America’s gun debate needs a reset

Editor’s note: Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi wrote the following blog about the nation’s gun debate. His essay was written as a chapter of a book he is writing about the Sikh Temple shootings in Oak Creek in 2012 and the aftermath.

Whenever you bring up the subject of gun violence in our country, the level of discourse generally degrades fairly quickly to a 2nd Amendment versus gun control argument. Good people, with significant educational and real-life experiences dealing with the impact of guns in cities across America, will abandon reasoned argument for an all-or-nothing defense of gun rights, or a simplistic ban-all-guns argument, which essentially takes the U.S. Constitution and throws it out the window.

Given what happened in Oak Creek on August 5, 2012, it’s understandable that the debate would come to my city, and I would be asked by residents, media, gun-rights groups, and other organizations about my stance on guns and their place in our society. We had just seen six people killed in their place of worship, on a beautiful Sunday morning, and the rawness of that event still weighed heavily on Oak Creek, and specifically, the families at the Temple, who were still grieving. The details of the shooting, the fact that the guns used were obtained legally, didn’t matter to the spouses, sons and daughters, and other relatives of the victims, whose lives would be changed forever because of this act of hate.

As a teenager growing up in Wisconsin, I had hunted with my father many times. I can remember jumping up and down on a wood pile at the edge of a farm field as my Dad waited for rabbits to dart out from their cover, the sound of the shotgun blast, startling me. I had grown up with hunting, and the annual deer hunt, not unusual in a state like Wisconsin. Growing up around guns, taking hunter-safety courses before being handed a shotgun, was part of the experience, and the understanding that guns should be taken seriously, given their power and their ability to take a life.

Fairly soon after the Temple shooting, I was asked about my feelings on guns, and whether or not their use should be restricted, or more tightly regulated. I feel strongly that gun ownership is a right, guaranteed by the constitution, but that much more needed to be done to make sure that guns stayed out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, whether that was because of a criminal record, or the inability to make a decision to use them properly because of mental health concerns, or other behavioral issues. The recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado had demonstrated the danger of guns in the hands of individuals incapable or unwilling to use them responsibly – twelve people killed in the act of watching a movie, ironically the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises in that case.

The Sandy Hook school shooting in December of 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut put an exclamation point on the argument that we needed to take a harder look at how guns are distributed in our society, and how much we are willing to tolerate in violence, balanced against the right of every American to own a gun. As much as groups like the National Rifle Association would like to think that guns and their use have no restrictions, clearly that’s not the case. I don’t think most people have an issue with the restrictions on guns on airplanes, or in courtrooms, and it’s clear that the U.S. courts understand that limits can and should be in place to insure public safety. Finding the proper balance between a citizen’s constitutional rights and the public’s expectation for reasonable public safety and security is not easy, it never has been in our country’s history, but if the cycle of mass shootings in 2012 said anything, we needed to look at that line.

As early as the week after the shooting, gun control was on the public’s mind, the nightly cable news programs talked about it, the Reverend Jesse Jackson had talked about it in his remarks at the services for the victims, and several members of the victim’s families had mentioned it to me in conversations during that week. But much of what passes for public discussion on the issue is usually post-event, triggered by a “what can I do” response which probably has its roots in psychology, or a natural inclination to want to help someone who has suffered. All of us feel and react strongly when we see lives ended prematurely, violently, especially when that act happens in a setting where you wouldn’t expect it.

Reasonable, rational people can disagree on the subject of guns, and how much control or regulation is appropriate or constitutionally acceptable. Irrational people, in my opinion, don’t see the distinction, and often look for opportunity in tragedy, or evidence to support their belief that any infringement, there’s that sticky word of constitutional ambiguity, is an assault on their personal freedom. But where is the line of social responsibility? What responsibility do we have for the victims, and their families, to make sure that their lives were not lost in vain, and that as a democratic country founded on rights and principles, we don’t look for every opportunity to improve our society in the hard lessons of our history?

As I talked with the media after August 5, I was often asked the question, how do guns fit into the story, and should we have stricter gun control in the U.S.? From that week on I’ve slowly realized that we should frame the argument in terms of gun violence, not gun control. Say the words gun control, and the argument deteriorates quickly, talk about gun violence, and you have at least the opportunity to have a conversation.

So much of the story of Oak Creek, Aurora, Newtown, and other cities where mass shootings have occurred involve individuals who have demonstrated an inability to make rational decisions in their own lives, and have chosen violence as a means of acting out, or taking out their hatred on others. Guns have served as the method of delivery, but as we saw in Oak Creek, Aurora, and Newton if a gun is purchased legally, how do we effectively reduce the likelihood that a person uses it to take a life?

Clearly, in our case, the shooter, Wade Michael Page, had a problem with alcohol abuse and developmental issues going back into his childhood. His willingness to embrace the extremist ideologies of the white-supremacist group, the Hammerskins, gave him an outlet for his anger, but it isn’t clear, where the final push to take violent action against the Sikh community came from.

