One of the nice things about having a blog is that you have the freedom to talk about anything you want to talk about without being beholden to an editor or to content guidelines or to anything other than your own internal moral compass. More than a couple friends and coworkers have asked me recently what my thoughts were about the school shooting in Connecticut, since I’ve worked in federal law enforcement and currently work in corporate security, often defending against this very type of incident with training, drills, background investigations, etc. They think that I might know a thing or two about a thing or two. I am often responsible for conducting emergency response drills, which could be simulating anything from a relatively routine medical emergency like sudden cardiac arrest, to a natural disaster, all the way up to a full blown workplace violence incident. Coincidentally enough, this past Wednesday, the day after the mall shooting in Oregon, I charged forward with a workplace shooting scenario, which had already been planned for weeks, that included a random shooter entering the workplace complete with cap gun, actors in place playing victims so that my emergency responders would have a more realistic scenario. The shooter “shot” and “killed” one person and “shot” and “injured” three others in our scenario. I’ve long been a believer that realistic drill scenarios prepare first responders for the unthinkable. They can practice the incident command system for scene management, handheld radio transmissions using the right codes and phrases, patient triage for treatment and transport, and all manner of security protocols.
I would like to think that the number of people asking my opinion and general outcry I see over Connecticut online and in the media, which seems to be eclipsing what occurred in Oregon, or even Aurora, or even Columbine before it (interesting that one word now, just the name of a city, lets you know instantly what we’re talking about) means we’ve reached some sort of tipping point and that real change may occur. Maybe this is because of the sheer number of people killed, or the disturbing fact that most were young children. I took to writing as I often do because it helps me clarify my own thoughts and may encourage you to do the same or at least instigate some type of discussion. We need all that and more. I also think, egotistically, that I may have an interesting position on this issue because of my unique background. It’s probably no secret around these parts that I can be extremely liberal minded when it comes to social issues, but I think I tend to be a little bit closer to center on this particular debacle. Let me get one burning question out of the way right up front.
I own two guns. One I purchased and one was given to me. I have my grandfather’s Ross .303 rifle from 1905. This is a family heirloom and one of the only things I have from my grandfather. I never met him. He passed away when my dad was only 5 years old. My sister owns the American flag that was draped over his coffin at his military funeral. He was in the Army during WWII. I own a gold ring that was his, along with this Ross rifle, which is very rare, originally commissioned for the Canadian military. I don’t own ammunition for the Ross, I’ve never shot the Ross, and I never will shoot the Ross. Anybody who knows anything about its internal cam “deadbolt” locking mechanism knows that it isn’t the safest weapon to shoot. But it means a great deal to me as a sentimental family piece. I also own a Sig-Sauer P228 9mm handgun, which I’ve owned for about 15 years now. I originally bought it to carry as a duty weapon. It’s now a highly regarded rare model, a finely crafted piece of German engineering on the higher end of weapons one could purchase, something that’s been carried by Federal Agents and US Navy Seals for years. Both of these guns are in a safe that my kids don’t know exists, I carry the only key to the safe at all times, I carry the only key to the case they’re locked in within the safe at all times, only my wife and I know the combination to the safe, which you need in conjunction with the keys to access the weapons. The guns are not loaded and the ammunition is locked away in a separate location. At the moment, I have 100 rounds of 9mm on hand for the Sig. They come in boxes of 50, so I have two boxes.
