Webcast: What can be done about gun violence?

Update: Replay the video and scroll down to read the article from the League of Women Voters of the San Antonio Area forum on Gun Violence on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

The moderator was former Congressman Charles Gonzalez and the panelist were

  • Al Kauffman, professor of law at St. Mary’s University School of Law
  • José Menéndez, Texas state senator from District 26
  • Dr. Steven Pliszka, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at UT  Health San Antonio
  • The Rev. Anna Gordy, pastor of Abiding Presence Lutheran Church
  • Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar

By Glenda Wolin, Vice President, League of Women Voters of the San Antonio Area

When five panelists at a League of Women Voters forum shared possible solutions to the gun violence that has wracked the country in recent years, their ideas ranged as widely as their areas of expertise.

From improving mental health treatment, to recognizing the value in every human, to legislators finding common ground so they can pass common-sense laws, to limiting the sale of certain kinds of weapons, to suing gun sellers who sell to people who should have guns, many suggestions were discussed.

“Gun Violence: What CAN Be Done?” panelists at the January 30 forum included Al Kauffman, professor of las at St. Mary’s University of Law; José Menéndez, Texas state senator from District 26; Dr. Steven Pliszka, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at UT Health San Antonio; the Rev. Anna Gordy, pastor of Abiding Presence Lutheran Church; and Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar. The discussion was moderated by former U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez.

What causes gun violence?

The root causes of violence need to be addressed as part of the effort to stop it, several panelists noted.

One of those causes is mental health issues. Pliszka pointed out that though only a small percentage of people with mental illness are violent to the point of danger to others, “for the most part, seriously mentally ill people are mainly a danger to themselves. A subset will become violent. Tragically, most of those will become violent to their family members with whom they live.”

He noted that James Holmes, convicted in the Aurora theater shooting, was schizophrenic, and that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook school shooter, had a long history of mental illness. In other mass murders, there’s another kind of profile: “They are usually male, single or a relationship has broken down, angry at the world around them, and then something snaps and they take a weapon and commit some grievous act.”

But even with all these and more, Pliszka says, “studies show that acts of violence committed by people with serious mental illness account for about 4 percent of violent crimes.” And mental health professionals do not have a reliable way to predict what patients are going to go on to commit one of these crimes. “Where the role of mental health comes in is looking at the chronically mentally ill and optimizing their treatment so that a whole range of negative outcomes are avoided.”

Menéndez agreed about mental health issues being one root cause and said he had noticed a change in attitudes about it over his years in the legislature. “One of the positive outcomes of this debate is that there has been a stronger focus on mental health. In the years since these issues have come up, mental health has come to the forefront, and we are doing more,” he said.

More than one cause

Gordy, who herself has been held captive at gunpoint and shot, spoke of another root cause of violence, and she placed much of the blame on her own profession. “Religious leaders are missing an opportunity to help heal this nation by not talking explicitly about race and violence in our religious studies and our worship services because at the heart of each episode of intentional gun violence is hate. We’ve become a nation so grounded in fear and hatred that we can’t see how to solve problems without some kind of violence,” she said.

Pointing out that her denomination, Evangelical  Lutheran Church in America, is, according to a study, the second-whitest in America and was responsible for the religious education of three of the nation’s mass murderers, “I would be remiss as a pastor in my denomination if I did not draw a clear line between the whiteness of those men, the hatred in their hearts and the horror that they manufactured and our culpability as religious leaders,”  she said.

We segregate ourselves by religion, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, she said. “And then, we resent one another. And then we fear one another, and then we hate one another, and if a gun is handy, we kill one another. Or, if the loathing is turned inward, we kill ourselves.

“Not a single world religion calls for violence against one another. But every single major religion has what Christians and others call the Golden Rule.”

Laws, restrictions, interventions are critical, but they only treat the symptoms, she said. “We must begin from early childhood, from infancy even, to educate our children about the diversity and goodness of God’s good creation. We must begin help one another see that each person is valuable, not because they are our brother or sister or neighbor, as though we have a claim over them, but because they are their own uniquely embodied self, made in the shadow of God’s image, made with a spark of the divine.”

Rights and limits

Kauffman led off the discussion by surprising many with the announcement that the Supreme Court didn’t discover an individual right to bear arms until 2008.

“It was always there, but it wasn’t discovered until 2008,” he explained. The decision was 5-4 and limited the right in many ways. It said clearly that Congress or state legislatures can

control who obtains guns. It said there are limits to what sorts of guns can be  carried. It said the Second Amendment was passed only for people to have guns for self-defense of the home. It does not give someone the right to carry a submachine gun, a machine gun or a bazooka.

“I want to make sure that when people discuss these issues they don’t say, ‘You can’t do that because you are violating my Second Amendment rights’ or, ‘My Second Amendment rights allow me to do anything I want with the guns.’

Guns are here to stay

There was agreement that there are many guns out there and they are here to stay.

“We have to figure out some workable solutions to try to prevent this senseless damage and the loss of life,” Menendez said, adding that the Washington Post reported in 2017 that there are 393 million guns distributed through 50 million households in United States.

“People have a right to arm themselves. That same principle that founded our nation also declared that we had certain inalienable rights and that among those are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and I believe that my rights end when I start to infringe on your rights. I think controlling the problem does not mean that we deprive anyone of their right to lawfully own a firearm,” he said.

Salazar noted that “I’m not anti-gun, I’m anti-gun in the wrong hands.” He was wearing a black band over his badge, in mourning over the death of K9 Chucky, killed by someone he described as “the poster child for someone who should have owned a gun.”

Steps he has taken include a program, started after a meeting with Moms Demand Action, in which police get a search warrant before going on family violence calls so they can temporarily remove guns from the home. The guns can be retrieved later, but while emotions run hot, the guns are not available. If a warrant can’t be obtained, the police ]ask if they can remove the guns.

Other programs involve studying other cities’ effective ideas; the Violent Crimes Task Force, which unites several law enforcement agencies to go into one area at a time to arrest violent felons and get guns off the street; and reserve deputies, volunteers with peace officer certification who work at least 16 hours a month in schools and elsewhere.

Everyone has a wish list

Gonzalez asked the panelists about the one thing you would want to change and could have that would improve the gun violence situation,

Kauffman chose limiting automatic and semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Pliszka: Expanded red-flag laws. These would put people committed formally to a state hospital on a list where they can’t have weapons, and for people with emergency detentions, a system would be put in place where mental health professional would decide what is appropriate.

Gordy: People responsible for all religious institutions would educate each other about people of other faiths and backgrounds and cultures so we would have a better understanding of who one another is and call each other beloved and eradicate the hate and the need for violence.

Menéndez: If we could eliminate all the special interest groups hovering over people, causing them to fear taking a vote for something that might be common-sense legislation.

Salazar: Suing the companies that sell the guns when they shouldn’t for the sake of the almighty dollar is the way we’re going to get results.

Menéndez told a revelatory story about how people live in a society ruled by the fear of violence.

He was at the MLK march and saw a friend. “I went to pat him, and I felt a bulletproof vest. And I was like ‘Wow. He felt like he had to wear a bulletproof vest. This is sad.“

“Rather than be crippled by fear, we need to be proactive.”

Common ground. Common-sense laws. Increased mental health care. Working with the knowledge that guns are here to stay. Focusing on love rather than hate. These are things that can be done.