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In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre there are a lot of proposals about how to curb gun violence. Obama has just urged Congressional action to implement gun control and unveiled 23 executive orders to curb gun violence. Some proposals are just common sense, some may help, some may not help and some may sound good but are difficult to implement. Well what are the proposals and how might they work?

Background Checks

The first major area of focus is background checks. Obama is calling for universal background checks when purchasing a firearm. In addition, several executive orders will be used to strengthen background checks by requiring federal agencies to share relevant data with the federal background check system (NICS), offering improved incentives for states to share information with NICS, review the categories of individuals prohibited from gun ownership, propose that law enforcement should run a background check before returning seized weapons and provide guidance to gun dealers on how to run a background check.

The call for Congress to legislate universal background checks looks pretty good overall. It is only common sense that if an individual is prohibited from purchasing firearms that should be enforced all the time, not just in certain venues. It shouldn’t matter where or from whom the gun is bought, the same rules should apply all the time. The prospects of universal background checks in Congress are about as good as anything can be these days. There is strong bipartisan public support for background checks for private and gun show sales, according to Pew 85% of respondents favored this proposal. So if anything could get through Congress this should be it.

But will it do anything? That is hard to tell; functionally our current system doesn’t have a background check because it can be dodged simply by purchasing guns at shows or privately. Thus there is no real way to see what the background check would do if universally implemented. It seems reasonable to assume that the background check could help some; it prevents guns from being purchased by convicts, documented addicts, those with a history of domestic violence, those with a restraining order from an intimate partner and mentally indigent individuals. That could help prevent some violence since criminals and addicts would have a harder time acquiring firearms. Unfortunately criminals don’t follow the law and can acquire guns illegally. In fact it is not that difficult to get a hold of a stolen gun. Also the background checks could help prevent some domestic violence by preventing the purchase of guns when a history of domestic violence or restraining order from an intimate partner is present. This group I think it might impact more than criminals and addicts. That is because domestic violence in itself doesn’t imply a link to criminals or access to stolen items. It is not uncommon for abusive individuals to be law-abiding citizens in every other aspect of their life so they may not attempt to illegally bypass the law.

Thus universal background checks are a mixed bag; they seem reasonable on the surface yet may not accomplish much in reality. Though of any proposal universal background checks enjoy the strongest public support so it may one of the most likely to pass through Congress.

Now background checks are only as good as the system used to check. For this reason Obama has several executive orders to strengthen the existing background check. He is requiring federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system (NICS). This is a no brainer and I wonder why it hasn’t been done until now. If there is going to be a background check by the federal government then of course federal agencies should provide all the data they can to support the background check. A check is meaningless if the information being checked is missing or erroneous. Then Obama wants to improve the incentives for states to share data with NICS. Now this makes a bit more sense, information sharing between the states and federal government definitely leaves much to be desired. In order for state’s share information they must either be forced by law or they must be enticed with incentives. So greater incentives to share data will likely result in some states sharing more, if only to receive the incentive. That would increase the data available for NICS and thus its efficacy.

The next executive order is for a review of the categories of individuals prohibited from purchasing guns. This makes a lot of sense on the surface. In order for a background check to be meaningful it must ensure that those who are a threat to society are not allowed to obtain firearms. Unfortunately it is not as simple as that. The big question is how do you identify those who pose a threat? It seems reasonable to assume that those with a history of violence or crime would be potential threats. But not all of those who would use guns to kill are going to have a history of such behavior. In fact potential perpetrators may not have a criminal record at all. It is not easy to pinpoint those who are dangerous even with extensive investigation like a psychological evaluation let alone identify those people using limited and incomplete bureaucratic records of the individual.

Moving on, Obama would like law enforcement to run a background check before returning any seized firearm. Now why does it take Presidential executive order to do this? Why isn’t this already happening? It only makes sense that if law enforcement gets a hold of a gun that they check to ensure it is legally owned prior to returning it. There is no reason this shouldn’t already be standard practice. If the gun is illegally owned then law enforcement shouldn’t give it back.

The final executive order for background checks is for the ATF to provide guidance for private sellers on how to run background checks. Again this is basic common sense. If Obama wants to require private sellers to run background checks then some guidance should be provided so it is done correctly. Though this is meaningless if Congress doesn’t pass legislation requiring universal background checks. Without such a requirement very very few would voluntarily go out of their way to run a background.

In conclusion Obama wants universal background checks and to strengthen the background checks by acquiring more data from state and federal agencies. While at the same time reviewing the categories of individuals prohibited from purchasing firearms. These are very common sense actions to take and have a great deal of bipartisan public support (85% in favor). Unfortunately any background check is only as good as the data that goes into it and the method used to identify potential threats. So that means there will always be people who are dangerous but can pass the background check.