Sometimes people start a discussion with me by prompting me with the fair question “Why do you own a gun?” There are a few reasons. Before moving to the very urban SF Bay Area, I grew up in a relatively rural area about 90 miles east of the bay. My paternal grandfather I mentioned, who was in the Army during WWII, owned several guns, and was an avid hunter. He actually hunted bear with the Ross. My maternal grandfather, who was stationed in England in the Army Air Corps during WWII, owns several guns, some shotguns and an extremely rare Colt .45 from the turn of the century, which was given to him by his father. Before I was born, my dad owned several guns purely as hobby. My dad is in the antique business, so he often is in possession of weapons (guns, swords, bayonets, etc.) from about the Revolutionary War era to the US Civil War, to the Spanish-American War, all the way up to WWII, where legally it then becomes a little sketchy for him to buy and sell anything more modern because of the way the laws are written. I grew up on a farm in the very early years of my life, and it was not uncommon for me to see my dad wielding his .38 revolver to rid us of skunks or rabid coyotes or numerous snakes. It was a tool of some utility. I say this all to state that I guess guns have been a part of my personal culture of origin. I grew up with them, I was taught to respect them, how they worked, what they were worth, and how to use them. I never considered them toys, I never tried to sneak them out to play with or handle or show my friends for kicks or whatever. As I said above, I also own one because I had to carry one when I worked in federal law enforcement. That line of work came with extensive additional training. I also enjoyed guns as a hobby for a while, going to the range regularly, perusing gun magazines, etc., but those are things I haven't done for years. I’ve kind of lost my interest in them, grew out of them if you will, not to mention the fact that it’s a really expensive hobby. You can easily spend $100 per session going down to the range and paying the fees and buying targets and popping off 200 rounds or so, which doesn’t even address the cost of the guns themselves, most decent handguns being in the $500-$1,000 range. I just don’t have the discretionary income for that any longer, or the time frankly. I guess I also believe in the idea that it could be used for home defense or personal protection. When I graduated from college and started working, I was home at one of my seedy apartments during a home invasion, an attempted burglary. I actually held the person at gunpoint until the PD arrived. It was terrifying, even though I’d had all kinds of training by that point. On one hand, it’s nice to know you have that available as an option on the rare chance you’ll need it. On the other hand, with my gun now locked away like it is, I’m not sure I could do something similar in time today. On the other hand, we live in a pretty upscale neighborhood now and it’s not something I’m terribly worried about. On the other hand, that sort of ignores the readiness argument that it can happen anytime and anywhere. Complicated issue, huh? Like voting, I also believe that you should exercise your rights. The law says that I can own one, so admittedly – right or wrong, there’s a small part of me that wants to own one simply because I have the right to. In terms of the Second Amendment, I will say that I agree with the spirit of what the Founding Fathers intended, that an armed populace tends to keep a potentially tyrannical government in check, but I believe things have obviously evolved drastically beyond their limited foresight and that the letter of the law and its application desperately needs to evolve along with the times. While I am a believer in the Second Amendment's "right to bear arms" clause, it's also more than 200 years old. Technology has evolved. There is a difference between a musket that takes 30 seconds to load in order to fire a single shot, a semi-automatic hangun that carries 10 rounds for home defense, and a fully automatic military-grade assault weapon with a 40-round magazine. One of the brilliant things about the US Constitution is that it's a "living document," designed to be interpreted and evolve with the times.
All of that said, I’m not one of these rabid Charlton Heston NRA types. Those guys make me sick. If the government decided tomorrow morning that I could no longer purchase a weapon, or even own one for that matter, I wouldn’t be heartbroken. Unless you’re active duty military or law enforcement personnel, I don’t think that anyone should have the right to own, or even have access to, a) an assault weapon like an AR-15 or an AK-47 or an HK MP-5, or b) anything that’s fully automatic, or c) anything with a high capacity magazine. In the State of California, where I’m most familiar with the law, you can own handgun magazines with a 10 round capacity. This means that my Sig actually can carry 11 rounds at any one time, with 10 in the magazine and one additional round chambered. This is what the term “10+1” means if anyone cares. Now, if you’re law enforcement, you can own high capacity magazines. This means that, as a former federal officer, I could go down and flash a badge and purchase a 13, 17, or even a 20 round magazine for my handgun. I haven’t done that. I think it’s ridiculous that there’s so much gun activity that is not regulated, particularly in the secondary market. Even though I’m prohibited from owning certain things in California, all I’d have to do is set up a PO Box in Arizona, order things online to that address, and then drive across the border to retrieve them. Even easier, I could just go to a local gun show, which is the very definition of the “gray” market. Nothing is tracked, cash deals are done under the table, and I can buy assault weapons, high cap magazines, conversion kits that transform a semi-automatic weapon into fully automatic, often times without a background investigation, without a waiting period, without any automated flag to any authoritative body, and without any of the ATF paperwork required of a legitimate dealer with a Federal Firearms License (FFL). There’s a lack of legislation around the industry enhancing existing laws with new laws. There’s also a lack of resources available to enforce the existing laws. Now keep in mind this is all pre-9/11, but at the time I worked in federal law enforcement, my agency only had 2,000 active agents, while the FBI had close to 10,000 by comparison. We were woefully understaffed and only audited or investigated something like 20% of the eligible participants in our audit program. If you want a true horror story, ask me about the case I helped investigate involving a high level school employee dealing weapons to students. Thankfully, as far as it was proven, nobody was ever killed with one of those weapons. Thankfully, this person is still in prison.
