LOOPHOLES ARE LETHAL (PART I)
Federal gun laws are tailored to limit their impact.
And the consequences can be deadly.
For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. On December 9, two days after a 9-1-1 caller’s abusive ex-boyfriend gunned down Houston P.D. sergeant Chris Brewster, his chief berated Federal legislators for blocking renewal of the “Violence Against Women Act” (VAWA):
We all know in law enforcement that one of the biggest reasons that the Senate and Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are not…getting the Violence Against Women Act [reauthorized] is because the NRA doesn’t like the fact that we want to take firearms out of the hands of boyfriends who abuse their girlfriends. And who killed our sergeant? A boyfriend abusing his girlfriend.
Full stop. VAWA was never a gun control measure. Enacted in 1994, it tightened domestic abuse laws in areas under Federal jurisdiction, such as tribal lands, and allocated funds for victim restitution, investigation and prosecution (for a detailed analysis click here.) What made Chief Art Acevedo so mad? To get a better grasp of where he was coming from let’s take a trip down gun-law memory lane.
Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays
On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1929, a crew of Al Capone’s goons, including two dressed up as cops, lined up seven rival gangsters and machine-gunned them to death. Five years later the Feds enacted the nation’s first set of gun laws, the National Firearms Act, which required the registration of machineguns, silencers, and short-barreled shotguns and rifles.
Done under the Government’s taxation power, the focus on “gangster-type weapons” was thought resistant to Second Amendment concerns. Mission accomplished, right? Alas, in February 1933, even before the NFA took effect, a disaffected citizen used an ordinary gun – a .32 caliber pistol that he bought at a pawn shop – to unleash a barrage at President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although Roosevelt was spared five others were wounded; one, Chicago Mayor Anton Cernak, succumbed to his injuries.
Roosevelt’s near-miss built momentum for going after everyday firearms. Concerned about onerous restrictions, the National Rifle Association stepped in and helped draft the nation’s next set of gun laws, the Federal Firearms Act of 1938. It required that gun dealers be licensed, keep records and not knowingly sell to felons. Criminal record checks weren’t part of the deal. In the end, other than for handing over their ID, gun store patrons would hardly feel a thing. And if they wished to feel nothing at all, private-party transfers and mail-order sales remained completely off the radar.
Twenty-five years later, on November 22, 1963, a 23-year old man peered out a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. He had a rifle by his elbow and a revolver in his pocket, both purchased by mail order under an assumed name. As the motorcade passed by, Lee Harvey Oswald opened fire, mortally wounding President John F. Kennedy and seriously injuring Governor John Connally. One hour later he shot and killed Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit. Two days later nightclub owner Jack Ruby used his revolver to shoot Oswald dead.
One might think that gun laws would be back on the plate. But resistance from the NRA, the gun industry and hobbyists slowed things down. In the end, lawmaking took another five years and two back-to-back assassinations: of Martin Luther King, shot dead on April 4, 1968 by an escaped convict, and of Robert Kennedy Jr., murdered two months later by a disaffected immigrant. Both killings were accomplished with “ordinary” guns. King’s killer used a .30-06 caliber rifle, which he bought at a gun store using an assumed name. Kennedy’s assailant, who had no criminal record, got his .22 caliber revolver from an acquaintance.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968 into effect four months later. Private gun transactions would continue as-is, no paperwork required, and guns would still be handed over immediately, with no confirmation of one’s ID nor a criminal record check. But mail-order sales were barred. Most importantly, the GCA established a class of “prohibited persons” who could not possess guns and to whom they could guns not be legally sold or given: felons, fugitives, persons adjudicated mentally defective, illegal immigrants, dishonorably discharged veterans, and the few (apparently including Oswald) who had renounced their citizenship.
On March 30, 1981 John Hinckley fired at President Ronald Reagan with another “ordinary gun” – a .22 caliber recover. He missed, but his shots badly wounded James Brady, Reagan’s press secretary. Hinckley, who had a record of arrests and mental health problems, bought the weapon at a pawnshop some months earlier. It was delivered immediately, and, as usual, without a record check.
After a decade-plus of lobbying by James Brady’s wife, Sarah, in November 1993 the Gun Control Act was amended to impose an interim five-day waiting period on the delivery of handguns. That afforded authorities a crucial if brief window for checking criminal and mental health records. (As provided by the original bill, in 1998 the waiting period was expanded into the current national “insta-check” system (NICS), which applies to the transfer by dealers of all firearms, including long guns.)
Brady only affects sales by licensed dealers. Private gun transactions thus remained virtually unimpeded. Neither did the law address domestic violence, which was gaining recognition as a major context for gun misuse. Perhaps surprisingly, this concern was promptly addressed. Unsurprisingly, the law’s reach was circumscribed by narrowly defining two key terms: “intimate partner” and “domestic violence.”
