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Monday, November 28, 2022
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PERSPECTIVE: Prevention and Mitigation Recommendations to Target the Epidemic of Gun Violence

Rarely has a consensus been reached from such a unique consortium of professionals who are actively confronting gun violence issues across so many different sectors.

The Center for Homeland Defense’s Homeland Security Executive Leaders Program Cohort 2102 constitutes a diverse and distinctive group of law enforcement, public health, public safety, military, emergency management, and other government leaders who represent a broad range of communities, perspectives, and professions in the homeland security continuum. Throughout our rigorous educational program, we were asked to confront some of the most challenging and complex issues in homeland security, now and into the future, with new ideas, new initiatives, and new ways of thinking.

Incidentally, multiple times throughout the year, and even while we were in residence, one of those challenges struck our nation again and again in real time – gun violence. This collection of officials all agree that the gun violence epidemic and mass shootings represent one of the most critical threats to our homeland defense and security. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 45,222 people lost their lives in the U.S in 2020 due to firearm-related incidents. This statistic represents 124 deaths per day. This is a historic high and gun violence is one of the primary causes of mortality in America, especially among young adults and children. As of July 2022, no fewer than 532 cases of mass shootings occurred in the country this year, averaging an alarming 11 per week. Of these, 27 were school shootings. The most lethal school attack in a decade transpired in Uvalde, Texas, this year, just after one of our in-residence sessions. The 18-year-old suspect murdered a total of 21 people (19 children and 2 adults) and injured 16 others at Robb Elementary School. This tragedy is merely one of many that could have been prevented if there were smarter policies for gun safety and stronger penalties for firearm-related violations.

The disturbing fatality rate from gun violence indicates that the existing laws are ineffective in deterring or preventing potential assailants from committing these heinous crimes. Independent of the formal instruction or structure of the Executive Leaders Program, members of ELP Cohort 2102 embarked on a process to determine what we, a microcosm of our nation’s viewpoints across the ideological spectrum, could agree on regarding policies that could mitigate that violence.

We recognize that within the American public, and even within our own cohort, there are deeply divided opinions on gun safety reforms. We also recognize that much has already been written on this subject. But rarely has a consensus been reached from such a unique consortium of professionals who are actively confronting gun violence issues across so many different sectors and geographies of American society. By leveraging our fellow leaders’ knowledge and experience and by employing new strategies learned in our curriculum, we were able to agree to the following set of recommendations that best represent our collectively conceptualized path forward to breaking the status quo and mitigating the critical challenge of gun violence in America. By defining this gun violence as an imminent threat to the safety of the country, the strong case can be made to use Department of Homeland Security current funding mechanisms, in addition to future target assistance, to address many of these attainable goals.

Working at the State and Local Levels

Gun violence is an epidemic across American cities with increasing incidents of morbidity and mortality. Many of these individual acts of violence garnered little media attention or offers of federal assistance. In Chicago over Memorial Day weekend this year, 51 people were shot and nine killed in a series of shootings across the city, the most violent Memorial Day weekend in five years. Within just a few weeks, a mass shooting took place in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb, where an active gunman on a rooftop killed 7 people and wounded 25 others during a Fourth of July parade. The mass shooting at the parade garnered far more media attention than the series of more deadly shootings in Chicago.

All active threats are important, regardless of the location of the incident. Why does it seem that everyday gun violence does not generate the same amount of attention and resources as targeted acts of violence? Why does one type of event seem to be more of a national priority when both are clearly critical threats? A number of answers come into play, including that local jurisdictional perspective is not built into federal or state plans. But most imminently, it seems that our society has unfortunately become desensitized to everyday gun violence and therefore uninspired to act against it. Gun violence in cities has been normalized and even “expected” in certain communities. This creates a dangerous eventuality in the homeland security mindset that looks at gun violence in cities as inevitable. And if epidemic gun violence in cities and across the nation is viewed as inevitable, nothing will be done to change the status quo.

The status quo is unacceptable. Leaders have to address and attack the problem of gun violence in American cities immediately. We need actionable plans that promote evidence and community-based prevention programs across all levels of government.

