Tagged: gun control

Mental Illness and Gun Violence:  What’s Really Responsible?

July 11th, 2018 in Analysis, Federal Legislation, Local Legislation, State Legislation

You’ve heard it all before.  In fact, you’ve heard the same arguments repeated back and forth so many times you have memorized them yourself. The cycle goes like this:  There’s a mass shooting, then in the tragic aftermath, the liberal and conservative pundits begin repeating their arguments left and right.  Usually, on the conservative right there are calls for mental health reform and on the left, liberals agree that we need to address mental health, but point to gun access as the key issue to prevent these tragedies from happening.  The rest of us, the general population, are left somewhere in between.  We point fingers like everyone’s to blame, but we take action like nobody is responsible.  That is to say, we take very little action at all.

Although this cycle has repeated itself to the point of feeling like a broken record, it’s important that we not get stuck like one.  After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over-and-over again while expecting a different result.  Where some blame the mentally ill and some blame guns, it is important to step back and reframe our arguments to see the issue of gun violence in a different light.  Maybe the solution, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between.

The tragedy in Parkland has energized this debate to unprecedented levels, but has also brought with it many familiar arguments.  In particular, recent calls from President Trump to strengthen limitations on the ability of the mentally ill to access firearms gives us cause to reevaluate his premise that mental illness is associated with gun violence.  President Trump’s critique is founded on a commonly shared belief among the majority of Americans.  According to a Pew Research poll in 2017, 89% of people across the political spectrum favor placing increased restrictions on the ability of the mentally ill to purchase firearms.  This commonly held belief across the political spectrum forces us to ask ourselves: What is the real relationship between mental illness and gun violence?

What do the Numbers Say?

The evidence suggests that we may be biased when it comes to our perceptions of the mentally ill and the potential for persons dealing with mental illnesses or disorders to exhibit violent tendencies.  In fact, a 2013 national public opinion survey (p.367) found that 46% of Americans believe that persons with mental illness are “far more dangerous than the general population.”  However, the public perspective is vastly distinct from reality.  Another study (p.241) demonstrates that between 2001 and 2010, “fewer than 5% of the gun-related killings in the United States… were perpetuated by people diagnosed with mental illness.”  People are far more likely to be killed by a person with a gun that does not have a mental illness, than someone that does have a mental illness.

While mental illness is not strongly correlated with gun violence, there are other conduct measures that appear to be strong predictors of such violence.  Three conduct measures in particular that are powerful are past acts of violence/criminal history, a history of domestic violence, and substance abuse.

First, with regard to a history of violence, the American Psychology Association issued a report (see p.8) that concluded based on longitudinal studies, “The most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior.”  One article from Wisconsin Public Radio affirms this trend in reporting that for gun homicides in Milwaukee about, “93 percent of our suspects have an arrest history.”  Although the Milwaukee sample is small and not entirely representative of the entire United States, such a high correlation is worthy of our attention in considering factors for reevaluating our gun policies.

Second, when it comes to the correlation between domestic violence and mass shootings or gun violence, the evidence is even stronger.  According to a study quoted in the New Yorker, “Of mass shootings between 2009 and 2013, 57 percent involved offenders who shot an intimate partner and/or family member.”  Further, a report from Everytown for Gun Safety shows that persons with a history of domestic violence account for “54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016.”

Third, with regard to substance abuse, a study (p.242) by Dr. Jonathan Metzl, an often quoted figure in studying the causes of gun violence in the United States, found that, “[A]lcohol and drug use increase the risk of violent crime by as much as 7-fold, even among persons with no history of mental illness.”  According to the same study, “serious mental illness without substance abuse is ‘statistically unrelated’ to community violence.”  In other words, substance abuse increases an individual risk of violence in general, including an increased risk of gun violence.

States Offer Pragmatic and Nuanced Solutions

However, correlation does not equal causation.  Many of the current studies on the causes of gun violence and mass shootings face limits (p.240) in this particular regard.  However, the low statistical correlation indicated in multiple studies between mental illness or disorders and gun violence are informative.  The fact that there are other risk factors that are strong predictors of violence generally and gun violence specifically point to where our attention is likely better directed in trying to rework gun laws in a manner that will work for everyone.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence points to one such unique legal mechanism adopted in Oregon, Washington and California, which have adopted laws for Extreme Risk Protection Orders (“ERPOs”).  These laws allow family members or law enforcement officers to petition a court to keep guns away from someone going through a crisis.  The laws are geared toward the principle that family members are best able to gauge changes in an individual’s behavior that could pose a serious risk of harm.  Petitioners under these laws still have the burden of providing sufficient proof that the individual poses a risk of danger to themselves or others.  ERPOs are also only temporary, but may vary in length.  For longer protective orders, more compelling evidence must be offered that the person poses a risk of harm to themselves or others.

Oregon offers another pragmatic solution in its closing of the “domestic abuser loophole” through passage of a recent state law.  Under the 1996 Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, domestic abusers are banned from owning or possessing a gun.  However, the federal ban only applies to someone if they are married, living with, or have a child with the victim of the abuse.  The wording of the law creates the “domestic abuser loophole,” which means that someone who is not living with their significant other and does not meet any of the other mentioned criteria, but who abuses their significant other, can still buy a gun.  Oregon’s new law prohibits anyone convicted of a crime of domestic violence from owning or possessing a gun, regardless of whether or not that person lives with their significant other.

