Answers remain elusive in gun control debate

  • Kenneth Norton Alan L. MacRae

  • Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein speaks at a Franklin Mayor's Drug Task Force meeting Wednesday. ELODIE REED

  • Tuftonboro police chief Andrew Shagoury leans in to listen in on testimony for Marcy’s law to a overflowing crowd at the State House on Tuesday, February 6, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Saturday, February 24, 2018

Make no mistake, a mass shooting can happen right here in the Granite State.

The experts agree – while New Hampshire is a rural state with low rates of gun violence – the wrong combination of factors can lead to the unthinkable happening here.

As the nation debates what can be done to prevent another tragedy like to the one in Parkland, Fla., the Monitor reached out to New Hampshire experts – two police chiefs, an educator, a mental health professional, a second amendment advocate and a constitutional law professor – to ask their opinions.

Their answers can pit well-meaning people against each other. Or, they can lead to agreement from those on seemingly opposite sides of an issue.

Ken Norton,executive director of NAMI N.H.

Every time a mass shooting occurs, the mental health community holds its breath.

They know what’s coming, Ken Norton said – the dangerous, inaccurate statements linking the shooting to the suspect’s mental health, regardless of whether there’s evidence of mental illness.

Norton said he can understand why someone might think mass shootings have a connection to mental illness. “I think it’s hard for any of us to envision why somebody would kill children randomly,” he said. “I think there’s just an assumption that they must have a mental illness.”

In fact, mass shootings by people with a diagnosed mental illness represents less than 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides in this country, according to the American Psychiatric Association. By contrast, death by suicide involving firearms accounts for nearly half of all gun-related deaths.

These facts and figures aren’t new, but Norton said they seem to be ignored by the big players in the national discourse on gun violence.

“It’s really difficult to have this conversation when the president of the United States immediately links mental illness with shootings when in some circumstances there’s no evidence that was the case,” Norton said.

And despite being part of an effort to write media guidelines for reporting on mass shootings, Norton doesn’t think the media is catching on, either, when it sensationalizes incidents, repeats the perpetrator’s name constantly, or reports a mental health connection without any formal diagnosis.

“There’s more and more research showing these people are looking for notoriety, that they research these shootings and make comments about how they want people to know who they are,” Norton said.

Norton said we need to focus more on the “dangerousness” of individuals who commit mass shootings. Take Carl Drega, the Bow man who killed two state troopers, a judge, a newspaper editor and wounded three more law enforcement officers on Aug. 19, 1997, in Colebrook. Drega was known to have a grudge against authority, and the judge he killed was deeply afraid of him.

David Goldstein,chief of police in Franklin

The number of recent mass shootings in the U.S. are a tragic reminder that every community is at risk, said Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein.

“We’re all cognizant that the potential is there for every one of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of schools, in the country,” he said. “The sad part is we have to think along those lines, but we have created a world in which that is our reality.”

There is no “magic” solution that alone will end mass shootings, but there are steps that communities can take to mitigate some of the risks and eliminate potential threats, especially in schools, Goldstein said.

“I seriously believe in target hardening,” he said, adding that the more barriers to access, the more likely it is that someone intending harm will be deterred or caught.

While the main entrances to many schools have video surveillance and key-card only access, Goldstein said schools need to equally consider secondary doors and other access points where a person could get in undetected. Now, maybe more than ever, people need to be aware of their surroundings, he said.

As the national conversation on school safety intensifies in the wake of the Florida shooting, Goldstein said he hopes the invisible yet unmistakable line that separates people on both sides of the gun control debate will break down.

“Owning a gun is a right, but it is a responsibility as well. Is it wrong to ask people to merely be responsible?”

Goldstein said he is not opposed to raising the minimum age limit to purchase a firearm, but noted there is no “magic age” either.

“We send people to war at age 18. People can drink at 21. Neuroscientists say brain development continues into a person’s mid-20s,” he said, adding, “I’m not sure what the answer is.”

The issues surrounding gun access are so multifaceted even before a person’s mental health is considered, Goldstein said. To complicate things further, mental illness is not clearly defined and can include a broad-range of issues, he said.

The lack of understanding and the scarcity of dialogue about mental illness has done a disservice to those affected, including those who needed help but maybe were too ashamed to ask for it, he said.

“It’s time to get over the stigma and have real conversations, not just in the Legislature and not just in this context.”

Keith Hanson,conservative talk radio show host

The ingredients leading up to a mass shooting like the one at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School and the immediate response to it has a lot of moving parts, said Keith Hanson, a New London talk show host and tactical firearms instructor.

Hanson would know: He has four federal active response certifications, three federal tactical counterterrorism certifications and trains law enforcement in how to respond to various active shooter situations.

And until all the facts are known, it’s difficult to say what exactly happened in the school or what “fail points” led to the shooting. Fail points, Hanson said, like the multiple tips the FBI received about the shooter in the months leading up to the Feb. 14 incident.

And it’s impractical, Hanson said, to focus on whether the school’s resource officer didn’t do his job by standing outside the school when the gunman was active inside.

“There’s a lot of people doing some Monday morning quarterbacking of the situation here,” he said. “The bottom line is that in periods of extreme stress there’s a limbic response, the fight or flight response. It’s human nature to retreat.”

Not only that, but Hanson said Supreme Court cases, such as Warren v. District of Columbia (1981), have found that members of law enforcement do not have an individual duty to protect people.