- In 1994 legislators addressed restraining orders, which Brady ignored. Their product, Section 110401 of the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994, codified as 18 USC 921(a)(32), prohibits receipt or possession of firearms by “intimate partners” who have been served with a domestic violence restraining order.
Intimate partners are “the spouse of the person, a former spouse of the person, an individual who is a parent of a child of the person, and an individual who cohabitates or has cohabited with the person.” (18 USC 921[a])
- In 1996 the late Senator Frank Lautenberg complained that even though “two-thirds of domestic violence murders involve firearms” most spousal and child abusers don’t get convicted of felonies, thus remain unaffected by Brady. His proposal to prohibit gun possession by persons convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence was approved and codified as 18 USC 922(g)(9).
Crimes of domestic violence are “the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon, committed by a current or former spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim, by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common, by a person who is cohabiting with or has cohabited with the victim as a spouse, parent, or guardian, or by a person similarly situated to a spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim.” (18 USC 921[a])
It’s in these details where we find the explanation for Chief Acevedo’s angry barrage. Arturo Solis, the officer’s killer, pled guilty in 2015 to assaulting the 9-1-1 caller (the plea agreement, a State matter, reportedly barred him from having guns.) One year later Solis was arrested for harassing her with dozens of text messages. However, since his victim didn’t clearly fit any of VAWA’s protected classes (not a present or former spouse, etc.) Solis remained free, at least under Federal law, to buy and have guns. (That’s not just our feeble opinion. Check out the statute’s nightmarish prosecutorial guide.) That loophole drove tinkerers in the lower, “Blue” chamber to insert language that broadened the definitions of “intimate partner” and “crime of domestic violence”:
- Intimate partner would include “a dating partner or former dating partner.” Bottom line: past or present boyfriends or girlfriends who are the subject of a domestic violence restraining order would be ineligible to buy or possess firearms.
- Crimes of domestic violence would no longer require an actual or attempted assault. Stalking would suffice. Bottom line: a misdemeanor conviction for stalking would prohibit the purchase or possession of firearms.
Naturally, expanding the roster of bad guys (violent domestic abusers are mostly men) would substantially enlarge the roster of prohibited gun possessors. For the “Reds” who control the Senate that’s a big no-no. That’s why VAWA’s “new, improved” version has languished in the upper house since April.
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Really, as your retired-ATF-agent-cum-blogger well knows, one could argue the complexities and limitations of Federal firearms laws until the cows come home. Thanks to the gun lobby and their subservient lawmakers, when it comes to regulating guns it’s always been about loopholes. We’ll have more to say about that (and even bring in the States for a spanking) next year, in Part II. But for now let’s give Chief Acevedo the last word:
My officers are not a serial number to me…They're my family so when they go down I get pissed…A 32-year-old man should not be dead and it's not just him, it's every day in this country. If you don't understand the emotion I say check your pulse because you don't understand me or you don't understand this profession.
9/7/23 Enacting laws that prohibit persons under domestic violence restraining orders from having access to guns may not be enough. Washington state deploys regional teams that investigate whether weapons remain accessible to respondents and, if so, promote their surrender through “non-adversarial” contacts and, when necessary, by securing judicial orders. An academic review concludes that this process greatly increases the odds that firearms will in fact be relinquished.
12/7/22 Oregon’s tough new gun laws are on hold while court challenges proceed. If the law survives, buyers will have to pass fingerprint and background checks and complete a training course. Magazines with more than ten round capacity will also be prohibited, but existing ones may continue to be used. Unlike Federal law, there is no “loophole” that mandates gun transfers if a background check takes too long. With such restrictions on the horizon, gun sales have soared.
6/16/22 John Hinckley, the would-be Presidential assassin who was found not guilty by reason of insanity forty-one years ago, has been fully released from official supervision. His bullets lightly wounded President Ronald Reagan but paralyzed Press Secretary James Brady.
5/23/22 In 1981 John Hinckley’s bullets lightly wounded President Reagan, a police officer and a secret service agent. But they paralyzed Press Secretary James Brady. A jury adjudged Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity and he was confined to a mental hospital. By 2000 Hinckley was doing home visits, and in 2016 he was conditionally released to live with his mother. Last year a court found him stable and compliant, and Hinckley’s remaining restrictions are set to be lifted next month. Wikipedia
10/29/21 On October 28 the Justice Department agreed to settle a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by the families of the nine victims of Dylan Roof, who perpetrated the 2015 South Carolina church massacre. Roof was able to acquire his gun at retail because an FBI background checker did not follow through to determine the disposition of his recent drug arrest in time to prevent the gun’s delivery.
