Parsing Parkland: Practical thoughts on guns, mental health and movements

Note: We're going to talk about guns, gun rights and gun control; mental health, health care and privacy; and political movements and political parties. Before you get outraged, fucking read it. This is researched, thought-out and edited. I'm happy to listen to differing opinions based in fact — I might even change my mind (I've certainly evolved on some of the issues here) — but this is not a platform for your instant outrage. This is my website. I spew my own damn bullshit. If you want to spew yours, get your own damn website. If you need help doing so, get in touch and we'll talk.

In brief, what happened

Here is full coverage from the local paper, but in case you missed it, on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz (allegedly) walked into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, from which he had been previously expelled, pulled a fire alarm and fatally shot 17 people and injured a dozen others with an AR-15.

Cruz had been an outcast who had a history of police visits to his home. Children and Family Services paid him a visit after he cut himself on Snapchat and said he wanted to buy a gun. The FBI didn't act on a tip that he might be dangerous.

There were warnings, then, despite the fact that the couple he was living with following his mother's death said there were no warning signs he might do something like that. But we'll talk about privacy and such.


Some gun and gun law basics, and what we need to do

Let's start off with some definitions, particularly of the type of weapon used. We in the media have been terrible about this, so a brief explainer is definitely necessary for many of us. I'm gathering most of this information from this more in-depth summary and this look at automatic weapons laws.

You can also read this non-gun owners guide to guns.

First, the media often mention "assault weapons" or "assault-style weapons." We're not going to use that term here, since an assault weapon has the ability to switch between automatic and semiautomatic settings. The AR-15 used in Parkland and in other high-profile mass shootings does not have this feature.

If you're yelling about gun control — particularly if you're talking about banning certain weapons — you should also learn the difference between automatic and semiautomatic weapons. Very few people are licensed to own (never mind carry) automatic weapons. Lots of people are licensed to own and carry semiautomatic weapons.

An automatic weapon discharges multiple rounds (bullets) with a single trigger pull (so, you pull the trigger, the weapon starts to fire, and it stops when you release the trigger).

A semiautomatic weapon discharges one round with a single trigger pull, and then, assuming there is more ammunition available, chambers the next round. This covers most weapons on the market, from the AR-15 (allegedly) used by Cruz to an everyday pistol, the kind most of us not-gun-types typically see used on television.

Then there are manual weapons, which you have to either reload after each shot (think old-style rifles you see in Civil War movies), or you have to manually chamber the next round (think six-shooters you see in old Westerns).

There is hardware available to make some semiautomatic weapons behave like automatic weapons. It's either illegal or on its way there in most states. Stephen Paddock used what's commonly called a "bump stock" to do this when he managed to discharge over 1,100 rounds from his hotel room in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and wounding some 850 others.

If you want a breakdown of gun laws by state, Wikipedia has you covered.

Most states have separate rules for purchasing guns and carrying guns, and also have separate rules for long guns (like a hunting rifle) and handguns. You might not need a license to buy a weapon (though you might need to submit to a criminal background check and a waiting period), but you probably need a license to carry a weapon with you in public, and of course states differ widely on whether you need to demonstrate proficiency, take a safety course or register your individual weapons.

Some states also have "red flag laws," which allow some people — teachers or family members, for example — to report to authorities that maybe you're dangerous and you shouldn't be allowed to buy a weapon.

Florida does not have a red flag law, though one is currently hung up in the legislature.

***

What qualifies as a mass shooting varies by definition and can be really confusing if we don't pick a definition to agree upon.

If you saw the piece about a school shooting every 2.5 days this year, you were probably shocked. That's because it takes a very wide definition of school shootings, some which even the most slanted among us must admit are not school shootings — things like accidental discharge of a firearm in the parking lot of a school that had been closed for seven months.

Let's go forth with this explanation from Politifact, shall we? The current federal definition of a mass shooting is three or more shooting victims (excluding the shooter) in one or more locations in a single event. And can we agree that a school shooting is a shooting that takes place on or about school grounds when students and/or teachers are present? ["On or about" because if someone trying to escape crosses the property line and is then shot, it's still a school shooting.]

***

Now that we have some facts behind us, here's what I think.

First, stop whining. I don't want all your guns. By all means, if you are a demonstrably safe gun owner — i.e., you have no violent crime in your past, you take a safety course, you show some proficiency, you don't carry while intoxicated and you get your vision checked every time your carry permit renews (like a drivers license) — own weapons for protection and hunting.

