The Gun Problem Is Guns, Especially Semiautomatic Guns

Predictably, since Trump promised to really truly fix the Gun Problem he has pursued nothing but red herring solutions, namely arming teachers and doing something about “mental health.”

I’ve already written about the widespread but mistaken belief that school shooters are all “mentally ill.” Trump seems to think it would be easy to just round up the “mentally ill” people and lock them up in hospitals.  “We’re going to be talking about mental institutions. And when you have some person like this, you can bring them into a mental institution, and they can see what they can do. But we’ve got to get them out of our communities,” the president said during a meeting at the White House with state and local officials.

I don’t know who he thinks is going to pay for those mental hospitals, but never mind. It wouldn’t work, anyway.

In the 1960s, states across the country began to close or shrink mental hospitals after a series of court decisions that limited the powers of state and local officials to commit people. The decline continued for decades, in part because of cuts in both state and federal budgets for mental health care.

Those institutions housed people with severe mental disorders, like schizophrenia, who were deemed unable to care for themselves. And while spree killers may be angry and emotionally disordered, few have had the sorts of illnesses that would have landed them in hospital custody.

The latest school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19, was clearly troubled and making threats, and he was stockpiling weapons. But he had no mental diagnosis. He has been described as angry, possibly depressed, perhaps isolated — not so different from millions of other teenagers.

A full psychiatric evaluation, if he’d had one, might have resulted in a temporary commitment at best, but not full-time institutionalization, experts said.

The idea that more such institutions would prevent this kind of violence “is ridiculous, because you can’t put half the people in the country with a mental disturbance in mental hospitals,” said Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University who has studied mass killers.

It’s also the case that the law put up a lot of barriers to committing people to mental institutions against their will. It used to be too easy to commit people who were more inconvenient than disturbed. Although there’s no question we need much better mental health services in this country, it shouldn’t be the job of the health care system to warehouse people who might be potential criminals. That’s taking us into dystopian “Minority Report” territory.

The quoted article goes into an analysis of recent mass shooters and whether a “mental health” filter would have prevented them from shooting. Most had no known “mental health” issues that would have gotten them hospitalized even overnight. Even the Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza, who clearly was not all there, was not considered a candidate for hospitalization after a psychiatric evaluation at the Yale School of Medicine. Most others — including Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, Elliot Rodger, Dylann Roof, and Stephen Paddock — were angry and anti-social to varying degrees but not suffering anything that would have gotten them hospitalized even overnight. Whether any of them were “mentally ill” and not just maladjusted depends on how you define “mental illness,” actually. The exceptions were Jared Loughner and James Holmes, who were psychotic and who *might* have qualified for commitment, had there been beds available. But you never know.

But let’s look at this from another angle. We are told incessantly that “if you see something, say something.” Apparently a lot of people were saying something about Nickolas Cruz. He was very angry and very anti-social, and had collected several weapons — including an AR-15 and an AK-47 — most of which had been purchased legally. The New York Times has a story about all the warnings about Cruz that people called in to authorities, and it’s chilling stuff. Some of the people warned authorities explicitly that he might shoot up a school. He had an out-of-control temple, was threatening and violent, and he was stockpiling weapons. The signs were crystal clear this guy was dangerous.

But, in the end, there was little law enforcement could do because they had no authority to confiscate his guns.

Yep, until you’ve actually committed a crime, you are officially a law-abiding citizen, and your legally purchased firearms may not be taken from you. It doesn’t matter how angry and threatening you are.

The Associated Press reported this week:

Only five states have laws enabling family members, guardians or police to ask judges to temporarily strip gun rights from people who show warning signs of violence. Supporters of these measures, deemed “red flag laws” or gun-violence restraining orders, say they can save lives by stopping some shootings and suicides.

Florida is not one of those states. The article says that California enacted such a law after Elliot Rodger went on a woman-hating shooting spree. The article identifies Rodger as “mentally ill,” but you can find plenty of mental health experts disputing that. However, it’s a fact that Rodger’s parents called authorities to do something about their son, who had made violent threats online, but when police actually went and talked to him they decided he was harmless. One wonders if the Elliott Rodger law would have stopped Elliot Rodger.

And Adam Lanza’s mother actually encouraged her son to shoot guns, because she thought of shooting as something fun they could do together. She was the first one he killed.

Even so, if the cops could have confiscated Nicholas Cruz’s firearms (assuming they would have, or that he didn’t have a few stashed out of sight) that might have stopped him. So that’s something.

The problems with putting all “mentally ill” people into some database so that they are blocked from purchasing firearms is that (a) this would stop very few mass shooters, and (b) this could discourage people from seeking psychiatric help for fear of ending up in a government database.