10/15/21 After six months on the job, Miami PD Chief Art Acevedo was fired by unanimous vote of city commissioners, whom he once accused of interfering in an internal investigation. A typical sentiment was that his “personality and leadership style are incompatible with the structure of our city’s government.” Officers also considered him brusque and unyielding, and his vaccination mandate had made no friends.
10/2/21 Miami PD Chief Art Acevedo’s job is on the line as city commissioners meet to decide his fate. A stern disciplinarian and gun-control advocate, he has asked DOJ to investigate his cops’ use of force and marched alongside protesters after George Floyd’s death. But although Chief Acevedo was born in Havana, his recent off-the-cuff remark that the department is in the throes of a (right-wing) “Cuban mafia” ruffled the feathers of politicians and underlings who felt ignored when the progressively-minded ex-Houston chief was brought in to run the struggling Florida agency six months ago.
3/12/21 In 2015 Dylan Roof murdered nine church parishioners in South Carolina with a gun he bought at retail. Although he was Federally prohibited from acquiring firearms because he was a drug user, the FBI did not discover his drug arrest within the three days allotted for background checks. So Roof automatically got his gun. A flood of gun sales has also burdened the “Insta-Check” system, leading to “more than 4,800” gun transfers in 2018 to prohibited buyers. On March 11 the House passed a bill that would extend background checks to seven days, require them for transactions at gun shows and between private parties, and ban the manufacture and transfer of unserialized “ghost guns.”
2/24/21 State criminal history checks are required for sales by gun dealers. However, Federal law (18 USC 922[t]) allows transfers to proceed after three days should a check remains incomplete. Gun crimes have been committed by prohibited persons who took advantage of such delays. President Biden will reportedly sponsor regulations to correct this loophole and, as well, require criminal checks of persons who wish to assemble unserialized “ghost guns” from parts.
2/1/20 Loopholes aren’t just about guns. Nicotine-hooked teens are continuing to get their preferred, tasty fix by substituting one-time use flavored vapes for banned Juuls. An obscure “footnote” in FDA rules that ostensibly limit flavoring to menthol allows disposable units offering a full range of flavors to keep being sold.
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Loopholes are (Still) Lethal An American Tragedy Don’t Like the Rules? Change Them!
Want Happy Endings? Don’t Chase Loopholes are Lethal (Part II) All in the Family
There’s no Escaping the Gun Safe at Home – Not!
Stop with the tangential! Gun lethality is, first and foremost, about the projectile
For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Many years ago, while working as an ATF agent in Phoenix, I became acquainted with a physician whose name came up during one of my investigations. Dr. John, an avid hunter and target shooter, was unmoved when I explained that a man with whom he traded guns was an unlicensed dealer, and that local police had been seizing guns that went through him from thugs on the street.
That’s how most trafficking casework begins. Agents follow the paper trail from a gun’s manufacturer to its initial retailer, then “hit the streets” to find out how it wound up in the wrong hands. Illegal “street dealers” often get guns one at a time from individuals such as Dr. John. Some deploy “straw buyers” to buy them in stores. Corrupt licensees are often in the mix, falsifying records and supplying firearms in quantity “out the back door.”
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Best I knew Dr. John had committed no crime. He was cordial and helpful and we eventually got to know one another quite well. Possibly too well. On my final visit I knocked on the door of his home. Dr. John greeted me warmly. Then with a flourish he pointed to the floor. Somewhere below, he proudly announced, lay the pistol that Big Brother wouldn’t get when they came for his guns.
I, too, had once enjoyed firing guns. Proficiency with a firearm, especially a powerful semi-automatic, offers many personal rewards, from the tangible pleasure of operating an intricate gadget to the thrills of accurately striking targets at range. It may be pop psychology, but some also seem to find in guns a sense of power and autonomy that is otherwise lacking.
Perhaps all the above applied to Dr. John, perhaps not. Still, we both knew that whether he really buried a gun wasn’t the point. His diatribe about confiscation was meant to signal his commitment to that particular ideological space where Government can’t be trusted and it’s ultimately everyone for themselves.
Dr. John’s point of view wasn’t uncommon in Arizona nor in Montana, where I was later posted. Yet while neither I nor my colleagues considered rugged individualism inherently dangerous, extremist baggage occasionally made threat assessments tricky. How should one deal with the eccentric, reportedly unstable loners who hole up in remote mountain cabins? (One turned out to be the Unabomber.)
Yet when it comes to guns, commercialism confounds things. My first trial in Phoenix involved an unlicensed older gentleman who bought handguns in quantity from a local retailer, then resold them for a tidy profit at gun shows, no paperwork or ID needed. In his opinion, that’s how the good Lord decreed guns ought to be dispensed, and if some wound up with criminals, as a police officer testified, that was simply a cost of liberty.