Recommendations:

  1. Establish state task forces: State governors should establish a prevention task force by Executive Order or an informal convening of subject matter experts to specifically address the issue of gun violence. These experts can develop strategic objectives that could include some of the following:
    • Identify and study extremist groups and urban street violence in order to understand and mitigate root causes
    • Identify and develop community-wide approaches to identifying these groups
    • Understand the various capabilities and resources that state and local governments possess to address the issue
    • Identify the most current and relevant investigation strategies and techniques
    • Identify and collaborate with state and local authorities for effective prosecution and intervention models
    • Identify those most at risk for radicalization using studies and resources (state fusion centers can be a resource for this)
    • Create plans to intervene and/or educate those at risk at the earliest possible opportunity and, when necessary, use deradicalization models for reintegration into society
    • Build community awareness through violence prevention programs and the like
    • Explore community reporting and informal working groups to promote access to services for those at risk, including their families and inner circles
    • Ensure local communities get the help and services they need from state and local governments
  2. Build prevention partners: States and local governments should build coalitions of prevention partners to share resources including, but not limited to, traditional law enforcement, mental health providers, state and local health departments, human services, crisis hotlines, economic resilience developers, teachers associations, coaches, houses of worship, community organizations, and emergency management agencies.
  3. Deploy a targeted violence strategy: State and local governments should develop a prevention of targeted violence strategy and include gun violence as a central tenant of that strategy. This should include partners in the private sector as well as participation from federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments. Protection of civil liberties and rights should be the foundation of any such strategies.
  4. Share information: State and local governments should share their developments and best practices with other states and municipalities and work on solutions together.

Increasing Penalties for Gun Violations

The country has existing severe reprimands for firearm-stimulated crimes through two prime federal gun laws, namely the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 and the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968. The NFA is a federal statute that focuses on supervising the possession and retail of guns. This act aimed to reduce the cases of violence that use certain sorts of weapons, such as altered shotguns or rifles, shotguns or rifles with a short barrel, and machine guns.

PERSPECTIVE: Prevention and Mitigation Recommendations to Target the Epidemic of Gun Violence Homeland Security Today

On the other hand, GCA is quite similar to NFA but has a broader scope of weapon categories. GCA comprises licensing prerequisites for gun sellers and manufacturers, background evaluation for purchasers, guidelines for interstate transfer or selling, injunction rules on gun possession, and punishments.

NFA and GCA both hold that the country’s firearm-related laws must be improved and amended to effectively address the alarming cases of gun-related injuries and deaths.

The country already has existing punitive penalties for crimes associated with firearms. The compulsory sentence ranges from a minimum of five years in jail to life imprisonment. Despite the harsh punishment, gun-linked crimes are continuously rising. We posit that this is because said penalties were designed to be reactive whereas the current situation demands more proactive and preventive policies regarding gun possession and ownership to inhibit unlawful acts.

Preventive interventions should include a more stringent and thorough assessment before allowing an individual to purchase and own a firearm. The absence of firearm registration and lenient criteria for becoming a gun owner, in general, are crucial factors for efficient firearm regulation. Every jurisdiction has its own gun-related laws and only two (the District of Columbia and Hawaii) compel registration of all weapons. California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York only require registering assault weapons, and Maryland requires assault pistol enrollment.

An Everytown for Gun Safety study found a direct relationship between weaker state gun regulations and excessive cases of firearm-related deaths. To illustrate, the nonprofit organization identified Hawaii at the top of the list of states with minimal cases of gun-related deaths. As previously mentioned, Hawaii is one of only two jurisdictions that require registration of all weapons. On the other hand, Mississippi, with no registration qualification for weapons, was distinguished to have both the most muted firearm laws and the highest rate of gun fatalities.

Operational implementation of firearm laws through stricter weapon registration are the recommended additional provisions for the existing gun laws in the country. Registration interventions have proven to be effective in reducing firearm fatalities as underscored by the experiences of other states and countries.

Recommendations:

  1. Increase penalties: Once there are already comprehensive registration policies, they must be accompanied by increased punishments for the offenders. Uncompromising penalties must expand beyond application only after the crime is committed.
  2. Enforce registration requirements: Harsh punishments should be given to those who will not comply with the policy, to include high monetary fines and lengthy terms of imprisonment.

Employing a Mental Health Approach to Red Flag Laws

Red Flag Laws have existed in the United States for more than 20 years. The state of Connecticut was the first to pass such a law following a stabbing and shooting rampage at the Connecticut Lottery headquarters. Since then, 18 states have enacted their own Red Flag Laws, while roughly 24 other states have proposed legislation. Of those who have already passed Red Flag Laws, a majority are in the upper northeast or west coast of the United States.

Proponents of Red Flag Laws feel they are part of the overall solution to curb gun violence in the United States because of their ability to restrict potentially dangerous people from possessing firearms. Although the laws vary state to state, they allow a court to issue a special type of protection order, allowing law enforcement to temporarily seize firearms from those who a judge deems to be a danger to themselves or others.

Much like protection from abuse or restraining orders, requests for “extreme risk” court orders under Red Flag Laws generally come from family or friends concerned about a loved one who may be experiencing a mental health crisis or otherwise pose a safety threat.