If you have kids, I want you to be willing to submit to random home visits from Children & Family Services to make sure you're storing the weapons safely; we have way too many accidental shootings involving toddlers finding weapons.

You should also receive, during the permitting process, a psychological evaluation. It doesn't have to be invasive. If you're on medication (that you could go off of whenever you felt like it — or stopped being able to afford it) that's probably stopping you from killing yourself or someone else, sorry, you probably shouldn't have access to a firearm. It's not that you're definitely going to kill someone eventually, it's just that the probability is too high to risk.

Go read this piece by a veteran who enjoyed shooting an M-4 while in the Army and enjoys shooting an AR-15 as a civilian. She says, look, they're fun. But Formula One cars are fun to drive and you can't take those for a 150-mph joyride on the highway.

The AR-15 is modeled on military weapons that are designed to kill people. They have no other purpose. It's the weapon that legally obtained and used in Parkland and in Newtown at Sandy Hook Elementary and in Las Vegas (though the shooter modified his to fully automatic using a "bump stock" there).

If you are of the opinion that we need AR-15s and similar weapons for protection in case the government ever turns the US military loose on its people, we can keep them locked up in a civilian armory — hey, how about at private gun ranges? But let me point out that you can't go out and buy a working tank or a lot of other items the military has. Civilians are not equipped to fight against the US military. We never will be. And we never should be.


Some thoughts on school safety

People have offered up some ideas for keeping schools more secure; I have yet to hear one that won't detract further from education (and we could go on for long time how public education has been suffering from high-pressure standardized tests and fewer resources over the past couple of decades, but we won't).

More armed officers in schools. Parkland had an armed officer, but of course most schools have large enough campuses that if an officer is in one place and an active shooter is in another, it could be four or five minutes before an the officer can reach the same area. An AR-15 is limited in the number of rounds it can discharge by two factors: the number of rounds available and the ability of the shooter to pull the trigger. If you've ever performed a repetitive motion for several minutes, you know fatigue can set in, but let's assume a 19-year-old male with lots of adrenaline flowing can average somewhere around a shot per second for five minutes; that's around 300 shots fired if it takes an officer five minutes to get across campus.

So, what if there were more officers in the school? Well, now we're running into a resource problem, right? Teachers are already buying materials for their classes (and they're not paid for the time they put in outside of school hours, creating lesson plans, correcting papers, submitting grades, etc.), textbooks are outdated, some classrooms have upwards of 30 or more students, and budgets are dropping. Adding two more officers might mean cutting three or four more teachers. And how many officers can you station in a school before students feel like they're in a prison?

Arm teachers. It's hard enough to find good teachers. Are we going to make it a job requirement that teachers be proficient enough with a weapon to fire it accurately in a small room full of students with an active shooter? Or are we just going to give teachers basic firearms training and then ask them to act in a high-pressure situation with a high likelihood of accidentally shooting students who are not the shooter?

Neither of those sounds like a good idea to me. I don't have a great solution, but it seems taking care of this on the weapons side (see above) is the best way to go.


What we need to do on the health care and privacy side

Two personal stories about health care, to start. Congress and the president touted its tax reform as a big give-back to the middle class, and gutted funding for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, also known as Romneycare (oh, you mean you forgot this is the same plan that Massachusetts' Republican governor instituted?). It's also the plan that Congress and the president have. When they largely gutted the program, they wrote themselves an exception. That tells you that Romneycare/Obamacare/ACA is so good the people who don't want to pay for it for us commoners want it for themselves.

I have insurance through my company; it covers my wife and I, and my employer pays most of it. I made a $14/month change to health care options this year, but my biweekly paycheck is down $74, which means almost $2,000 out of my pocket this year. If you're doing the math on my health care change, I paid $1,924 for $168 of increased benefits.

My sister is not so lucky. When she moved, she had to work a part-time job before finding a temp-to-hire job that. The company decided to buy her out early, which means she's a full-time employee after 2 months of temping instead of 3 months, but they still have a 90-day probationary period before they have to offer her health care. She has a two-year-old daughter, who, oddly enough, is not working full time.

In order to get her daughter health care, my sister joined the ACA exchange, which is partially funded by Medicaid. Funding for the exchanges has been gutted by the administration, and no one's required to take it.

So it seems very few do.

One day recently, my sister called me to say her daughter had a tick on her head and she needed to be picked up from preschool. I went to pick up my niece while my sister called the exchange to find out which urgent care facilities near me would take the insurance. She found one, and after I arrived and filled out paperwork, when the insurance card arrived via email, they said, "oh, we don't take the Medicaid version of this."