Ban on Assault Weapons and Clip / Magazine Size

Obama called on Congress to ban assault weapons and limit clip / magazine size to 10 rounds. This proposition is likely to face serious political and practical challenges. The idea of banning assault weapons or limiting magazine capacity does not have the same level of support as making background checks universal. According to Pew 55% of the public favors a ban on assault weapons and 54% of the public favor a ban on high-capacity clips. Prima facia that looks good but upon closer examination the challenge becomes apparent. Though 55% of the public favors a ban on assault weapons there is a large partisan divide; 69% of Democrats favor this while only 44% of Republicans favor it. When it comes to a ban on high-capacity clips 54% favor it, yet only 46% of Republicans favor it while 64% Democrats favor it. That implies that an assault weapons and high-capacity magazine ban would be likely to pass the Democrat controlled Senate but unlikely to pass the Republican controlled House. On top of that the NRA is very much opposed to any ban and they can wield a great deal of political power. So it is doubtful there is the political will to implement a ban.

Furthermore a ban may have little to no practical effect. For any ban of assault weapons to be meaningful it must ban ownership of those weapons not just production. The 1994 assault weapons ban only prohibited the production of new assault weapons yet allowed the possession and sale of pre-existing assault weapons. That means people could still buy and own assault weapons, the only difference was that the supply was limited. So functionally all it did was drive up the price on such weapons but if somebody wanted an assault weapon they could still obtain it legally. That does nothing to prevent the use of assault weapons in a mass shooting or other violent acts.

Now for the sake of argument assume that an absolute ban on production, sale and ownership of assault weapons effectively eliminates all assault weapons in the US. What impact would that have? Very little would change. The definition of assault weapons is not based on the fundamental function of a gun nor is it based on the killing capacity of a gun. Rather much of the definition is based on cosmetic features of a gun. The criteria for assault weapons requires a semi-automatic rifle to have two or more of the following:  folding or telescoping stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, threaded barrel for a flash suppressor or a muzzle mount for firing rifle grenades. Now consider that both stock and pistol grip are completely cosmetic yet can qualify a rifle as an assault weapon. That means even if assault weapons are banned and completely removed from the public there will still exist equally deadly weapons that are only cosmetically different.  An absolute ban of this nature would have no impact if all that changes are the cosmetic features on the weapons used. A shooter will still be able to use basically the same weapon or at least an equally deadly weapon.

Though an absolute ban on production, sale and possession of magazines over 10 rounds would have an effect but it would be rather minor. If magazines are restricted to a maximum of 10 rounds and larger magazines are unobtainable by the public then it might reduce the number of death or injuries. That is because if the magazine is smaller then the gun will need reloaded more often. Reloading takes some time, not much, but some time to reload. Most mass shootings take place over a very very brief period of time. If more of that time is spent reload then less is spent killing. So it is reasonable that smaller magazines could reduce the death toll. Though the reduction would likely be very small because we are only talking about the extra seconds needed to reload more often. But smaller magazines would have no effect on the frequency of mass shootings.

Mental Health

There has been a great deal of focus on mental health, much more so that any other gun debates. Most would agree that those who engage in mass shootings are mentally ill. A psychologically healthy individual does not go out and start shooting people. Even though mental health intuitively seems like a good place to focus on when trying to deal with gun violence it is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. For one there are only a handful of people who engage in mass shootings yet there are approximately 57.7 million Americans experiencing mental health disorders in a given year (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Most individuals with mental illness are not a threat to themselves or the public. Most are normal people like you or me, in fact you probably know more people with a mental disorder than you realize. That means there are a lot of people with mental illness but only a very small number who will be a major threat. This makes identification of individuals which are dangerous extremely difficult simply due to the number. A recent study of violent risk assessment showed that even experienced practitioners were only 70% accurate. Thus if all individuals with mental illness were screened for the risk of violence by experienced practitioners prior to being allowed to possess firearms would result in approximately 17.3 million(30% of 57.7 million ) Americans being denied the right to own firearms due to inaccuracy of the assessment.

Then there are the complexities of identifying the risk of violence itself in an individual which is not easy. In fact it takes specialized training that most mental health professionals don’t have. Furthermore, an accurate assessment of potential for violence is a lengthy and in-depth process. According to Barry Rosenfeld (Fordham University professor of psychology) “I typically have the benefit of a lengthy face-to-face interview, records on their criminal and mental health history, a tremendous amount of information at my disposal that the typical mental health professional on the fly simply doesn’t have.” Now consider if a full assessment of the risk of violence were required to purchase a firearm; that would be a rather expensive requirement. Assessments of that nature take many hours of work by highly trained professionals so the cost of such an assessment would easily exceed $1,000 and likely end up being several thousand dollars. In many cases the cost of assessment would be greater than the cost of the guns. Is it reasonable to expect anybody who wishes to own a gun to pay $1,000+ in order to be allowed to purchase a gun?