Opponents of Red Flag Laws argue they violate the constitutional rights of United States citizens, particularly the Second and Fourth Amendments. Key counterarguments to the implementation of Red Flag Laws are that they allow the government to seize firearms from citizens without due process. While gauging the success of Red Flag Laws is difficult, the lack of due process allows for opportunities of abuse. For example, an estranged spouse can petition the court to issue an “extreme risk” order, requiring law enforcement to go to the home of the defendant and seize all firearms without first having the opportunity to present counter facts to the judge. Again, like Temporary Restraining Orders or Protection from Abuse Orders, these initial “extreme risk” orders are granted based solely on the allegations or concerns of the petitioner, without necessarily having to provide corroborating evidence.

This process also poses significant hurdles for law enforcement. First, many states don’t have gun registrations, so law enforcement has no way of knowing who has what firearms, if any at all. Therefore, if issued an order, law enforcement would then be expected to go search a citizen’s home without a search warrant. Second is the issue of firearm storage. Most law enforcement agencies lack appropriate and adequate storage space to secure the firearms until the court makes a final determination, which could be anywhere from a month to a year from the initial firearm seizure. With certain firearms costing tens of thousands of dollars, and complications with storage conditions such as temperature and moisture potentially resulting in damage to the firearms, law enforcement is ill-positioned to store firearms for long periods of time, particularly those with the likelihood they will be returned to the owner at some future time.

Recommendations:

  1. Create a database for law enforcement to cross-reference: There is currently no mental health database that is cross-referenced when someone attempts to purchase a firearm. If someone has recently been involuntarily committed, this would be indicated in a database. The sale would be paused pending a screening by a local mental health provider, who could then sign off on the continuation of the sale.
  2. Address due process: If someone has been determined to be an extreme risk, a mental health provider can file an affidavit with the court, prompting the judge to issue an Extreme Risk Order. However, absent an affidavit from a mental health provider, the judge should set a hearing within 48 hours and hear the allegations, then make a determination as to whether law enforcement should seize the firearms or not. Absent due process, law enforcement is not generally going to be willing to seize any property.
  3. Create storage regulations: Require owners of firearms to compensate gun stores to properly house the firearms when removed after due process.

Enhancing School Security

One type of mitigation against school mass shootings on which a majority of Americans can agree is school security. The difficulty comes in determining how best to accomplish school security and finding the funds to implement the security measures determined to be most effective. Should we encourage teachers to carry guns in school? Do we want armed guards stationed at every school entrance? Is that the kind of environment where we want our children to learn and grow?

We believe there is a better way – one that relies more on technology and physical barriers than on armed personnel. We propose that school facilities become more hardened and compartmentalized, so school doors can be shut and locked, active shooters can be quickly isolated within lockdown areas, and authorities can be instantly notified that an active shooter is on site. Though geared for K-12 institutions, these suggestions may be tailored and applied to higher-education institutions as well.

Recommendations:

  1. Harden classrooms: Ensure that all classroom doors can be locked from the inside to prevent entry by an active shooter and have an outside exit capability, such as a window with a rope ladder or other such device.
  2. Install new equipment: Install security doors in all school entrances and at both ends of all hallways with remote-controlled systems to lock and unlock them, which can be monitored with security cameras by onsite security or taken over remotely by local police in the event onsite security is compromised. Install bulletproof glass in all school building windows with automatic lockdown mechanisms once the active shooter alarm is triggered. Install a silent-alarm button in each classroom that can be activated by school personnel if an active shooter scenario occurs. The alarm should be monitored by both local police and the school main office.

Suicide Prevention Through Gun Safety

When it comes to gun violence, much of our media attention has been rightfully focused on mass shootings, which continue to present a clear and persistent threat to our public safety and homeland security across the country. But far more deadly and far less publicized are instances of suicide by firearms, which constitute around 60 percent of all gun deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Firearm suicides take nearly 24,000 American lives every year, in cities big and small, from coast to coast, and across all socioeconomic, ethnic, gender, age, and religious groups. Over the past 10 years, that’s 220,000 deaths by firearm suicide, or almost twice as many Americans that were killed in all of World War I.

Extensive data and research shows that a long list of factors contribute to this epidemic. Most notably, the more access an American has to firearms, the higher his or her risk of firearm suicide. That risk is most acute with children, where household firearm access for youths ages 14-19 is strongly correlated with firearm suicide. Furthermore, the uniquely lethal nature of guns make suicide by firearms far more fatal than attempts by other means, robbing first responders, communities, and society at large of the opportunity to provide victims with a second chance.

Firearm suicide is a uniquely American epidemic, with rates eight times higher than other industrialized nations. As such, we need uniquely American solutions that are effective and immediate while working within our constitutional framework.

