Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Can Social Media Postings Be Considered “Warning Signs”?

According to his army psychiatrist, Fort Hood shooter Ivan Lopez showed “no sign of likely violence, either to himself or to others.” While it may be possible for someone to “snap” and go on a shooting spree without warning, I have trouble believing this was the case in this incident.

Lopez had a history of depression and anxiety, yet he was still able to purchase a firearm legally (at the same store the 2009 Fort Hood shooter bought his weapon), underscoring the need for stronger background check laws for gun purchases.

“We have very strong evidence that he [Lopez] had a medical history that indicated an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition,” Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Army’s III Corps at Fort Hood, said of Lopez. “There was no indication that he was targeting specific people.”

3 people are dead 16 more are wounded. The questions we as a nation now face are:

1) Could this tragedy have been prevented? (were there warning signs?)

2) How can we prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future?

These two questions are obviously related. If there were warning signs, then recognizing these signs can help prevent similar tragedies from happening.

The warning signs, beyond Lopez’s mental health record, came in the form of Facebook posts:

1) On March 1, the same day he purchased the .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol he used in the attack, Specialist Lopez wrote an especially angry and vaguely threatening post. “My spiritual peace has all gone away, I am full of hate, I believe now the devil is taking me. I was robbed last night and I’m sure it was two flacos. Green light and thumbs down. It’s just that easy …”

2) In a Facebook post, Specialist Lopez said of the Newtown massacre: “For me, the direct responsibility for this situation is with the psychiatrist, who didn’t uncover Adam’s level of dangerousness so that he could be restricted.”

Read posthumously, these posts depict someone who was unable to grasp the concept of personal accountability. On the other hand, hindsight is always 20-20; these posts were separated by over a year, during which time Lopez probably made many posts which are irrelevant to his mental state.

Taken separately, each of these pieces of “evidence”; a questionable mental health history, delusional Facebook posts, and a gun purchase; could not be considered a red flag–it would be impossible to police all social media platforms. But taken together, they form the profile of an individual who is very likely a risk to himself and others.

What someone posts on social media can get them fired or (if a public figure) publicly ridiculed–American’s clearly take social media postings seriously. What can we do when someone writes about hurting themselves or others on social media? At what point does protecting a persons right to privacy prohibit the ability to protect another persons right to life? As a social scientist, I am constantly looking for “information”; is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable source of information in social media posts?

I already alluded to the need for stronger background checks for gun purchases, another preventative measure is greater access to mental healthcare, which I believe should be a human right (it is currently viewed as a luxury for the wealthy). Specialist Lopez was covered as an Army employee; what about people out there without mental health coverage? Obamacare has gone a long way in rewriting insurance guidelines to cover mental healthcare, and subsidizes plans for those who cannot afford insurance on their own, but what about people who are still not covered? Given the various ramifications of untreated mental illness (crime, poverty, etc.), is it time to consider investing more tax dollars into walk-in mental health clinics? 

These issues, privacy and security, lend themselves to heated debates. I leave my readers with these loaded questions to ponder.


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Transparency Report: In Opposition of Reduced Gun Penalties

Support for Various Proposals to Prevent Gun Violence, by Party ID, January 2013

Last Friday I went shooting at a gun range with some friends, the first time I had ever done so, and I had a blast. This experience reinforced what I have always known–there are legitimate reasons to own a firearm (recreational shooting, hunting and self-defense come to mind, although IMO “stand your ground” is not self-defense).

When considering the forces holding back common sense gun reform in America, those who argue there is never a legitimate reason for owning a firearm are as much to blame as those who argue there can never be any new regulations on guns. Instead of forging strong laws through compromise, the two sides talk past each other, and the silent majority is left without the laws they favor. The extremes dominate the debate, blocking the very deliberative process the legislative branch was built upon. Unfortunately this is nothing new and it is not confined to the debate over gun-related laws.