They referred us to another urgent care center 20 minutes away.

I'm no fool, so I called ahead. No, they didn't take it, but another center 30 minutes away did. I called them, and they also didn't take the Medicaid version of the exchange.

We're lucky enough that we could just come out of pocket for both insurance (which apparently doesn't cover much) and getting a tick removed from my niece's head. We're also lucky that we don't have a lot of Lyme disease here, so that's the end of it.

And yes, you can remove a tick at home by yourself. But good luck if your kid gets an infection on her scalp. At best you're talking about staying home for work for a while until they let her back at school. At worst you're talking about brain damage or death.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: health care may not be a right, but we're certainly better when as many people as possible can get help.

What does this have to do with what's going on?

The same way it's very difficult to find someone to take a tick out of my niece's head and check her out to see if she might need some antibiotics, even if she's covered by insurance, it's very difficult to find mental health care, affordable or not.

It's also hard for some who needs mental health care to recognize that they need mental health care, and it's even harder to compel them to get it — they have to be a proven risk to themselves or others. Even then, someone has to care enough to get them to help and check them in.

Nikolas Cruz had some mental health treatment a while back. He checked himself out, because he's allowed to.

Health care providers are not allowed to talk to anyone without a patient's permission. I have to sign forms if I want my doctor to be able to talk to my wife.

So when Cruz was investigated briefly after cutting himself and talking about guns on Snapchat, no one was allowed to tell law enforcement that he had undergone mental health treatment, so he wasn't on a list of people who couldn't have guns for mental health reasons.

That's why I want a basic mental health evaluation when you register for your permit. And your mental health history is absolutely relevant when purchasing a firearm.


Voices of Parkland

This is what students and faculty from the school are staying. Again, a plea against your outrage: Many of these voices are those of minors who have just lost 17 of their friends way before their time. If you're reading this, statistically speaking you're probably an adult who wasn't directly affected by the event. It's up to you, but if you're going on the attack, you're attacking teenagers. Pick your lane.


Movements, parties and American politics

Over the past several years, we've started to see more of what we'd call movements in the US.

The Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s were really the last time we had mass movements in this country. Growing up in the 1980s and '90s I saw the Million Man March, AIDS awareness, and the revival of the yellow ribbon campaign during the first Iraq War, but these were small in comparison.

Now we have Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the Women's March, and now, as you'll see in the Twitter names of some of the students quoted above, we have #NeverAgain.

There is plenty of splintering within some of these movements. There is no overall organization, though some pockets are organizing and we may see national NGOs start to pop up.

Anyway.

Movements are not parties, but sometimes they become parties.

We have two main political parties in the US: Republicans and Democrats. Right now, they wear their respective jerseys and, by and large, follow other people with the same jersey. I'm not convinced the majority of jersey-wearers elected to national office are concerned with thinking for themselves. Each party agrees among its members upon some talking points, and members who don't stick to the party line are set aside as pariahs, unworthy of funding.

Every time we try to take money out of national politics, we write in loopholes, which are easily exploited because the people who need them wrote them in.

We're basically living in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Or maybe Vonnegut wrote how he wrote because he had two eyes and a brain.

Ho hum, as it were.

Presidents have term limits, but senators and congressmen do not. It's time to set those. Five or six terms for members of Congress and two terms for senators — that will guarantee that anyone serving out the maximum number of terms works alongside at least two presidents.


What's next?

Here's where I hit you with a shocker: we wait six months, and we do this all again. Because our system doesn't want change; only those of us governed by the system do, and believe it or not, we don't have that kind of power.

Sometimes I think I should run for office, or volunteer for someone I agree with. Most of the time, though, I'm too cynical to think it matters.

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2 Comments

  • […] Note: We’re going to talk about guns, gun rights and gun control; mental health, health care and privacy; and political … Continue Reading → […]

  • Josh, it has taken me a while to read this. Thank you for thinking about this thoughtfully. Especially thanks for the explanation about the different types of guns.

    You wrote: “We have two main political parties in the US: Republicans and Democrats. Right now, they wear their respective jerseys and, by and large, follow other people with the same jersey.” I’m not sure if you and I have the same frustration, but I’m frustrated with politicians pointing at the other side. I believe political candidates this year should be stating clearly what they would do if elected, rather than pointing at the other side and saying something disparaging or saying “I’m not like that.” I want to know the person’s position and how the person will handle “X.” Tell me so I can compare this unknown with the known. And if you, dear politician, are going to tackle gun violence, now is a great time to lay out your plan/position.

    Sorry…guess that turned into a minor rant!

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