Some states are stripping gun rights from people who have been convicted of domestic violence or stalking, both of which are big red flag behaviors. This is a fairly obvious move that should have been done nationwide years ago, but of course the NRA objects.

The NRA’s solution for domestic violence is, of course, to arm women. The problem with this is that when women do eventually shoot and kill an abusive partner, most of the time she’ll get convicted for manslaughter. It’s also the case that in the real world, women are sometimes shot with their own guns. There’s all kinds of data showing than women who live with abusive men are much more likely to be murdered when there’s a gun in the house — no matter who owns it — than if there isn’t. Of course, the obvious solution is to not live with abusive men, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.

And then there’s arming teachers. The only people who think that’s a good idea are those who learned everything they know about active gunfire situations by watching Fast and Furious movies. Those with real-world hostile gunfire experience — like war veterans and cops — think it’s a terrible idea.

“Shooting under stress is extremely difficult. Even for the most well-trained shooters,” Jay Kirell, an Afghanistan veteran who has written about difficulties veterans face in civilian life, tweeted. “A teacher is not going to be able to do this. Cops & soldiers literally get paid to do this & most of them can’t shoot accurately under stress.”

“Not because they suck, but because it’s nearly impossible to hit a target in one shot when pumped full of adrenaline,” Kirell added. “And if you’re in a school with a shooter and dozens of children, if you’re not shooting accurately you’re just creating crossfire.”

And let’s talk about the practicalities of keeping firearms in classrooms where they will be quickly available to the teacher in case of a shooter in school, but where the students can’t ever get it. Don’t make me laugh. And that’s assuming that the teacher doesn’t have a few screws loose and shouldn’t be trusted with a firearm. Or, what happens when the cops show up at an active shooting situation and see the armed math teacher, who happens to be a black man?

I realize part of the appeal of the “arming teachers” arguments comes from belief in the Magic Firearm that will dissuade shooters just be being there. There is no evidence that shooters choose targets just because they are allegedly “gun free zones.” Several mass shootings — Las Vegas comes to mind — have taken place where guns were completely welcome. And since most mass shooters kill themselves as the police close in, one assumes they aren’t afraid to die.

Let’s review what we’ve covered so far — the solution to the Gun Problem is to lock up “mentally ill” people wholesale whether they’ve been convicted of anything or not. The answer is to report scary people to authorities, who presumably will haul them away. The answer is to turn schools into armed fortresses. The answer is to put the names of mentally ill people into data bases so they can be singled out.

Does anyone else see the pattern here? We’re basically penalizing people wholesale so that a minority of Americans can own and carry any damn fool firearm they want. Why is that?

Now I’m hearing that the gun problem is not a gun problem, because more Americans used to own guns than they do now and there didn’t use to be all these mass shootings. Which is true. The percentage of Americans who own firearms has slowly declined over the years. And I can remember in the 1960s a lot of the boys in my high school owned guns, and no one worried about school shooting. But most of those guns were bolt-action .22 caliber (or not much larger) rifles, which were used mostly to shoot cans and squirrels. They weren’t AR-15s and AK-47s.

Semiautomatic firearms have been available for civilian purchase since the 1960s but were not widely owned until the 1980s, this article says. Ironically, it was a 1989 school shooting that opened the floodgate.

Civilians started to be able to buy the weapons shortly after they were developed for the military, but Chivers argues that doing so was still relatively uncommon. Many American gun-owners didn’t know or didn’t think about the option of owning a semiautomatic weapon.

That changed after a shooting at a Stockton, Calif., elementary school on Jan. 17, 1989, that left 5 dead and 29 wounded.

“Before Stockton, most people didn’t know you could buy those guns,” Chris Bartocci, a former employee of AR-15 manufacturer Colt and author of Black Rifle II, told CNN. He argues that people went out and bought the weapon after reading and hearing the news reports about the school shooting.

The Feb. 6, 1989, TIME cover story tried to make sense of how the gunman got a hold of a Chinese-made semiautomatic weapon in the first place. It reported that as trade increased following the normalization of relations, so did imports of Chinese copies of the AK-47, “which soared from a mere 4,000 a year as recently as 1985-86 to more than 40,000” in 1988. AR-15 sales went up too.

I couldn’t find current numbers on annual sales of semiautomatic weapons, but today semiautos, both long guns and hand guns, are the most popular in terms of sales. (For those of you who are new here and wonder why I’m not talking about automatic weapons, see Know Your Gunz.)