Still, every now and then Congress actually passes laws. One idea which has recently gained bipartisan support are sentence reductions for non-violent offenders (specifically for drug related offenses). There are a number of reasons such reform is popular: harsher penalties have been ineffective, it reverses the trend of mass incarceration, it breaks “poverty traps” (what I have coined “the Prisoner Paradox“), and it saves money. Prison reform is a rare instance where the ideologies of fiscal responsibility and socioeconomic justice intersect.

However, the line must be drawn somewhere on prison reform. Shorter sentences for non-violent drug offenders is a good idea; reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership (as advocated in a recent NYT Op-Ed), is not:

We are accustomed to hearing about exorbitant mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, but similar sentencing for gun possession is less frequently mentioned, though its effects are often just as devastating, especially for poor people and people of color. In fact, a black person is nearly twice as likely to face a mandatory minimum carrying charge than a white person who is prosecuted for the same conduct.

Mandatory minimum gun laws have historically been favored by gun control advocates and gun rights proponents alike. Supporters insist that mandatory minimums diminish violence via incapacitation (putting potential shooters in prison) and deterrence.

But there is no good evidence that mandatory minimum gun laws actually have this effect. A recent report issued by the Bluhm Legal Clinic of the Northwestern University Law School concluded that “decades of empirical evidence and evaluations of specific state experiences demonstrate that mandatory sentences will not reduce gun violence.” Studies of the impact of such laws in Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia and Michigan found no discernible effect on violent crime rates. In return for issuing these sentences, society reaps only the heavy burdens that come with lengthy incarceration, perhaps the least of which is higher costs to taxpayers.

Opposition to mandatory sentencing for drug-related offenses is steadily growing. Now we must widen our criticism to encompass mandatory minimums for firearms. These laws are not reducing violence. They’re simply fueling a different kind of violence: the banishment and isolation of large numbers of people, especially people of color and poor people, tearing apart their lives, families and communities.

There are two reasons why I cannot support reduced gun sentencing for illegal gun ownership:

1) The Non-Violent Aspect: While there is no denying that drugs can be very harmful, even deadly, there is a qualitative difference between gun related deaths and drug related deaths. Theelement of personal accountability that cannot be overlooked when it comes to drug use. Except for the instances when someone is “drugged”, people willfully taking a substance should know the risks.

This is simply not the case gun related crime; guns are inherently lethal. A person can be walking down the street minding there own business and be killed by a gun in cold-blood. There is no choice being made, no time to consider ones actions, no element of personal accountability. Drugs kill their users, guns can kill indiscriminatelyIllegal gun ownership is a “non-violent crime” only until it enables a violent crime. 

2) Undermining Legitimate Gun Ownership: Despite my enjoyable time at the gun range last week, I am far from the biggest gun advocate in the world. However, part of any meaningful compromise is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; there are people who love their guns and use them responsibly. These people overwhelming support common sense gun reform, because it can put to ease their concerns that “THE GOVERNMENT IS COMING FOR YOUR GUNS!!!!

Reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership would inadvertently undermine universal background checks and other common sense gun-registration related initiatives. By reducing the penalty for illegal gun ownership, you are conversely increasing the benefits of circumventing gun laws. American politicians should be trying to find the balance between respecting peoples rights to enjoy guns responsibly, while keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Reducing penalties for people who violate gun laws would be counter-productive in achieving these goals.

Simply put, there is no legitimate reason to own an unregistered gun.

In today’s 24 hour news cycle, there is a lot of pressure to be ahead of the game. Perhaps the writer of the NYT Op-Ed, seizing on increased public support for reduced mandatory drug sentences, though she’d make a splash by proposing something radical.

I am not saying we couldn’t save money by having more lenient gun penalties–of course we could. I am saying we would be exposing law abiding citizens to greater risks, while simultaneously undermining common sense gun reforms that ultimately protect the right to bear arms. Thankfully, I cannot see this plan gaining any real popular support.