Oregon State Capitol
Salem, 1938

These new state laws are just examples of a number of other pragmatic and nuanced policy solutions that are geared toward preventing future gun violence while avoiding burdensome restrictions on the Second Amendment rights of the vast majority of Americans.  Such solutions demonstrate our capacity to tackle the problem of gun violence in new and creative ways, while still preserving individual freedoms.  Finally, these laws represent effective solutions that are based on empirical evidence about true risk factors for gun violence and not on ill-founded stigmas.  A path forward on fixing our gun laws exists, but to move forward we must set aside our preconceived notions and work together to promote innovative solutions that protect both our rights and our safety.

Nicholas Stone graduated from Boston University School of Law in May 2018 and plans to practice in Portland Oregon.

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Personalized Handgun Law Backfires, by Merissa Pico

July 31st, 2017 in Analysis, Legislative Oversight, State Legislation

Like a gun might, this New Jersey legislature’s bill backfired. In 2002, New Jersey’s democratically controlled legislature passed the Childproof Handgun Law, which aimed to promote the use of personalized handguns.

Personalized guns, or “smart guns,” as they are also known, use technology so the guns can only be used by an authorized or recognized user.gun

The 2002 law, which was signed into law by then Governor James McGreevey, requires all handguns sold in New Jersey to be smart guns within 30 months of personalized handguns becoming available anywhere in the country. The statute tasks the New Jersey Attorney General with determining which handguns qualify as smart guns and when smart guns have become available as set forth under the law. In other words, it would not matter if a smart handgun was actually sold or not; as long as a smart handgun was available for sale anywhere in the nation, the clock would start and within 30 months, all handguns sold in New Jersey would have to be smart guns.

According to the 2002 law’s sponsor, New Jersey State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the 2002 law’s objective was to stimulate the “research, development and manufacture” of smart guns.

Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the law has had the opposite effect: it inadvertently stunted the availability of personalized handguns nationwide. Fifteen years since its enactment, smart handguns are still not available for purchase in the United States. This is despite the fact that the technology exists; smart guns are available for sale in Europe and Asia.

Viewing the New Jersey law as an attack on the second amendment, the pro-gun sector has stifled any movement in making smart guns available. In addition to one gun store in California, in 2014, one Maryland gun storeowner, Andy Raymond, set out to sell the first smart gun in the nation. However, like the California store, Raymond decided not to go through with making smart guns available for sale, after both received hundreds of protests on his store’s Facebook page as well as death threats. If Raymond or the California store had successfully done so, the thirty-month clock in New Jersey’s 2002 law would have started, an effect that the pro-gun sector was well aware.

While it is clear that the 2002 law effectively entrenched the standstill on smart gun development, it should be noted that the pro-gun lobby has not necessarily embraced the smart gun initiative with open arms over the years.

Opponents of the 2002 law have objected to the state-mandated market for smart guns, believing that a market for smart guns, if there should be one, should emerge without any government intervention. Further, many gun owners have concerns about the reliability of the smart gun technology, fearing that the technology will falter when and if they need it to protect their lives.

An attempt to fix this legislative conundrum that New Jersey's legislature created for themselves and the rest of the country, the legislature in 2016 introduced a new bill, S816, to amend the 2002 law. Also sponsored by Senator Weinberg, S816 would repeal the portions of the 2002 law that would have made it illegal to sell traditional handguns once personalized hand guns become available, thereby effectively eliminating the technology freeze. Additionally, S816 mandates that firearms merchants and dealers maintain an inventory of at least one model of smart gun to sell. Under the bill, the Attorney General would determine on which smart guns would be acceptable.

The democratically controlled New Jersey senate approved the bill in February of 2016 by a vote of 21-13. New Jersey governor and former 2016 U.S. Presidential candidate, Chris Christie, pocket vetoed the bill in September of 2016. A pocket veto means that the governor does not return the bill to the New Jersey legislature; therefore, the veto cannot be overridden. In his strongly worded conditional veto message, Governor Christie said the new bill was the latest in the “relentless campaign by the Democratic legislature to make New Jersey as inhospitable as possible to lawful gun ownership and sales.” Believing that the new bill’s mandate is a constraint on business and “likely is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause,” Governor Christie went on advocate for a full repeal of the 2002 law with no additional mandate.

With the bill having been pocket vetoed and sent back to the statehouse, the New Jersey legislature can either amend the bill to Governor Christie’s liking or it will die in the state senate. If the bill dies, the 2002 law will remain in place in its entirety without any amendment. Therefore, until it is amended or repealed, the law could continue to have the same stifling effect on nation-wide smart gun availability into the unforeseen future.

Senator Weinberg has publically offered to repeal the 2002 law in its entirety if the National Rifle Association (NRA), promised to not impede or block the “research, development, manufacture or distribution of this technology.” However, to date, there has not been any movement on this offer.

It is frequently said that the law lags behind technology. More often than not, this is true (see 1986 Electronic Communication Privacy Act). Yet, this time, the law and legislative process is not lagging behind technology, but rather, with full recognition and understanding, is choosing to stifle technology. Who knew that a little New Jersey law would have such an unintended consequence? For fifteen-years and counting, partisan division and policy differences have kept available technology out of reach from American citizens. Perhaps soon, the technology will become available under conditions favorable to all Americans, politicians and private citizens alike.


1498837364-1Merissa Pico is from Fort Lee, New Jersey and graduated summa cum laude from Boston University’s College of Communication in 2015 with a B.S. in Mass Communication Studies. She is expected to earn her J.D. from Boston University School of Law in 2018.  Merissa will be working at Ropes & Gray in New York City in the summer of 2017 and is looking forward to continuing to explore her interests in entertainment and communications law.

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