Page lived in a nearby city, six miles away from the Temple, and it’s uncertain if he came into contact with members of the Temple at some point in the past, or simply stumbled upon the Temple one day while driving around the area. What is clear is that between his residence in the City of Cudahy and the Howell avenue location of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, there are numerous places of worship that for lack of a better term, were more traditional, and had members who looked more like Page. When Page took his own life in the parking lot on August 5, whatever motive he had died with him. The F.B.I. and other agencies tasked with investigating Page found little evidence beyond his affiliations with the Hammerskins, to establish a motive for the killings.

So absent a clear motive, what does the Oak Creek shooting tell us about guns, violence, or even the lack of cultural acceptance and diversity in our country? Throwing up your hands, or employing the famous bumper sticker slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” isn’t particularly illuminating logic, given that both an individual and a gun are necessary partners in the committing of the act of shooting someone. Page purchased his weapons legally, found the time to visit a local shooting range to target shoot, and despite his rather violent, hate-filled, background in the years leading up to August 5, his criminal record was fairly light. Without a direct link to violence in his background, it’s highly unlikely that people like Page could be stopped before they commit heinous acts like the Sikh Temple shooting.

But Aurora and Newtown are somewhat different stories. Their shooters also used legally-obtained guns to commit their acts, but both James Holmes and Adam Lanza, the shooters in Aurora and Newton, clearly had serious, documented mental health issues leading up to their acts of violence. In both cases, and at critical points in their lives, failures in family, their respective communities, and perhaps our society in general, contributed to their ultimate acts of hate. Both men demonstrated through their actions, their private conversations with mental health professionals, and in their behavior immediately before their shootings, that they had taken a mental step forward in making the decision to act out. In Holmes case, he had purchased weapons and large amounts of ammunition in the months prior to the theater shooting. Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, who was described by her sister as a “gun enthusiast,” a somewhat curious hobby given her son’s personal story, owned many weapons, including the guns used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook elementary. She encouraged her son to go with her to a local gun range, despite the indications that her son had a fascination with violence.

What these three cases suggest is that despite the current state of gun legislation in America, including background checks, each of these mass shootings probably would have happened regardless of what measures would have been put in place to stop them. But what they do show is that there is a significant disconnect between the mental health community, and in the willingness of families and their medical professionals to intervene before events like this occur. Walking the line between mental health and gun rights is a particularly tricky subject, given individual’s right to medical records privacy, and in medical professional’s reluctance to step over that line.

But the question remains, does the public good carry extra weight given what could happen, and what did take place in 2012? Much of what should be the focus of legislation going forward needs to understand that the prevention of violence goes much deeper than guns. But given that guns are the principal means of delivery of violence in our country, it does require an examination of what we can do as a society to limit the public’s risk of being killed by a weapon that was illegally obtained. Gun background checks do work, and many individuals who shouldn’t own guns have been prevented from buying them, perhaps saving many lives in the process. Overwhelmingly, Americans support enforceable and easy-to-administer background checks, and has been widely reported, even the vast majority of the National Rifle Association’s members agree.

When I was asked by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization to support their efforts to encourage the President and Congress to support common-sense gun legislation I made it clear that what I support is a background check policy that works as close to 100 percent of the time as possible, and that enforcement of background checks and insuring that the public is kept safer by keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t own them, must be the priority.

Joining any lobbying group, particularly one associated with gun rights or proposed gun legislation, will always be controversial, even for a mayor of a city who has suffered through a mass shooting. In my case, my participation was viewed by many as a willingness to abandon the 2nd Amendment, and to trample on the rights of individuals to own guns. As I’ve said, I own guns, and use them throughout the year to hunt. I believe strongly that every American has the right, if they wish, to own a gun, and understand that the Constitution implicitly says that. But what it doesn’t say is that individuals who our society says are no longer entitled to those rights, like felons, should be able to circumvent the system, and purchase weapons illegally, or without a proper background check being performed. Saying that the background check process is broken doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to fix it, or to put even more stringent measures in place to guarantee, as best we can, that those persons buying weapons are entitled to do so.

As my participation and membership in the Mayors Against Illegal Guns group became public, particularly after attending the President’s press conference on proposed gun legislation at the White House, I began to receive emails and letters expressing displeasure with my willingness to join an organization sponsored by then New York Mayor Bloomberg. Several people purposely changed the name to Mayors Against Guns, in a rather lame attempt to classify me as anti-gun, not bothering to listen what I actually said on the subject. Some email writers threatened me; some said they would work to throw me out of office unless I withdrew my support for MAIG.

What I continue to say on the issue is that all Americans should be in favor of strict, properly-administered background checks, regardless of their position on the 2nd Amendment. We correctly enforce legal, responsible limits to all aspects of our life every day, owning guns should be treated no differently, with all respect to the intent and integrity of the Constitution.

I’ll continue to speak out on the issue, and to reinforce what I think is a realistic, intellectually- honest approach to gun rights, understanding that the complexity of the violence debate in our country requires a thoughtful, reasoned, examination of the link between guns, how they are purchased, and who should ultimately have access to them.

Steve Scaffidi is the mayor of Oak Creek.

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