(Another way to look at this argument is that there should never be mandatory sentences for ANY crime. One could argue that context always matters, and given the high costs of incarceration judges should be given complete discretion in all sentencing. This is a much broader argument, and not what the NYT Op-Ed was arguing.)


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Transparency Report: The ACA, Mental Healthcare, and Mass Shootings

Despite reassurances by President Obama that “if you like your health insurance, you will not have to change it”, many people have been receiving letters notifying them that their current plans are being discontinued and they will be required to buy new ones. Perhaps Obama should have clarified his statement as follows; “if you like your health insurance, and it meets certain minimum requirements, you will be able to keep it.”

Why might a health insurance plan fail to meet these minimum standards? There are 10 “essential health benefits” that new policies must satisfy. The following analysis focuses on one essential service, mental health coverage, and its relationship to mass shootings:

The Obama administration issued a final rule on Wednesday defining “essential health benefits” that must be offered by most health insurance plans next year, and it said that 32 million people would gain access to coverage of mental health care as a result.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said that in addition to the millions who would gain access to mental health care, 30 million people who already have some mental health coverage will see improvements in benefits.

White House officials described the rule as a major expansion of coverage. In the past, they said, nearly 20 percent of people buying insurance on their own did not have coverage for mental health services, and nearly one-third had no coverage for treatment of substance abuse.

Can we ever fully prevent mass shootings? No, there are elements of human will, technology, and finite security resources that make complete prevention impossible. However, there are steps that can be taken to drastically reduce the prevalence of such atrocities. One preventative measure would be to impose stricter gun control laws, which brings about the usual pro and con arguments. Less contentious ideas involve broader background checks (91% support) and increased government spending on youth mental healthcare (82% support).

One would be hard pressed to find an example of a mass-shooter who did not suffer from a mental illness. In fact, 48% of Americans think “failure of the mental health system to identify individuals who are dangers to others” shoulders a “great deal” of the blame for mass shootings (80% of people think this factor deserves a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of the blame). This is the number one factor Americans blame for mass shootings.

We often hear people say things such as “children are our most precious resource” or “I would give anything to protect my child”. The question I pose to my audience, and hopefully to the American public, is this. Do we want to be a country that makes a big deal about tragedies, a country that makes grand statements and then lets those statements fall to the wayside once the story isn’t recent news? Or do we want to be the country that puts its money where its mouth is, and actually implements the reforms we overwhelmingly believe in? One things is certain, mass shootings cannot be reduced by concentrated short term efforts directly after the fact followed by long periods of inaction.

True the survey says “increased government spending on mental healthcare”; however a great deal of people in the individual / uninsured market will receive free or subsidized healthcare, which is the equivalent of greater government spending on mental healthcare. Can we, as a nation, recognize this impact of expanded mental healthcare (not to mention the multitude of socioeconomic benefits associated with expanding healthcare coverage)? Are we truly willing to do anything to keep our children safe, or are we unwilling to even make the most basic investments to achieve this goal?

Update: Legislation is being finalized requiring equal coverage of mental healthcare by all health insurance. This is an important step in American healthcare reform, with untold socioeconomic and security benefits.


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Transparency Thursday: Inching Our Way Towards Meaningful Gun Regulations

 

“In a possible harbinger of bipartisan support for a small piece of legislation to curb gun violence, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a measure that would make the practice of illegally buying a gun for someone else a felony, and increase penalties for the crime.

The measure, which addresses so-called straw purchasing, passed the committee by 11 to 7; the only Republican to vote in favor was Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. Mr. Grassley’s nod on the measure, which already had two Republican co-sponsors, was significant because he is the most senior member of the committee. The panel is comprised of 10 Democrats and 8 Republicans.”

This is a good first step, imposing stricter penalties for so called “straw” gun purchases. It is a bit alarming that only one Republican Senator voted in favor of this measure, considering a recent Gallup Poll (1/23/13) showed an overwhelming majority of both Democrats (81%) and Republicans (75%) support tougher penalties for such crimes. But still, the bill passed with support from the most senior Republican Senator on the committee.

