulty may lie in knowing where to start and where to stop. Gun violence is everywhere in popular culture — from 1950s Westerns to military-themed cable channels to reality series on “doomsday preppers.” What's acceptable and unacceptable is largely in the eye of the beholder.

“The preoccupation with violence in this country can't be emotionally healthy,” said Dill, the mental health advocate. “But that's an issue that gets polarized really quick.”

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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