Now, if you listen to the gun, um, enthusiasts, you would think that America’s Freedom depended on nothing else but the ability of private citizens to purchase semiauto firearms. But if we’re waxing nostalgic about what’s changed, and why was it okay for boys to own guns years ago and not now, the difference is technology. It’s the relatively recent proliferation of semiautomatic firearms in private hands in the U.S. that puts us all in danger.

Yes, you can shoot people with bolt-action rifles, too. But not as many people as quickly. And I also think there’s something about the semiautos, especially the ones that look like bad-ass military weapons, that are compelling males with issues to pick them up and shoot them into other human beings. It’s the very act of sending all that metal into flesh that promises catharsis and resolution, somehow. Back in the day, if a young man needed to do something reckless to prove his masculinity and resolve his grievances, he’d harass and assault girls (which isn’t okay, either) or get into fistfights or drive cars too fast (ditto). Acting out Rambo fantasies by shooting up one’s schoolmates is relatively new, but one suspects the fantasy requires a semiauto weapon. A bolt-action .22 caliber rifle just won’t do.

23 thoughts on “The Gun Problem Is Guns, Especially Semiautomatic Guns

  1. Elephant in the room is most of these shooters are maladjusted white males trying to exert power and control over unarmed and non threatening groups of people. 


    All of NRA 'solutions' are : buy/sell more guns.

    see NRA video: "they' are out of control and white male civilian gun owners are going to have to reassert control.

  2. Maha, thank you for hitting the many points in play here.  I've been trying to tell people similar.  Also thank you to you too, AJ, because you are right. NRA solutions are to put more guns in circulation. In the process they tell us we have to be afraid of guns, and that's why we need to have a gun.  It's circular logic and past time people called the NRA on this BS.

  3. Thank You! This is exactly what needs to be said on this issue. Australia banned civilian ownership of semi-autos after a horrific mass shooting and hasn't had one since. The ability to spray lead at crowds is not something the average citizen requires, certainly not hunters and sportsmen. If we can regulate full auto arms, why not semi-autos?

  4. The SCOTUS just let stand a California law mandating a 10 day waiting period on guns. Why don't we start there? Age limits on gun purchases like Florida is proposing?

    Look, hey hey nra, how many kids have you killed today needs to be our mantra from this day forward…

  5. Good points, Maha. I would just like to add that a person can be hospitalized after a crisis worker evaluates them if it is determined that they are 1) a threat to themselves or 2) a threat to others or 3) gravely disabled. However they cannot be forced to take medication. After the 3 days, if the doctor is convinced they are no longer a threat, they will be discharged. If the doctor feels they need continued hospitalization, s(he) can petition the court for an additional 14 days. Then the pt. can be forced to take medication. After that 14 days, If they need additional hospitalization, it requires a conservatorship which also means going to court. The laws are pretty much the same in all the states. I did retire from nursing in 2006 so perhaps some things have changed although changing laws really takes a long time. So it’s not so easy to just put people away even if they are truly mentally ill.

    I worked as a psych nurse for over 20 years and most of the people who were hospitalized where I worked were not a danger to others. It was more likely they were suicidal and a danger to themselves.

  6. When I was growing up in NYC in the 60's, most cops didn't carry guns.  There was s call-box at every intersection, where the officer ran to to call their precinct for assisstance.  Then, if circumstances demanded it, the reinforcement brought gire-power.

    Now, anyone can get a semi-automatic pistol or long-gun.

    As I've said thousands of times, I have no objection to a person owning a rifle for hunting, or a handgun and/or shotgun, for defense.    

    No one hunt with semi's, because most people don't cook up  ground deer meat with bullet fragments in it, or varmints blasted to shreds.

     People aren't allowed to own tanks, attack helicopters, or missiles, so there ARE  already some limits on weapons.  

    Taking military attack weapons should be the goal.

    My other solution is that, yes, while the 2nd Amendment guarantees the 'right to bear arms' to every citizen, it says nothing about the right to bear bullets.

    So, either outright outlaw bullet ownership, or make every bullet cost $100 or more bucks – with a 500% tax.     

  7. There is an analogy between gun violence and drug addiction. One similarity is the question of mental imbalance on the part of the drug addict or violent gunman. Another is the role of opportunity in both. It is perhaps a little known fact that physicians are more likely to abuse drugs than the average person. (See ). Doctors do not fit our image of drug addicts. But they have access to drugs, and that availability is enough to make them more likely to abuse drugs. It is no secret that in the US the availability of combat weapons is high, but somehow we deny that that availability is a causal factor in gun violence. The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. Nunchuks are lethal weapons (arms) and yet we ban them, despite the Second Amendment. Why do we not ban even more lethal weapons?

