There is a very cynical expression about politicians: they never let a tragedy go unused. The NRA and gun activists would accuse gun control proponents of using the Aurora and Newtown shootings of doing exactly that: using these tragic circumstances to advance their own political agenda. The right to bear arms is an important Constitutional right, but the public does not respond well to the massacre of innocent movie-goers and schoolchildren.
Government reaction has been slow though, except for one part of the country: New York. Debates are being held across the country, but only New York has (so far) passed a law. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the “Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act” (SAFE) on January 15th, 2013.
The law has a number of new regulations for the Empire State. One provision requires universal background checks for all gun transfers except among immediate family members. Another provision deals with the killing of a “first responder” at a crime scene. The most interesting aspect of this new law, however, is the mandate to medical professionals, particularly mental health therapists, to report dangerous patients to state authorities. The state authorities would then check whether the patient owns any guns. If the patient does, the state can suspend the patient’s license and confiscate the weapons.
The mandate to medical professionals is the most interesting part of SAFE since it addresses the heart of the problem. Advocates of gun control often point to the fact that United States has significantly more gun-related killings than other nations. However, mass killings do occur in other nations; the difference is that cultures favor different weapons. For example, on the day of the Newtown massacre, December 14th, a man in Henan, China, also attacked school children, except the Henan attacker used a knife rather than a gun.
Gun control advocates would point out that none of the children in the Henan attack were killed. If psychotic killers were forced to use knives rather than guns, the victims might actually survive. The problem with that reasoning is that society cannot control the weapons would-be killers might use. If guns were banned, ignoring the Constitutional problem for arguments sake, mass killers might use less dangerous weapons like knives. Those same mass killers, however, could also use more dangerous weapons, such as bombs, just like in the 1927 Bath School Massacre. Rather than focus on the numerous means a man could spread death, I think focusing on the killers themselves is far more beneficial.
The issue, however, is can this actually prevent bloodshed. Therapists already have a duty to warn about dangerous patients, but they typically have flexibility in how to approach the situation. Therapists could report the patient to the police, warn possible victims, or recommend the patients be detained in mental institutions for treatment. SAFE, however, reduces therapist flexibility by requiring that therapists report the dangerous patient to state authorities in charge of monitoring gun ownership. SAFE does not preclude other safety options, but forcing the therapist to act in a particular manner might make patients less willing to disclose themselves to their therapist.
Would SAFE’s mandate actually prevent killings in the future though? Criminal background checks are useless, since neither the Aurora shooter nor the Newtown killer had a criminal record prior to their infamous acts. SAFE might have prevented the Aurora shooting though. The Aurora shooter had been seeing mental health professionals and most of his acquaintances agreed that the eventual movie theater slaughterer was mentally unstable and likely dangerous. He had also obtained all of his weapons legally.
On the other hand, SAFE would probably not have prevented the Newtown killings, which is ironic since the law is more a reaction to the deaths of the children than the movie-goers. Although the Newtown killer was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, Asperger is not known to cause the aggressive behavior the Newtown killer displayed in the weeks leading up to the attack. Moreover, the Newtown killer, who was twenty, had been turned away from purchasing a gun since he was not old enough to legally own a gun; Connecticut requires a gun owner to be 21 years or older. The Newtown shooter got all his weapons from his mother, who legally owned the guns. However, she had been murdered by her own son prior to the rampage. Given that SAFE only confiscates the patient’s weapons and that gun transfers between immediate family members are exempted from state scrutiny, the law is hardly bulletproof.
Gun right proponents might read SAFE and shudder. Gun right supporters have often opposed gun registries, since registration could be a slippery slope to confiscation. The SAFE act seems to justify this fear. At the same time though, one of the arguments against gun control is that gun control violates the rights of law-abiding citizens while gun control is completely ignored by the “bad guys.” Although SAFE affects every gun owner in New York, the provision about medical professionals at least tries to limit itself to the mentally unstable. The lack of predictability in results, however, might give the citizens of New York a false sense of security.
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