I was pleased that jurors ultimately found the man guilty. It didn’t happen quickly, as several were conflicted about pinning a felony on a seemingly well-intended entrepreneur.
Out-and-out greed by commercial gun stores was the subtext for my final years with ATF, when I supervised a trafficking squad in Los Angeles. Methodically tracing guns recovered by police led us to an array of licensed dealers who sold guns under-the-table to street marketers. My published research paper discussed the appalling contribution of such practices to street crime. One instance, the murder of an LAPD officer, stuck with me through the years. An affecting example of how making a buck can lead so-called “businesspersons” to make terrible decisions, it eventually inspired a screenplay. Alas, the lack of a happy ending probably dooms it in Hollywood-land.
Guns aren’t only about street crime. Waves of mass shootings, most recently in Dayton and El Paso, have renewed attention on assault weapons. These ballistically-formidable darlings of the gun culture fire projectiles that easily penetrate so-called “bulletproof” vests. When their bullets pierce flesh they create massive wound cavities, shattering blood vessels and pulverizing nearby organs, with predictable consequences. (Vincent Di Maio’s “Gunshot Wounds” is the standard work on the subject.)
According to the FBI, 510 police officers were feloniously murdered during the past decade. Gunfire claimed 472 officer lives, including 336 by handgun and 108 by rifle. Two rifle calibers characteristic of assault-style weapons, .223/5.56 and 7.62, were responsible for sixty-five deaths. Twenty-one officers were killed by rounds that penetrated their body armor; all but one of these fatalities was caused by a rifle.
When it comes to what’s available to the hateful, we’re talking lethality, on steroids. There’s a good reason why police have increasingly turned to armored cars.
But wait: haven’t many states banned assault weapons? Yes, but. Their go-by, the lapsed 1994 Federal ban, limited magazines to ten rounds and prohibited external baubles such as handgrips. Yet it was silent about what really drives lethality – ballistics. Every state that’s dared to institute a “ban” has followed suit.
For a simple reason. Focusing on ballistics would effectively doom the assault-style pistols and rifles that enthusiasts cherish. That would drive the NRA berserk and, not incidentally, threaten the survival of the firearms industry, whose profits depend on cranking out ever-more-lethal hardware. Instead, lawmakers boast about regulating peripheral aspects such as magazine capacity, bump stocks and the like. These “controls” are ridiculously easy to circumvent. Most recently, authorities breathlessly announced that Connor Betts, who perpetrated the Dayton massacre, bought a readily-available “shoulder brace” to help steady the so-called .223 “pistol” he legally purchased, thus transforming it into an illegal short-barreled rifle. And consider the December 2015 San Bernardino massacre in supposedly gun-stern California, where a married couple murdered fourteen and wounded twenty with a pair of state-legal AR-15 clones, both modified to increase ammunition capacity, a simple process that’s clearly described online.
In any event, whether high-powered weapons are short or long, or have bump stocks or extended magazines, their killing power centers on ballistics. That’s clearly how the rest of the civilized world perceives it. In 1988, one year after an angry Hungerford man used a handgun and two rifles to gun down sixteen persons, Britain banned all semi-automatic rifles beyond .22 rimfire. And despite its vibrant gun culture, New Zealand is presently buying back semi-auto rifles, which were largely banned after this year’s murderous rampage in Christchurch.
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But in our polarized land we prefer to make-believe. Consider, for example, the drive to expand the use of “red flag” laws, which empower judges to order gun seizures from the allegedly violence-prone. While there’s no question that dangerous characters shouldn’t have guns, liberty interests and practical issues unavoidably constrain the laws’ reach. While occasionally useful, they are certainly no answer to the gun massacres that bedevil society. Considering that many perpetrators obtain their guns legally, and that guns are readily available through the unofficial marketplace, neither are background checks.
How to make a difference? We could devise a scale that emphasizes what really counts. Points (demerits) would be assessed for the factor that most directly affects lethality – ballistics. Secondary issues such as ammunition capacity, cyclic rate and accuracy at range could also be considered. Guns with high scores would be banned outright, while others might be subject to a range of controls. Of course, no system is perfect or immune to manipulation. Americans would have to set aside selfish preoccupations and cherished beliefs for the common good. Alas, given our tolerance for mass slaughter, the prognosis is not good.
6/21/22 New York thought it had a “better idea” when it responded to the Buffalo massacre with a law that banned sale of “bullet-resistant soft body armor” to ordinary citizens. Problem is, the most bullet-resistant armor isn’t “soft” - it contains hard plates that can stop high-energy projectiles such as those fired by assault rifles. They’re apparently still OK. So is bringing in the banned kind from other States. Legislators protested that they were working hurriedly. “We’ll try to make this law better.”