Recommendations:

  1. Communicate and educate: Our public health, public safety, and homeland security agencies across the local, state, and federal levels should maintain active strategic communication campaigns to inform Americans about the alarming statistics related to firearm suicide. By identifying and communicating this relatively overlooked issue, we can prompt and enable communities across the country to take immediate, sensible, and proactive steps toward mitigating it.
  2. Encourage safe storage: When purchasing a firearm, customers should be saturated with safe storage advice, literature, and messaging. Storing guns locked and unloaded with ammunition stored separately or out of the house are proven mitigation factors that, if effectively communicated, could significantly decrease the risk of firearm suicide. States should enact regulations that require gun stores to provide such messaging – in a similar way that states require alcohol and gambling warnings at bars and casinos.
  3. Enact “extreme risk” laws with due process in mind: Extreme risk laws are state laws that allow law enforcement agencies or family members to petition courts to limit a particularly at-risk individual’s access to firearms. Passing such laws, taking into account due process, and applying them in special circumstances to individuals with suicidal tendencies could deprive them of the most immediate and lethal means of taking their own lives.
  4. Increase mental health services in schools and workplaces: With the increase of gun violence due to undetected and ignored mental health issues, it is important that state and local governments provide funding for increased mental health services for our nation’s youth in order to mitigate these issues prior to adulthood. Organizations should focus their efforts on providing mental health education and services for employees.

Addressing Impact of Entertainment and Gaming on Gun Violence

In 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a special report on the public health effects of media violence, primarily on the young. However, the portrayal of violence in the media and gaming has only grown stronger since, which should cause concern for all parents, public safety personnel, and primary care providers who confront the consequences every day with our nation’s youth. Children, adolescents, and young adults now consume digital media from a variety of sources, many of which are mobile, accessible 24 hours a day, and offer both passive and active engagement. Many of these media platforms feature entertainment that contains significant doses of gun violence and other forms of aggression.

The prevalence and impact of violence portrayed in media and entertainment have long been a topic of debate in the United States. In the 1972 report, the research was focused on television, which was the prevailing form of media and entertainment in the United States at the time. As the landscape of media changed to include computers, gaming systems, phones, tablets, and smart devices, this means we now have near-ubiquitous portrayals of violence available wherever, whenever, and however we, including our youth, want it.

Recommendation:

  1. Create a public board: Establish an intergovernmental public board composed of mental health professionals and professional educators to study and develop effective media violence mitigation standards.

Stop Memorializing and Sensationalizing the Perpetrators

History is full of examples of bad people becoming notoriously famous for their crimes. The names of the assassins of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are almost as well known as the great men themselves. Names of mass murderers also come easily to mind, but hardly anyone remembers their victims or the police officers who eventually brought them to

justice. The press tend to focus heavily on the shooter in mass shooting cases – analyzing the shooter’s childhood, social media presence, and history of violence to find some clue as to why someone would commit such a heinous crime. The effect of that coverage burns shooters’ names into the minds of countless Americans and advances their goals of infamy.

Ostensibly, the purpose of this media analysis is to learn how to prevent such crimes in the future, but in reality such sensationalism of perpetrators encourages others to go down the same dark path to obtain their own fame and notoriety. The First Amendment provides strong protections for the freedom of the press and free speech in general, but the harm to society of sensationalizing perpetrators of these heinous crimes far outweighs the benefits of free speech in these cases. We should save our media attention and historical remembrances for the victims of these crimes and for the heroes who place their own lives in danger to end these senseless rampages.

Recommendations: 

  1. Remove references: Develop local police policies and encourage media outlets to expunge the names of mass shooting perpetrators from all public statements, written materials, and social media messages. This would set a common standard across the country by which agencies are encouraged to abide.
  2. Leverage law enforcement social media: Social media can be leveraged by law enforcement agencies to identify, prevent, and defuse gun violence. Many perpetrators often use social media as a platform to draw attention to their intentions to commit crimes. Law enforcement should utilize this intelligence to advance their crime prevention methods. Also, community engagement and partnering with social media influencers would provide additional resources for mitigating gun violence. However, this should be done quietly outside the public eye and without providing shooters with the notoriety they crave.

Conclusion 

We believe in American exceptionalism. We believe that when Americans come together, we can overcome any obstacle, take on any challenge, and face down any threat. Americans have been curing diseases, defeating dictators, and charting the unknown for two and half centuries. With that same American ingenuity, grit, and perseverance that put a man on the moon, we are confident this shining city on a hill can also solve the epidemic of gun violence. For our children, and with the eyes of all people upon us, we simply have to.

 

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email Editor@Hstoday.us.

Cohort 2102 of the Naval Postgraduate School's Executive Leaders Program
Cohort 2102 of the Naval Postgraduate School's Executive Leaders Program constitutes a diverse and distinctive group of 29 law enforcement, public health, public safety, military, emergency management, and other leaders that represent a broad range of communities, perspectives, and professions in the homeland security enterprise. Throughout their year-long program, they debated and discussed approaches to the greatest challenges across the spectrum and exchanged new ideas and solutions to tackle those issues at their home agencies. For more information on programs at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, visit their website at www.chds.us.

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