Still, harsher penalties for “straw” gun purchases amount to only a partial fix. “Most gun safety experts say they believe that straw purchasing and background check measures work in tandem. A failure by Congress to pass more than a modified straw purchasing bill would be a victory for the National Rifle Association, which opposes each measure.”

The same committee will vote on universal background checks for potential gun buyers; perhaps a longer waiting period in order to obtain the necessary information will be part of newly proposed laws. The same Gallup poll showed even greater bipartisan support for “requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales” (97% of Democrats and 92% of Republicans agree with such measures). I would argue not only should there be a criminal background check, but also a mental health evaluation, we will have to wait and see what is proposed in future bills. Hopefully the committee represents those it was elected by, and comes up with a working background check / “straw” purchase system to ensure that responsible adults can enjoy their guns while those who are not responsible enough (due to criminal or mental health history) cannot obtain guns.

I would argue that “straw” purchases and universal background checks both rely on better overall mental healthcare. Often, it is the poor who cannot afford mental healthcare; these people may then turn to violence because they are not getting the help they need. By no means should having a psychological disorder prohibit someone from owning a gun, but it should raise a red-flag that makes anyone reviewing the case pay special attention to exactly what the condition is and if it is accompanied by a history of violent and/or anti-social behavior.

“The committee is also set to consider the reauthorization of a program that provides matching grants for school safety improvements, as well as a measure that would greatly expand background checks for gun buyers, with the goal of preventing sales to people with criminal records or a history of mental illness.”

Mental health and criminal background checks must be viewed on a case-by-case basis; this may be expensive and time consuming, but it is the price we must to pay for responsible gun ownership.

While criminal records are readily available, it is harder to get information on a person’s mental health history. A “positive externality” of the Affordable Care Act is that it will expand mental health coverage to many American’s who currently do not qualify for such coverage. This will make meaningful universal background checks more feasible. The Affordable Care Act, starting in 2014, will help those previously uninsured get insurance not only for physical illness, but also for mental health disorders:

“…it can be difficult for people with mental health and substance use disorders to find affordable, quality coverage in the health insurance marketplace.  Right now, estimates show that one-fifth to one-third of the uninsured are people with mental and substance use disorders.

  • Starting in 2014, substance abuse or mental illness can no longer be used by insurers to deny coverage as a “pre-existing condition” – and insurers also won’t be able to use those conditions to raise your premiums.
  • Also in 2014, mental health and substance use disorder services will be part of the essential benefits package, a set of health care service categories that must be covered by certain plans, including all insurance policies that will be offered through the Exchanges, and Medicaid.

These reforms all work to make the health insurance marketplace a more accessible, affordable place for people with mental health and substance abuse disorders.”

Mental healthcare coverage and a mental health evaluation for purchasing a firearm are two different yet related issues. Better overall mental health coverage will afford someone reviewing a background check more information than they would otherwise be able to obtain from a single evaluation. Both are necessary steps to ensure guns are only used by responsible people.

I hope congress also re-authorizes the grant for school safety. If cash-strapped municipalities receive federal assistance, they will have more money to station armed police officers at all schools (possibly more than one depending on the size of the student body).

It seems that the Senate is enacting (or at least considering) many of the common-sense gun laws advocated here at Normative Narratives in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy (Gallup Polls show widespread support for many of these measures across the political spectrum). Non-gun owners can feel safer knowing there are stricter gun laws, while responsible gun owners can rest more easily knowing they have no fear of “having their guns taken away” (which was really never a threat to begin with). 

Again, this is the first step of many common sense gun laws needed to make America a safer place. No amount of gun laws will ever end all gun-related violence; there will always be people who are hell-bent on causing pain and no law or regulation will be able to stop them. But by putting these common sense gun laws in place, gun-related violence WILL go down (not may, will). These laws will cost money, but that is the cost of having “the right to bear arms” in contemporary America.

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