1/24/22 On January 21 three NYPD officers responded to a 9-1-1 call from a woman whose 47-year old son had become violent. What they weren’t told, possibly because the dispatcher didn’t ask, is that Lashawn J. McNeil had a gun - a stolen .45 Glock pistol with a large extended magazine - and a criminal record. When two officers went into the back of the residence to fetch him he emerged and opened fire, mortally wounding rookie officer Jason Rivera, 22, and critically wounding his partner, Wilbert Mora. The third officer, who remained in the front, returned fire and critically wounded the shooter.
12/1/21 In a vote that mirrored the justices’ political affiliations, the full Ninth Circuit reversed a 2020 decision by a three-judge panel which affirmed a ruling by a District judge that California’s ban on large-capacity magazines (more than ten rounds) violates the 2nd. Amendment. So that State law is back in full effect. Still to be litigated is a June 2021 opinion by the same District judge throwing out California’s ban on assault weapons, and for the same reason.
5/6/21 In an op-ed, sociologist Frederick H. Decker suggests that a “scoring system” based on a weapon’s lethality could be used to devise a “graduated firearm tax.” To avoid circumventions, such as through private sales, background checks would have to be required whenever firearms change hands.
8/14/20 Applying a standard of “strict scrutiny,” a Federal appeals panel ruled, 2-1, that California’s ban on magazines that hold ten or more rounds (i.e., “high-capacity”) violates the Second Amendment. Mass shootings don’t require such magazines. And state bans won’t necessarily have an effect, since assailants often use multiple firearms and bring in large-capacity magazines from other states.
8/4/20 A 2018 YouGov nationally representative survey of 1,100 adults about regulating firearms lethality revealed considerable overall support for banning assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks. However, Republicans, conservatives, gun owners and, especially, NRA members, were far more likely to consider mass shootings as “the price of liberty.”
3/28/20 Two articles in a special issue of Criminology & Public Policy, “Assessing the potential.....” by Christopher S. Koper, and “Evidence concerning the regulation....” by Daniel W. Webster, Alexander D. McCourt, Cassandra K. Crifasi, Marisa D. Booty and Elizabeth A. Stuart, report that restricting large-capacity magazines reduces the frequency of mass shootings. Handgun buyer licensing (but not background checks or assault weapon bans) were also found effective in the latter study.
12/23/19 Following a national buy-back in which residents turned in more than 56,000 guns, New Zealand’s prohibition on military-type semi-auto rifles and high-capacity magazines went into effect. Propelled by the March massacre that took fifty-one lives at two mosques in Christchurch, the law has met resistance in a land where gun ownership is widespread.
10/26/19 Dick’s Sporting Goods sells guns. But it no longer sells assault-style weapons or high capacity magazines and requires all gun buyers to be at least 21. That decision was made by C.E.O. Ed Stack after the 2018 Parkland, Fla. high school massacre. He concedes these steps won’t eliminate all mass shootings. “But there will be less loss of life if an assault-style rifle isn’t used. And if we do all those things and we save one life, in my mind it’s all worth it.”
10/25/19 Undercover California state agents regularly watch California residents acquire California-illegal assault rifles at gun shows in Arizona and Nevada. Buyers are tailed when they return to California, where they are stopped and the loot is seized. “The...problem is that California has a 608-mile border with Nevada...and Nevada’s gun regulations are less stringent,” a prosecutor said.
9/20/19 According to Colt Firearms “a pretty sharp decline in rifle sales” and a “significant inventory buildup by our distributors” has led it to suspend production of civilian versions of the AR-15. Colt will focus on police and military orders, which, it says, are “absorbing all of Colt’s manufacturing capacity for rifles.”
9/6/19 Check out Jay’s op-ed about assault weapons bans in today’s Washington Post.
9/1/19 A male in his 30s armed with a rifle hijacked a mail truck and went on a shooting rampage in the West Texas cities of Odessa and Midland. He killed seven and wounded nineteen, including three officers, before police shot him dead.
8/15/19 A Philadelphia man who had served Federal prison time for being a felon with firearms fired repeated barrages at police serving a narcotics search warrant. Six officers sustained minor wounds. The suspect eventually surrendered. An AR-15 rifle and a handgun were recovered.
8/15/19 Authorities say that the gun used to kill CHP officer Moye (see below update) was a “ghost gun,” meaning untraceable. It was apparently built by completing a partially-machined lower receiver that can be legally bought without a serial number, then assembling it into a weapon using legally-available parts.
