By: Denise M. Champagne//March 23, 2013
By: Denise M. Champagne//March 23, 2013//
One thing opposing sides in the gun violence debate agree on is that it is time for a discussion.
And, it should be a fairness discussion, according to Scott Armstrong, a former National Rifle Association lobbyist from Syracuse who believes the new New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, commonly referred to as the NY SAFE Act, “tramples” on the Second Amendment rights of lawful gun owners.
“The discussion cannot start and end with guns,” he said. “It must include mental health.” Armstrong said discussions should also address an epidemic of fatherless families that encourage youths to seek gang support; and violent videos, adding that one of the greatest insults of the SAFE Act was its exemption of Hollywood filmmakers to continue making violent movies, with tax credits.
Armstrong was one of four panelists at a speaker’s forum Thursday on “Gun Violence — What Can We Do About It?” hosted by the Monroe County Bar Association.
The program was moderated by attorney Michael R. Wolford, of The Wolford Law Firm LLP, who introduced the panel after briefly mentioning a number of steps have been taken nationally and in New York since the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Conn., that claimed the lives of 20 children and six staff members at an elementary school.
Don Kamin, chief of clinical and forensic services in the Monroe County Office of Mental Health, talked about the extent to which mental illness has been a factor in gun violence, citing several incidents such as the 1981 attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr. who was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
More recent incidents are the Jan. 8, 2011, Arizona shooting that claimed the lives of six people, including a federal judge and 9-year-old girl, and wounded 12 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; or the July murder of 12 and wounding of 58 in a Colorado movie theater.
Kamin said the SAFE Act requires mental health professionals to report patients they believe would likely harm themselves or others to local mental health officials, but that it does not address the fact someone who is mentally ill may not have contact with mental health providers.
Under the law, guns could be confiscated from patients. Kamin said unintended consequences are it may deter people from seeking help, that people in therapy may not be as forthcoming as they otherwise would have been or it could enforce the stigma of mental illness, leading to increased isolation, decreased self-esteem and poorer treatment outcomes.
“My colleagues are just not that good at knowing who’s going to lose it,” Kamin said, turning to what he called “the reality,” statistics that show the majority of people with mental illness are not violent, the majority of violent acts have been by people who have no history of mental illness and that mental illness represents only 3 to 5 percent of violent incidents, most of which do not involve guns.
So, if mental illness were cured, Kamin said, 95 percent of incidents involving gun violence would still occur.
He said one of the issues that needs to be addressed is that people who need treatment have access to treatment. His suggestions include doubling the capacity of public mental health and substance abuse services and implementing school and community-based programs to promote health and prevent mental illness.
“Mental illness is certainly a contributing factor to gun violence,” Kamin said, “but it really is only a small piece of the pie.”
Robert J. Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control,” outlined a history of gun-control laws dating back to the arrival of Europeans on the continent.
“Gun laws are as old as gun possession in America,” Spitzer said, noting in 1619, it was against the law to sell guns to American Indians and that it was routine in the 18th century to require guns be kept in a central location.
He said the “Wild West” was not as wild as one would think; that more people were “shot and killed” in movies than actually happened during the settlement of the West, where one of the first laws in a new community usually barred the carrying of guns in a downtown area, with many people checking them at the sheriff’s office.
Spitzer said the Supreme Court, in Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252, ruled against private militias, but took a turn in its 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, saying people had a right to own a handgun for personal use in their home.
District Attorney Sandra Doorley, part of a question-and-answer panel, asked about comparisons with other countries, saying gun violence in the U.S. is more than four times higher than in Canada and as much as 20 times more than some European nations.
Spitzer, department chair of the Political Science Department at State University College at Cortland, said the criminality rates are similar, but that the U.S. has 300 million guns.
Rochester Mayor Thomas S. Richards pointed out that most of the handguns used in city crimes are illegal and said he was stunned to learn the city annually recovers 900 illegal handguns. He asked what could help, noting the issue is not dealt with in the SAFE Act.
Spitzer said a provision in a pending federal bill would criminalize gun trafficking.
Armstrong, the third speaker, said the SAFE Act puts the burden of an “easy fix” on law-abiding gun owners who are equally horrified and understand the consequences of gun violence. He said not a single expert was invited to testify about the bill and that it was largely pushed by downstate lawmakers who are not familiar with guns.
“A gun in the hands of law-abiding citizens decreases, not increases, gun violence,” he said as part of a list of random facts. Armstrong, an NRA-certified firearms instructor, said although there has been a massive increase in the number of guns bought since 1991, the crime rate has dropped 41 percent; and urban areas that have the strictest gun laws, such as Chicago, also have the most gun violence.
“Our rights will have to be decided in court and will be,” he said, adding that law-abiding gun owners “hate gun violence as much as anyone in this room,” which contained about 75 people at the Rubin Center for Education.
He asked that people keep an open mind and said decisions that limit people’s rights should be based on fact, not fear.
Doorley said often the guns used in crimes were at one time owned by law-abiding citizens, to which Armstrong said there is more reception to registration, but that a problem with registration is it will lead to confiscation, especially when an Assembly member, who he did not name, said confiscation was one of the goals of gun registration and that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said confiscation was on the table.
The final speaker was Circuit Judge Richard C. Wesley, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who talked about future implications of the Heller decision and public versus private rights to carry firearms for self-defense.
He said the use of handguns can prevent crimes, but can also injure innocent people caught in the crossfire. Judge Wesley expects gun issues to be in the courts for decades to come, including before his bench.
The program opened with a welcome by MCBA President Connie O. Walker, who noted few issues have gripped the nation and grabbed its attention as much as the debate on reducing gun violence. Also on the Q&A panel was James F. Lawrence, a Democrat and Chronicle editor.