Furthermore assessments are only as good as the information used in the assessment. So if an individual has mental illness or a history of violence yet there is no record of it then the assessment will not take that into consideration. That means an individual struggling with a psychological disorder who has never sought treatment would have no records of treatment and thus that would not influence the assessment. Also individuals with a history of violence that don’t have a criminal record might slip through. Their violent history would not be accounted for in the assessment due to the absence of records.

In order to improve the quality of data and thus the quality of assessments Obama has written several executive orders. He is going clarify that health care reform does not prohibit doctors from asking about guns in the home. Though I doubt this will have any affect considering how much time most patients get with their doctors. I doubt doctors are going to spend their time asking about guns instead of focusing on the medical issues at hand. Next Obama wants to clarify to health care workers that federal law does not prevent them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement. But most health care workers already report threats of violence. They may not escalate it to law enforcement but it is usually report upward within the organization they work for. Then doctors or psychiatrists evaluate the potential threat before determining how to handle the situation. Now this could have some impact because I could see some health care workers reporting something that might prevent an incident. But I would suspect that if experienced mental health professions have a 30% error rate on violence risk assessment that untrained medical staff would have a very high error rate. So this likely would just result in many false leads being called into law enforcement rather than helping very much with the overall problem of gun violence.

The last executive order to help bolster mental health assessments is concerning. Obama would like to address unnecessary legal barriers such as HIPAA that would prevent states from sharing information with the background check system. On the surface that sounds very reasonable. But should HIPAA be weakened, HIPPA is what makes personal health care information private. Yeah it would only be releasing it to the background check system but who has access to that system and what do they get to see? Could gun dealers look up anybody they wanted and see their health care records? Would police be allowed to look that up without oversight? After seeing the FBI follow a couple of emails on the request of a friend which resulted in the resignation of Patraeus and General Allen one has to question how much more power do we want to give to law enforcement. If there were guarantees the information would be limited and there would be oversight then that is one thing. But simply giving law enforcement the ability to acquire health records is not something that should done.

Beyond that if everybody were required an evaluation prior to purchasing guns the evaluations themselves would suffer from less accuracy. That is because people would only be getting the assessment because it was required. They are going to try to do as little as possible and get it done with as quick as possible. People would not volunteer a bunch of extra information or be particular open about their feelings and thoughts. There would be no trust between the mental health professional and the individual being evaluated which means the quality of responses and information would be poor. On the other side of it, if a mental health professional does risk assessments all day every day they could become sloppy about it. Most people being assessed would not be a threat to the public or themselves. So the mental health professional would spend in ordinate amount of time doing assessments on non-threats with real threats only showing up rarely. It would be likely that a whole industry of violent risk assessment would crop up to accommodate the law (if it existed). As with other industries when this type of thing happens the quality of service decreases greatly. Rather than being an individualized assessment, it would become a conveyor belt of people being examined. The focus would shift toward evaluating people quickly and making more money than aiming for the highest possible accuracy. It would not be too unlike the medical marijuana industry, everybody knows you go in, pay your money and they will decide you need medical marijuana. Well violence assessments could follow the same path and simply become an expensive formality.

Thus using an assessment or background type check on the mentally ill for the risk of violence would be error prone and expensive. It would incorrectly identify literally millions of individuals as being a risk and deny them the right to own guns. And it could just turn into an expensive formality rather than an accurate diagnostic assessment.

If an assessment is not a good solution then what other options are on the table?

Well Obama has 3 executive orders regarding regulations of health care insurance. He is going to clarify and/or finalize regulations for the scope of mental health coverage for Medicaid, the health care exchanges and mental health parity. These would be regulations governing mental health care received through insurance companies and would affect a majority of Americans. If done well this could actually help a lot of people. Mental health is not always covered as well as medical benefits. Many people have difficulty accessing mental health services because their coverage is insufficient or has limits on the amount of care provided. By increasing mental health coverage it would be possible to improve the overall mental health of the nation. This is something that could help reduce gun violence by mitigating the effects of mental illness. Improving mental health focuses on the root cause of mass shootings by addressing the underlying mental illness before the individual becomes homicidal. Though this approach would not cause an immediate change, rather it could take years for this to take full effect. But it may still help.

Additionally, this could improve the lives of literally millions of Americans who suffer with mental illness. Those individuals might be able to receive more visits and therapy, it could reduce the out-of-pocket costs for mental health services and it may improve access to mental health services. So if these regulations and clarifications are done correctly they would benefit the nation and could help with gun violence.