8/13/19 On August 12 veteran California Highway Patrol officer Andre Moye, 34, was shot and killed and two colleagues were injured when a convicted felon whom officer Moye pulled over for a traffic violation opened fire with an “AR-15 style” rifle. Their assailant was reportedly a gang member who had served prison time for an armed assault.
8/12/19 Dayton gunman Connor Betts assembled his gun from legally-bought parts. Its upper receiver came from a friend, Ethan Kollie, who legally acquired it online. Kollie also bought the drum magazine and ballistic vest used by Betts.
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“Want an assault weapons ban that works? Focus on ballistics”
“America is only pretending to regulate lethal firearms”
Loopholes are (Still) Lethal Cops v. Assault Weapons Another Day, Another Massacre
An American Tragedy Don’t Like the Rules? Change Them! Is the “Cure” Worse Than the “Disease”?
Two Weeks, Four Massacres Ban the Damned Things! Red Flag at Half-Mast (I) (II)
Massacre Control Bump Stocks A Ban in Name Only Bigger Guns Where Do They Come From?
DNA’s Dandy, But What About Body Armor?
Posted 6/22/19, edited 6/26/19 & 8/14/19
A DISTINCTION WITHOUT A DIFFERENCE
An epidemic of police officer suicide raises the question: do guns cause violence?
For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Friday, June 14 was a very bad day for cops in the Big Apple. That date marked the third occasion this month in which a member of the force – in this tragic case, a 29-year old officer with six years on the job – would commit suicide with a gun.
NYPD suffered four officer suicides in 2018, and four so far this year. Alarmingly, this month’s three took place within a single ten-day period. Reacting to the crisis, NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill called on his colleagues to use and promote the use of mental health resources:
This is a mental-health crisis. And the NYPD & the law enforcement profession as a whole absolutely must take action. We must take care of each other; we must address this issue - now…There is no shame in seeking assistance from the many resources available, both inside and outside the department. Accepting help is never a sign of weakness - in fact, it’s a sign of great strength. Please, connect yourself or your friends and colleagues to the assistance that is so close by.
Officer suicide is by no means a new phenomenon. Yet it’s never been officially tracked. (The FBI’s yearly Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report only includes deaths due to criminal activity.) However, in 2016 the nonprofit “Blue Help” began systematically collecting information about episodes of police and correctional officer suicide. According to its website there were 142 officer suicides in 2016, 169 in 2017, 167 in 2018 and 92 so far this year. To compare, the FBI’s most recent LEOKA report indicates that 46 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in 2017, all but four by firearms. BlueHelp doesn’t presently publish manner of death, but firearms are presumably the predominant instrument in suicides as well.
Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays
Why do cops and correctional officers kill themselves? Suicide-prevention organizations and the professional and academic communities tend to emphasize the unique stressors of the criminal justice workplace. Here, for example, is what the NIJ Journal has said:
Be it an officer patrolling a high-crime neighborhood in a big city, a small-town cop responding to a bar fight, or a homicide detective arriving at the scene of a multiple murder, the common factor in their jobs is stress. They work in environments where bad things happen…The same is true of corrections officers [who] work in confined societies that are, by definition, dangerous. The stress levels are so high that, in one study, 27 percent of officers reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Suicide isn’t just a problem in law enforcement. According to the Centers for Disease Control it’s the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. What drives individuals to end their own lives? In a recent online article, “Suicide Rising Across the U.S.,” the CDC cited seven reasons: relationship problems, substance use, personal crises, physical health problems, job/financial problems, criminal-legal problems and loss of housing. Guns got little play. While one table indicates that guns were used in 41 percent of suicides with mental health issues, and 55 percent where none were known to exist, they are explicitly mentioned only once, in a suggestion to safely store “medications and firearms to reduce access among people at risk.”
It’s not just the Feds who seem reluctant to put the onus on guns. “Promising Strategies for Advancement in Knowledge of Suicide Risk Factors and Prevention,” a 2014 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, identified seventeen factors, including gender, occupation, personality disorders, financial stress and maltreatment in childhood. Firearms didn’t come up until the very last risk: “access to lethal means” (meaning, guns and pesticides.) The message that gun availability is but one of many hazards (and not necessarily the most pressing) seemed perfectly clear.
Yet as CDC data clearly indicates, firearms are by far the most common means of suicide. In 2017, guns were responsible for about fifty-one percent (23,854) of the 47,173 suicides recorded that year. Suffocation came in second at 13,075. Poisoning, at 6,554, was third. (For a table grouped by age click here).