  8. Being semi-automatic isn't necessarily the issue, it's the high capacity magazines and the rounds themselves. AR-15 type weapons shoot a .223 round it's small (about the same caliber as a 22) but the charge is huge which means it's high velocity, when hits a human it tumbles, the round was designed for military use to kill human beings. If Cruz walked into that school with a semi-auto pistol less people would have died because the round is less lethal. Also me thinks the resource officer would have had a shot at taking him down The solution here is obvious update, improve and re-instate the assault weapons ban of 1993. Unless of course is your pimping for the gun industry (NRA, GOP) then the solution is always more guns!

  9. Locking up dangerous people who might do harm to large numbers of non-combatants sounds like the proposal on the table. Let's say there was a real effort underway for the good of society to identify and institutionalize crackpots who are a threat to assemblies of people. (School, churches, music concerts)

    Look at the task as if you are a psychologist or law enforcement professional looking for the intersection of potential mass violence and antisocial behavior to develop a list of "suspects" to detain before the crime is committed. What are the potential target groups that medical pros and law enforcement pros would search and incarcerate in preventative detention? 

    The Southern Poverty Law Center can provide a list of active hate groups.A lot of the shooters have racial motivations. Apply technology to social media to identify who has an inclination to buy large numbers of war-style guns. The tendency to hoard weapons seems to be an indicator. Follow and have expressed violent aspirations. The list of AT15 owners would be a place to start if the psycho-Gestapo was going to round up potential shooters before the crime.

    I'd love for the proposal to be "seriously" considered by gun-control advocates and see how fast the NRA and POTUS abandon the proposal of identifying and detaining prospective shooters if the pros apply psychological risk factors, like fantasies of violence, being unable to process facts and demonstrating a commitment to magical thinking as a criterion to lock threats up. Trump will need to protect the voting rights of the high-risk groups – it's his entire base.

  10. The NRA has either opposed or didn't bother to actively support, in some form or fashion, every "solution" they suggest or pretend to endorse, that doesn't involve more guns.  And one reason they have gotten away with consistently undermining common sense solutions and crass attacks on victims of mass shootings when they call out for real action on guns is because in the public arena, by legislators and the media, they have always been given the benefit of the doubt, that they are sincerely arguing on the basis of second amendment rights, when the reality is they're only about expanding the market for gun sales.  Some have even gone so far as buying into the NRA billing itself as a "civil rights organization." It sets a phony stage of sincerity for the "thoughts and prayers" response, with the push back that "decent" people will respect the feelings of the victims.  This is why efforts to change after even Sandy Hook went nowhere.

    We've conceded a huge share of the moral high ground to the NRA and the gun nuts right off the bat when we have engaged them on their supposed sincerity while not speaking plainly about how, judging by their real actions over the years, of undermining every sensible proposal including their own, that  they are directly responsible.

    This is why the NRA and their bought off and hateful supporters are so afraid now, and why they are feverishly trying to discredit them personally (the kids have cut them off at every turn on the merits), because the Parkland kids opposition didn't start with the usual benefits of doubt.  They went straight to making the direct correlation between the NRA's "advocacy" in the form of bribes of blood money to legislators requiring them to not only do nothing but to make guns more available at every turn, and these mass shootings.  And that this is how and why the NRA and their paid representatives in government are responsible and thus accountable for these massacres.

    Evidence of their effectiveness is corporations starting to back away from the NRA, as they see that association with them will not be good for business.  And elected officials like Rick Scott, Rubio and others now suddenly getting some form of "religion" on guns.

    I'm now convinced this time is different, and if the momentum can be kept up, going into the march on March 24th in DC and then carried over into the election, we may start to see some real change.

  11. Yet another prime example of how our (quasi-) elected leaders are owned by lobbies with cash.  It's all swamp.  Most mandates these people come up with, are swamp.  Now they get elected even promising to drain swamps, before they personally profit from the swamp. 

  12. Grannyeagle states much needed mental health reality.  Any mental health action, in the modern era, that is resisted by the individual, is difficult if not nearly impossible for even a wealthy and concerned family or community to impose.  Troubled people can get treatment at times, but troubling people (like the alleged Florida shooter) fall outside of mental health territory for the most part.  

    Sure, some exceptions probably exist, but this does not refute the generality.  If this were logically so, English would have no rules of phonics.  The definition of an obvious gun problem mislabeled as a mental health problem is an obvious ruse  that has been identified by the protesting high school students. The difficulty and expense of possessing a firearm should increase as it's potential societal danger increases.  By the time you get to semi-automatic rifles…or any gun that chambers even a few rounds automatically…the difficulty and expense of owning needs to be significant.  Beyond that (bump stocks and larger capacity semi-automatic guns or gun magazines) consider requiring owner's periodic, mandatory, mental health evaluation by licensed, certified, and insured mental health professionals at the owners expense. That is my recommendation.  Then proper control will truly be a mental health issue and problem.

