Gun violence conference explores impacts and options

Rep. Joe Jefferson (from left); Greg Mullen, Charleston police chief; Scarlett Wilson, Ninth Circuit solicitor,; Rep. David Mack III; and Mike Seekings, Charleston city council, take part in a panel discussion during “Moving from Crisis to Action: A Public Health Appriach to Reducing Gun Violence,” a day-long conference of discussions related to gun violence Friday at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

The Second Amendment is not the problem.

The mentally ill are not the problem.

Guns are the problem.

That was the message forcefully delivered at a day-long conference organized by the College of Charleston called “Moving from Crisis to Action: A Public Health Approach to Reducing Gun Violence.” The conference was hosted by Emanuel AME Church and featured public health, medical and legal experts, faith leaders, lawmakers and law enforcement officials.

It drew students and residents concerned about regular mass shootings and other gun-related violence in the U.S., including the June 17 shooting at Mother Emanuel that killed nine and the reported terror attack on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif.

In a morning session devoted to how people prone to violence might be better identified, the notion that those with mental illness should be screened collectively was strongly disputed.

The mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators, according to the panel. Policymakers should focus on removing guns temporarily when their owners are in crisis, just as car keys often are taken away from someone who is intoxicated.

This is especially important if a gun owner is suicidal. Six out of every 10 gun deaths are suicide, according to data published by the Pew Research Center. In half of all suicides, a gun is used. People who are the subjects of temporary restraining orders in domestic violence situations, or those who already have violated protective orders and are at increased risk of using their firearms to commit violent acts, also should be subject to confiscation policies, panelists said.

“Let’s stop focusing on mental illness and look at risk-based elements of danger,” said Dr. Liza Gold from Georgetown University School of Medicine who was representing the American Psychiatric Association.

Gun control is among the seemingly intractable political issues in the U.S. today. A vast majority of polled Americans, 90 percent, say they approve of background checks, including more than 70 percent of NRA members. Other modest reforms, such as extended wait periods, also receive significant public support.

The gun lobby, instead, argues that all such restrictions are infringements on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and lobbyists have been very successful in getting mostly Republican lawmakers to sponsor legislation, often authored by the lobby itself, that loosens gun laws.

No pro-gun activists asked questions or offered counter arguments during three of the day’s seven sessions at which Post and Courier reporters were in attendance.

At an afternoon session about legal strategies that might reduce gun violence, Julie Leftwich, legal director for the California-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, noted that about 30,000 Americans are killed each year because of gun violence (that’s 80 a day on average) and 70,000 are injured. Mass shootings are only the tip of the iceberg, she said.

The U.S. has the weakest gun laws in the industrialized world and the highest death rate, yet Americans are not sicker or more violent than other populations, Leftwich said.

She went on to cite examples of lax gun regulations — short or no wait periods, no ban on assault weapons, limited background checks, no consumer safety regulations — suggesting that a better approach is to adopt the automobile model. At a minimum, guns should require a license, registration and training.

She said it would also help to repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, signed into law in 2005 by President George W. Bush, which provides legal immunity to firearm manufacturers and dealers when their products are used in crimes.

She said the Second Amendment is clear enough; problems arise when it’s interpreted by the Supreme Court in ways that contradict its language and legal precedent. Handgun bans once were perfectly legal. But in 2008, the court decided narrowly in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller case that individuals who are not members of militias have a constitutional right to keep handguns in their homes.

“Heller was the first decision to strike down lower court gun laws,” she said. And it opened the floodgates of litigation as plaintiff’s rushed to defend remaining gun control laws.

“The Second Amendment is really a non-issue,” Leftwich said. What’s required are determined judges and more public support.

Kelly Sampson, coordinating attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said it was necessary to change the behavior of gun dealers. About 90 percent of gun crimes can be traced to 5 percent of dealers, who are protected by the immunity law, she said. Those dealers must be convinced to screen their customers more carefully.

During a session on the role of public officials, Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings asked a panel to consider Highway Patrol’s “Project Zero” approach to combatting traffic deaths on South Carolina’s roads. He asked whether a similar approach might be successful in reducing the number of gun deaths.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she doesn’t think it would. “Where we sometimes go wrong or get lost is letting perfect be the enemy of good,” Wilson said. “The reality is we probably aren’t going to get it to zero, but we can certainly chip away at the edges and make things better.”

Wilson said she thinks necessary laws already are on the books.

“What we don’t see is an enforcement of the penalties that are already in place,” Wilson said.

Repeat offenders of gun possession laws often receive light sentences, if the charge leads to a conviction at all, Wilson said. Harsher penalties would act as a deterrence, she said.

“But mostly, I think that the laws are in place. We just don’t have the will, and that’s unfortunate,” Wilson said.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen objected to the semantics of the gun debate.

“We need to stop using the term ‘gun control’ and talk about it as violence prevention,” Mullen said. The phrase “gun control” often polarizes the community, preventing substantial progress from being made, he said. “What we need to do is find a common purpose that we can all agree on and all move our energy towards. We can all agree that we want less violence in our communities.”

Mullen, who supports stricter background checks and closing the three-day gun show loophole, called gun violence in the U.S. a “crisis” that costs American taxpayers an inordinate amount of money in health care, social services, judicial and law enforcement costs, he said.

“It’s astonishing the amount of money that is associated with this particular issue, and it’s going up at exponential rates,” Mullen said.

Mullen said criminal justice, social services, education and health researchers should work in conjunction to “determine the root cause of the issue.” He likened the approach to the public health model used to get at the heart of an disease outbreak, like Ebola.

“We all need to come together and work together to figure this out,” Mullen said.

Jennifer Berry Hawes contributed to this report.