Gun ownership and suicide rates are also closely linked. A 2008 Harvard study reported that the nine states lowest in gun ownership were also the nine lowest in suicide, and that the three with the most gun ownership were among the four with the most suicides. A comprehensive study of gun ownership and suicide between 1981-2013 found “a strong relationship between state-level firearm ownership and firearm suicide rates among both genders, and a relationship between firearm ownership and suicides by any means among male, but not female, individuals.” And a recent study of youth suicide reported that for each ten-percent increase in households with guns, suicide among the young increased nearly 27 percent.
Gun violence, of course, goes way beyond suicide. According to the FBI, there were 16,617 murders and non-negligent manslaughters in 2017. Guns were used in 72.6 percent of these killings – about three in every four. Firearms were also used to commit 118,745 robberies (about 41 percent of the 319,356 reported that year) and 95,194 out of 741,756 aggravated assaults, or about one in every four.
Compared to other wealthy Western-style democracies, America seems a uniquely violent place. A yearly global report, summarized by NPR, revealed that in 2017 America’s gun violence death rate of 4.43 per 100,000 pop. was fully nine times that of Canada and an astounding twenty-nine times higher than peaceable Denmark’s.
Gun-control advocates argue that America’s infatuation with firearms has created a toxic environment. Here, for example, is Everytown for Gun Safety’s introduction to its sobering statistical compendium:
Every day, 100 Americans are killed with guns and hundreds more are shot and injured. The effects of gun violence extend far beyond these casualties—gun violence shapes the lives of millions of Americans who witness it, know someone who was shot, or live in fear of the next shooting.
But enough with numbers. Let’s give the problem a bit of real life (and death). Below are four of the gun-violence related headlines that appeared on the main page of the L.A. Times website on June 20. (It’s simply the day your blogger happened to look. Links were copied on the 21st., so wording may slightly differ):
Here are two more found on June 26:
While some interventions seem to hold promise (see, for example, “Red Flag at Half Mast, Part II) “means restriction” – that is, reducing access to potential instruments of violence like guns – is the international gold standard in suicide reduction. Given what’s known, it’s a relatively small leap to argue that limiting access to guns would sharply reduce violence of all sorts. That’s what Great Britain did after the Hungerford Massacre. And why Great Britain, Australia, Japan and Norway enjoy freedom from the carnage that Americans tolerate as the cost of, well, being American.
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But we’re not Great Britain. In the U.S., the proliferation of firearms, and the spectacular increase in their lethality, have dramatically affected the sociopolitical landscape. It’s changed the rules and assumptions that shape social interaction and altered the very nature of our existence. When an off-duty LAPD police officer shopping with his family at a Costco feels impelled to respond to an assault with a barrage of gunfire (and in so doing, not only kills his unarmed, mentally disturbed assailant but critically wounds both of the man’s parents, also unarmed) we know something really, really bad has happened. (See 8/11/21 update)
A threshold has been crossed. Guns cause violence. They’re not just “enablers” anymore.
8/17/23 After firing shots inside his San Bernardino County home, a man in a “mental health crisis” went to an adjacent golf course and fired “into the air”. He then reportedly pointed a handgun at responding police officers. They shot him dead. Authorities soon discovered that the gunman was off-duty Los Angeles County deputy sheriff Alejandro Diaz, 45.
8/11/23 Suicide in the U.S. hit a reported all-time high last year. According to the CDC, 49,449 persons took their lives in 2022. That’s an increase of 2.6 percent over the 48,183 suicides in 2021 and 2.3 percent over the 48,344 suicides in 2018. Firearms are reportedly “the most common method” of committing suicide, responsible for more than fifty percent. Suicide rates have steadily climbed over the past decades, a factor that experts attribute to the growing availability of guns.
7/25/23 Believing there was “no evidence of a crime or immediate danger,” Tampa police let a man leave after he reportedly pointed a gun at himself. That man, Miami-Dade Police chief Alfredo Ramirez, had been arguing with his wife outside the hotel where he was attending a law enforcement meeting. Chief Ramirez drove off, then pulled over and shot himself in the head. He is in critical condition but expected to survive.
10/3/22 Everyone knows about 911. But what’s 988? Launched in July, it’s a national, Government-funded service for persons experiencing suicidal thoughts or in a drug crisis. Intended to supersede the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which remains in service, 988 call centers are staffed by trained counselors, and there is an online option (988.lifeline.org/chat). There are presently 200 call centers, with 13 in California. Police will only be notified if a suicide is in progress or there is “imminent danger.”
9/3/22 Two days ago yet another Chicago police officer took their own life. “More than a dozen” members of the agency have done so since 2018. According to a 2017 Federal report, CPD’s suicide rate of 29.4 / 100,000 was “more than 60% higher” than the nation’s 18.1. (See 7/19/22 entry.)