  13. Maybe we should explore the mental health aspect a little deeper?


    Trump: I would have run into Florida school shooting without a gun.

    Gee, I didn't see Trump running through the main gate of Ft. Hamilton to express his courage in service of his country.

  14. Swami:  Sure, Trump  would be a big hero and run in.  Of  course, he would have had to  open his can of spinach and eat it  first.  Or maybe, that cheeseburger he has hidden in his pocket.  Or, if there was a phone booth nearby, he could  change into  his  Superman outfit.  What a guy!!!!

  15. Regarding Trump's Rambo fantasy, I think he is playing to his base again, but, it brings me to a basic rule for judging how dangerous a person is.

    I had a friend who had so many car accidents that we used to joke that Nostradamus made a prediction about him.   The thing that made him so accident prone was the disparity between his actual skill level and his perception of his skill level.  Reality  often produced harsh judgments, but, he remained careless and overconfident.  

    With guns, it can be a lot worse, usually when someone accidentally discharges a gun.  But, magical thinking brings it to another level.   When you have someone who thinks they are Rambo,  you either really have Rambo or you have a really big problem.   One is a whole lot more likely than the other.

    We had a pack of dogs attack our goats this Candlemas.  Some had to be put down.  I started sleeping in my clothes, so I could get to the barn quickly when I heard dogs at night.  (We started keeping the goats in a dog-proof fortress.  –so they're safe, but, they don't like being confined.)  One night it was very foggy and there were some dogs bothering our horses.  I long since gave up on the idea of shooting predators.  There are houses within a mile and the chances of a wild shot are too high, especially at night.  But, I made three or four trips to the barn that night and each one convinced me further that using a gun wasn't safe.  I didn't have the skill level or the proper sense of where the targets were in relationship to houses, etc.  All I could see were pairs of eyes reflecting my flashlight beam.  The first rule is NEVER shoot at anything you don't see clearly.

    But, I can imagine some wannabee taking that chance without ever considering the risks or the difficulty.  That same person in a crowded school room or Walmart would be even more dangerous.

  16. Even without the worry of ending up in a government database, any record of treatment from mental health professionals can become a problem. If there is a divorce and custody of children is decided by some court, any history of treatment for mental health issues will be used against you. It may also be a problem in the same way if you are trying to prove that you are being stalked.

  17. Bernie – that was a great link. Thanks.

    Here's another one. It is an overview by Chris Hedges of the abiding role armed violence against others has played in our national history.

    Also, for anyone who hasn't read it yet, the Mark Ames book Hedges cites, Going Postal, is based on extensive interviews with survivors of these situations. What Ames found is that people who went on to become shooters always had a history of being isolated and scapegoated past their capacity to endure it. Ames concluded that the shootings are not the result of mental illness so much as disorganized, incoherent uprising of our new socio-economic underclass. 

    • “incoherent uprising of our new socio-economic underclass” Maybe, partly. Some of the mass shooters haven’t really been all that deprived; Stephen Paddock was wealthy. I believe Elliot Rodger had money to throw around. Nikolas Cruz’s adopted family was affluent; white country club people who had a luxe five-bedroom house in an upscale neighborhood. His adopted parents died, but he was taken in by other upscale people. Certainly what shooters have in common is a fanatical grievance about *something*, but about what exactly is the question. Certainly there was, in these guys’ lives, a huge disconnect between what they thought life owed them and what they actually got. That this is a problem with men in particular is, I think, a clue to what’s going on. Here’s a good argument:

      Women lose jobs. Women feel neglected by their loved ones. Women are romantically rejected. Women, as a rule, do not respond by shooting up schools or workplaces.

      The problem at hand here isn’t that shooters are mentally disturbed. After all, 23 percent of U.S. women have a diagnosable mental illness (compared to only 16.8 percent of men), and they do not go around shooting people. The problem is that some men do not have the coping skills to deal with the fact that everyone does not think that they are special.

      I think there’s a connection between mass shooting and the sexual predator/harassment issue. Toxic masculinity is a real problem. Raise boys to believe they are supposed to be the kings of the universe, and be prepared for carnage when the Real World doesn’t come through for them. When you add in the fact that white privilege *doesn’t* go as far as it used to, and an ordinary white guy has less access to steady jobs with benefits that his father had, then that’s a factor, yes. But it’s not the main factor, I don’t think.

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