The next Obama has called on Congress to create an initiative that provides mental health training to teachers and others that work with children. The focus would be on recognizing mental illness as it develops in children then getting those children mental health services earlier in the development of mental illness. According to Dr. Paramjit Joshi, the president-elect of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 3 out of 4 people with mental illness develop their condition by young adulthood. So trying to identify mental illness early in life only makes sense. It could improve the outcomes of those individuals. Also it could prevent gun violence by eliminating the problem before it becomes a problems. This is a proposal which could have a positive effect if implemented correctly. Though again this method would not have an immediate impact on gun violence. It could take years for the full effect to occur since it involved improving the mental health of the younger generation.

Enforcement

Obama put out 4 executive orders dealing directly with enforcement. First he is issuing an executive memorandum requiring federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations. That sounds good and all but why hasn’t this been done before now? Why does there need to be a presidential order to trace guns? This should already be taking place. Anyways this could help a little. The more illegal guns that are taking off the streets the better off we are. But frequently it is legal guns that kill which this would not address in the least bit.

Second is to make a DOJ report on lost and stolen guns available to law enforcement. Again why hasn’t this already happened? Considering how bad gun violence is in this country why hasn’t the DOJ given information to law enforcement to help them in dealing with the issue of gun violence? This might help law enforcement with their job and thus help with gun violence. It is easier to address an issue if provided with sufficient information. Though it is unlikely a DOJ report on guns will have a large effect.

Third Obama has nominated an ATF director and called on Congress to confirm him. Well again why hasn’t this already been done? The position has been vacant since 2006 and neither Bush nor Obama has gotten a new one confirmed. That is simply ridiculous and demonstrates that the Senate is unable (or unwilling) to do the job they are paid for.

Obama’s final executive order is to maximize enforcement and prosecution of gun crimes. Once again this should already been done. It should not require an executive order for law enforcement and prosecutors to do their jobs.

So the enforcement steps Obama is taking sound good at first. That is until you realize that they are step which should have been taken all along. It should not require an event like Sandy Hook or executive order for these four things to occur, at least if the government was functional.

General Safety

Among the 23 executive order there are 5 dealing with general safety issues. For the most part these are common sense and rational ideas. First is a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign. If done well this could be wonderful. Teaching people proper handling of guns can be one of the best ways to reduce accidental deaths from guns. It may not affect mass shootings but it could save lives. The next one is to review safety standards for gun locks and safes. This seems reasonable, gun safes and locks should be effective. Though it won’t really curb gun violence since safes and locks are used for storing guns. But it could help reduce accidental deaths which is good. The third one is to provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers. This could help by providing greater security at schools and quicker response time in case of an event. Unfortunately with all the cuts to education it could be too expensive for many schools. Also that would only protect schools so it would have no effect on gun violence outside of schools like the Aurora, CO shooting which was in a movie theater. So it could help a bit but really it’s greatest effect would be putting parents minds at ease. The fourth general safety executive order is to develop model emergency response plans for schools, university and houses of worship. This makes sense though after developing them they need to ensure they are distributed to relevant institutions. It could help by providing an idea of how to deal with a shooting and thus better preparing people to react more appropriately. That could help get some people out of danger quicker and potentially reduce injuries and deaths in a shooting. Though it would do nothing to prevent the shooting itself. Finally Obama wants the Attorney General to release a report on gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to innovate and improve them. This seems like nothing but a political statement. A report on safety technologies really isn’t going to do anything. Then telling industry to create something new isn’t going to have an affect. You can’t just tell somebody to innovate and expect they will have the next great idea.

So for the most part these could be good. They help to generally make guns safer and make schools a touch safer. Unfortunately they won’t do much to reduce gun violence. The gun safety propositions may reduce accidental deaths and the school plans (school resource officer and emergency planning) could mitigate the damage of a mass shooting but would do nothing to prevent it.

Conclusion

Well that pretty much covers everything Obama called on Congress to do and all his executive orders. There is some good, some bad and some that wouldn’t matter at all. When it comes down to it there is no one single solution, it will take many to address the issue of gun violence. Just like any security system, one part will not stop everybody. Rather it takes layers of security each catching a proportion so that in the end most are dealt with. Making background checks universal may have a positive effect though has many holes. Mental health assessment are unlikely to have any positive affect and are apt to take away the rights of millions of Americans to own guns. Though improving the overall mental health system could be a benefit for the country as a whole, not just in regards to gun violence. Better mental health treatment will prevent a whole host of problems and improve the quality of life for millions. A ban on assault weapons and magazines over 10 rounds would seem to be ineffective. There are too many hole to fall through. Grandfathering in existing weapons makes it completely pointless. Even if the existing weapons were banned it would be ineffective because there are plenty of equally deadly weapons which are not considered assault weapons. The increase in enforcement seems reasonable and could have a positive effect but why hasn’t it happened until now? All of the enforcement aspects are things which should have been already done, not some novel idea. Finally the general safety aspects could be good. They have the potential of reducing accidental deaths and possibly reduce the number of injuries and deaths from a mass shooting. Unfortunately they are unlikely to reduce the number of mass shootings which take place.

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