The only people who can really protect us from mass shootings, Hanson said, is ourselves. He’s supportive of teachers who have demonstrated proficiency with a firearm serving as immediate first responders and force multipliers in an active shooting incident. He argued that a teacher’s innate desire to protect their students from a threat would spur them to act.

“There’s one thing a cursory study of history will tell us, which is that criminals, bullies, thugs and tyrants often only respect one thing, and that’s a force equal to or greater than the force they are capable of using,” Hanson said.

Hanson also said the debate over gun control needs to be one of facts, not emotions, saying there has to be more attention paid to what are the common traits perpetrators share and a recognition of the agendas political parties adhere to when they talk about guns.

“When a 19-year-old kid walks into a school and shoots it up, people automatically blame the gun,” he said. “But when Jesse Champney was shot in Canaan, did people call for gun control? ... When a citizen uses a gun to shoot someone, it’s the gun’s fault, but when a police officer shoots someone the public believes to be innocent, they focus on the individual’s actions. In one case it’s the gun’s fault, in the other case it’s the person.”

Brendon Browne,government relations director for NEA-N.H.

Taking the emotion out of the subject of school shootings is close to impossible, said government relations director for the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association.

“Schools are, in most people’s minds, a safe space; every day, parents send their kids off to school and expect them to be safe there,” Brendon Browne said. “It’s also a universal experience. ... Almost everyone goes to school nowadays.”

The NEA-N.H. recently came out hard against the concept of arming teachers to stop school shootings, with president Megan Tuttle saying it was “an abominable idea.”

Browne said the solution was not viable for a number of reasons. “Teachers by and large do not want guns in their classrooms,” he said. “They have a hard enough time getting supplies into the classroom and dealings with dangerous items in the classroom already.

“The main (reason) being I don’t think it’s going to dissuade anybody,” Browne continued. “We should be focusing on the ideal situation, which is stopping this before it happens.”

If you really want to solve the problem of school shootings, educators should be at the forefront of the conversation, Browne said. It’s part of their job to prepare for lockdown drills and to know their students, and they’re the ones at risk when school shootings occur.

Albert “Buzz” Scherr,professor, UNH Law School in Concord

False perceptions and stereotypes often hinder productive conversations about gun control and the constitutional right to bear arms following a mass shooting, said Buzz Scherr.

“You can be in support of the Second Amendment and also believe in gun control,” he said. “Those who are against gun control incorrectly believe all those in support of gun control want to take everyone’s guns away.”

While opinions are sharply divided on the issue of gun access, Scherr said people need to take the time to understand both sides and they just may find a middle ground.

“There are certainly those in the debate in New Hampshire – and elsewhere – who believe any restriction on guns is the start of everybody’s guns being taken away,” he said, noting, “that’s simply not the case.”

While legislative action in the nation’s capital has stalled following mass shootings, a new generation of young people are saying enough is enough.

Following the Feb. 14 shooting students have demanded change, not only in their own community but on a national level. As those student survivors take to Washington, they’re capturing the attention of their peers, including in New Hampshire.

“The message from young people is really powerful. We’ve heard family members who’ve been affected by gun violence speak out, but we haven’t so clearly seen teenagers lead the fight,” Scherr said. “Maybe that will cause a level of shame in decision makers who, until now, haven’t advanced beyond the ‘Second Amendment versus no guns for anyone’ debate.”

People can say “take away guns from the mentally ill and we’ll be fine” or “arm teachers and our schools will be safe,” but those statements are “superficial” and don’t recognize the complexities of the issue at hand, Scherr said.

The spectrum of mental illnesses is so broad and yet people who suffer from those wide-ranging diagnoses have been lumped into one category, he said.

“We’re overusing simplistic terminology that describes too many people, and we’re not defining it,” Scherr said. “Taking away guns or not allowing people who have any kind of mental illness to own a gun is over the top.”

Andy Shagoury,chief of police in Tuftonboro

Concern about someone planning and carrying out a copycat shooting is at the forefront of officers’ minds following any mass casualty incident at one of the nation’s schools, Tuftonboro Police Chief Andy Shagoury said.

Schools are a community’s most valuable asset and should be secured as such, he said. Effective security includes having school resource officers on site at both the middle and high school, and video monitored entrances where visitors must be identified and screened before entering a facility, he said.

“I think local school districts should also be able to decide whether they want citizens with arms on their property,” Shagoury said.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate remain divided over whether school districts have the legal right to impose firearms restrictions. While the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act bans weapons within 1,000 feet of a school, New Hampshire law gives the Legislature the sole authority to regulate guns, causing confusion in communities that have created gun-free zones.

In the wake of the Florida shooting, the Granite State should also be taking a hard look at how it can improve its reporting under the National Instant Criminal Background System, Shagoury said, noting that state law does not allow mental health records to be submitted.

The absence of those records means that those deemed too dangerous to purchase a firearm from a licensed gun dealer are able to do so anyway, he said.

“Not everyone is mentally ill forever. They could be treated and there is a method to come off the list,” he said.

While part of the national debate has centered on an assault weapons ban, Shagoury said he doesn’t believe that is part of the solution.

A person must be 21 years of age to purchase a handgun from a licensed federal firearms dealer, and 18 to buy a long gun. But in New Hampshire, there is no law establishing a minimum age at which one can possess a firearm.

“Now, that’s a problem we need to address,” he said.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea. Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)