You can dive into all sorts of scary statistics, but that’s not really the point of what I’m writing. I did hear one in reference to Connecticut which stood out to me, that went something like this: Since Columbine, there have been something like 31 school shootings in the United States. If you add up all of the other school shootings in all of the other countries in all the rest of the world in all that time, there have been only 14 by comparison, less than half. That’s appalling. As a parent who lives across the street from the school my two kids (age 6 and 3) attend, this terrifies me. I understand and appreciate the school’s aggressive security protocols, but as someone who works in the security industry and is responsible for developing and testing similar protocols, I also know that they are fallible. The best systems and the best procedures are still subject to human error. It all comes down to behavioral issues as to whether or not these protocols function as designed. And if someone is determined enough to intrude, no intrusion detection system, no physical barrier, none of the best trained staff, and no procedural kerfuffle is going to prevent an armed person from finding a way to do so. Nothing is foolproof 100% of the time. They are all deterrents, some very good, but passive deterrents nonetheless. The bottom line is that in terms of regulation, it’s harder for me to get a driver’s license, comprehensive health care, the interest rate on my damn home loan lowered, or a marriage license if I’m gay than it is to purchase a firearm.
I’m tired of all the arguments I hear about gun control. I’m tired of hearing those Charlton Heston types belt out “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!” Of course guns kill people. They are built solely to do just that, to kill things, bigger, better, and faster. Their very existence is for that specific purpose. Now, they can’t kill a person all by themselves, they’re a tool used to do so, but we’ll get more into that later. I’m tired of these tired analogies the pro-gun lobbies try to make. “Well, cars kill people too, are you gonna’ ban those?!” It’s a faulty facile argument. Cars are designed for transportation, not to kill. I’m tired of the “Well, if someone wants to kill you, they’ll find a way to do it anyway, with a knife, explosives, a can-opener, etc. so it won’t matter if you ban guns!” argument. This is facile as well. Guns are the easiest and most effective method, so why not reform gun control to limit some/most of these types of offenses? Will there still be crime? Will people still get killed? Sure. But, with dramatically lowered frequency and severity if you take guns largely out of the equation. I’m tired of clowns like Mike Huckabee or Rudy Giuliani getting on TV and blabbing their opinions with absolutely no credibility about “God in the schools” or the regurgitation of conservative gun lobby speaking points or whatever. Really, just shut the fuck up already, ok? I’m tired of the way the media covers these events, how they sensationalize the crime by focusing on the perpetrator. Conversely, I’m tired of the way they insensitively try to interview 5 year old kids about the killings they just witnessed. Stop. I’m tired of the rigidity of the Second Amendment advocates citing the “well regulated militia” clause. Seriously, when is the last time you and your farmer neighbors took up arms against a foreign invader? Easy, Paul Revere. It ain’t Red Dawn out there. Seriously, when is the last time you took up arms to march on Washington, DC in mass protest against any number of domestic or foreign policy issues in order to keep your government in check? (Now, I’m not saying that couldn’t happen in some type of DMZ scenario – had to work in a comic book reference, didn’t I?). I’m probably the most tired of American Presidents I voted for and assorted politicians saying that “now is not the time” to debate gun control, immediately following an incident, but a time for mourning and condolences. That doesn’t fix the problem. All of these issues are tangential rabbit holes that distract and divert attention away from the core issues. Now is the time. It’s the best time. If it hasn’t already been done, as it should have been done numerous times before, decades before, then “now” is always going to be the best time to stand up and finally draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough. The time for change is always “now.” If not, then when? Not to be an insensitive dick, but if a bunch of dead 5 year old kids isn’t going to prompt action, what in the hell will? It’s getting to the point where not a week goes by without an incident. We’re so busy mourning the last one that another one happens and we never get to this mythical point in the future where it’s “ok” to now start having the debate and making real change. The time is now. It’s always a good time to push this issue.
Part of the problem, maybe the biggest problem, is that there’s a lot of finger-pointing among all of these different groups, and when you finger-point rather than discuss, you tend to oversimplify things and give the impression that the underlying cause of a problem can be narrowed down to just one factor in terms of causality. It’s not that simple. There’s a myriad of inter-related issues surrounding the gun problem in this country. In my mostly lay view of things, I tend to see three tracks to this problem that would need to be addressed simultaneously to achieve any form of comprehensive solution to this problem. The first problem is that we obviously need sweeping reforms around gun control, specifically who is allowed to own which types of weapons. There needs to be a much stricter and more regulated process, from initial application, all the way up to much stiffer penalties for violations, including criminal violations, to highly de-incentivize skirting the law in the gray market by private citizens or outright breaking the law on the black market by criminals. There needs to be automated flags to investigate when a set threshold is breached for anyone stockpiling (either by wrong type or by quantity) weapons and/or ammunition. In a nutshell, I'd start with banning assault weapons, banning high capacity magazines, and requiring mandatory background checks, along with federal registration of serial numbers. This will require money and resources at the federal, state, and local levels of government. We spend literally billions of dollars abroad chasing the specter of terrorism, yet holistic attention here at home to what could easily be labeled “domestic terrorism” is woefully inadequate.
The second area of concern is the mental health care system. There needs to be better screening, reporting, intervention, and access to sustained care in order to intercede before violence ensues, whether this is with a firearm, or the mythic knife, explosives, or can-opener that a would be perpetrator would use “anyway.” As many avenues of violence as possible need to be shut down in order to prevent the most crime, whether this is addressed on the “means” end of the spectrum with access to physical objects or the “willingness” end with the psychological motivations to do so. While these are complicated and would require a multi-administration commitment over a prolonged period of years, they’re actually the easier of the two problem areas because they can be legislated.
The final, and perhaps most important, area is addressing our Culture of Violence in the United States and attempting to change it. It's a tough situation to put on law enforcement and the government in general when you try to implement a legal solution to solely address what is partially a social problem. Whether you like me saying it or not, we do have a violent culture that glamorizes, fetishizes, and systematically condones violence as a means of conflict resolution. It’s in our entertainment, our books, our comics, our movies, our video games, and our toys. And it’s in our foreign policy, in our elective desert campaigns, our covert drone warfare that many barely acknowledge, our general response to problems on the world stage. It’s in the way children are conditioned to think they’re invincible. It’s in the way we idolize the very important jobs that the police and service members perform. It’s there in the way little boys play with guns or swords. True, there may be some innate aggression in their DNA, but I think this is largely being mirrored when they’re bombarded with imagery and ideas supporting guns as a viable means of interpersonal dynamics. Neurobiologists will tell you that aggression and risk-taking are hard-wired into male brain chemistry, but not violence - that's learned behavior. Socioeconomic factors and education level and teaching basic logic and empathy to our kids and the skill level of the parents, and the fact that our culture has evolved away from small tribes of family and friends to becoming disparate connections where we’re taught to be afraid of the “other” all play a role in this dynamic. Now, I really didn’t want to get into some social anthropology debate, but unless we address this basic social “ability” for our kids and our citizens to even consider gun violence as an option for whatever they’re experiencing, and all three of these areas, gun control reform, mental health care, and the Culture of Violence are addressed, that’s the combined “willingness,” “ability,” and “means” to carry out an act of gun violence, until all three are systematically addressed, these incidents will probably continue to occur. It’s interesting that the language I ended up using here, “willingness,” “ability,” and “means,” is the same language I was taught to use when possibly deploying my weapon in law enforcement. If a subject is exhibiting the willingness, ability, and means to immediately harm your life or the life of another, then authorization for the use of deadly force exists. I never thought I’d be applying that logic to addressing the greater problem of preventing deadly gun violence in our culture. It just goes to show that ideas can evolve, change, and be reapplied, just like what needs to happen with regard to the Second Amendment.


At 10:39 AM, Blogger Matt Clark said...

It took the killing of 16 five year old kids in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996 for the UK government to crack down on the ownership of firearms over here. There's a different type of politics involved in the States, but I really hope what happened on Friday provokes a real, lasting change, because really, how can it get worse than five year olds getting shot dead?

Great article' Justin.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger Justin Giampaoli said...

Thanks, Matt. Dunblane is a relevant example. I've heard some argue that there was a corresponding spike in burglaries in the UK once firearms were banned, but obviously it resulted in a tremendous overall reduction in gun deaths, which is a trade-off I'd hope any reasonable person would be willing to accept.

I'm encouraged to hear that Dianne Feinstein, one of our Senators here in California, is planning to introduce a bill in January (our next Senate session) to specifically ban assault weapons (like the AR-15 I mentioned, the type of weapon that was used in Aurora, Oregon, and Newtown) as well as high capacity magazines (no higher than the 10-round limit I mentioned with regard to handguns). This is a welcome first step that falls in line with my personal expectations and something I hope President Obama latches onto and leads with. I still think it's only one piece of the puzzle, but an important foundation.


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