8/6/22 Strongly supported by the Justice Department, a Congressional bill now in the works would expand a current Federal benefits program for officers and families when officers are permanently disabled from on-the-job injuries to include situations when officers “are permanently and totally disabled due to particular mental health disorders and/or who die by suicide as a result of exposure to a traumatic event they encounter while on duty.”
7/19/22 “More than a dozen” Chicago police officers have died by suicide since 2018. There have been three victims so far this year: a 52-year old Sergeant on March 12, a 6-year veteran officer on July 2, and a 42-year old male officer last Friday. Mayor Lori Lightfoot blamed the stressors of policing and said that the city had devised a $20 million mental health program to combat the challenge. Officer suicide was mentioned as a significant issue in a 2017 Federal civil rights investigation of Chicago PD. (See 9/3/22 entry.)
3/19/22 In an address to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland emphasized DOJ’s commitment to preventing officer suicides. He announced that the IACP was awarded a grant of $2 million to convene a national meeting on this issue, and received an additional $1.5 million for officer wellness. DOJ’s COPS office is also offering $7 million to support police officer mental health initiatives around the U.S.
1/7/22 On New Year’s Eve, St. Lucie County (FL) deputy sheriff Clayton Osteen, 24 was taken to the hospital after attempting suicide. He soon passed. His live-in companion, deputy sheriff Victoria Pacheco, 23, committed suicide two days later. They left behind a one-month old son. Osteen, a Marine Corps vet, was 2020 “deputy of the year.” Pacheco was honored last year for saving the life of an overdose victim.
12/10/21 Two $100 million lawsuits have been filed against the Oxford Township school district by families of the victims. An investigation by the Washington Post revealed that families of would-be shooters prevented a handful of like events in past years. In 2018, in Everett, Washington, the guardian of Joshua O’Connor, 18, discovered the once-badly abused teen’s elaborate written plans to stage a Columbine-like massacre. She also found the 9mm. rifle he had just bought to carry out his intentions. Police were called, and their search turned up bomb parts. In 2019, after pleading guilty to attempted murder and other charges, O’Connor was sentenced to 22 years.
12/4/21 A prosecutor explained why the parents of the Oxford high school shooter were charged with manslaughter. (Click here for the video.) One day before the massacre, a teacher caught the youth searching for ammunition on his phone. His parents were informed. His mother later messaged her son “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.” On the day of the shooting, while the parents were at the school, they were shown a photo of a note their son wrote. It depicted a gun, a bullet, a bleeding person, and these comments: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me”, “Blood everywhere”, “My life is useless”, “The world is dead.” But no one looked in the student’s backpack. His parents declined to take the boy home, and an hour later he committed the massacre.
12/2/21 A fourth student, age 17, succumbed in the massacre at Michigan’s Oxford High School. Authorities announced that the shooter, Ethan Crumbley, is being charged as an adult with murder and terrorism. He had apparently revealed his intentions the previous evening on an Instagram post that pictured the gun in his hands: “just got my new beauty today...I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. See you tomorrow, Oxford.” On that day, but before the massacre, Crumbley’s parents were summoned to his school over their son’s “concerning behavior.” Years earlier Crumbley’s mother posted an “open letter” to President Trump complaining about her son’s education and extolling gun ownership. Authorities may charge the parents for leaving the gun unsecured.
12/1/21 Armed with a 9mm. pistol his father recently bought, a 15-year old boy opened fire at a suburban Detroit high school, killing three students, ages 14, 16 and 17, and wounding eight others, including a teacher. Three of the surviving students are in critical condition. The shooter peacefully surrendered. His motive is presently unknown.
11/30/21 A woman returning to her Lancaster (CA) residence discovered that her four young children and grandmother had been shot dead. "My babies are gone! They're all dead!" she screamed in the front yard. Her husband, Germarcus David, 29, an unemployed security guard, soon turned himself in to police. He admitted he was the killer. David, whose online posts have a religious tinge, had no known motive.
8/15/21 D.C. officer Jeffrey Smith’s survivors filed a wrongful death lawsuit against two persons whom private researchers identified as his attackers. According to the plaintiffs, officer Smith suffered a severe blow that caused a traumatic brain injury, left him constantly weepy and unable to sleep, and led him to commit suicide.
8/4/21 Four law enforcement officers who defended the Capitol on January 6 have committed suicide. Three: Gunther Hashida (EOW: 7/29), Kyle DeFreytag (EOW: 7/10) and Jeffrey Smith (EOW: 1/15) were D.C police officers; one, Howard Liebengood (EOW: 1/9) was with the Capitol police. Officer Smith’s widow recounted her husband’s troubled text message during the assault: “London has fallen”, and his painful convalescence from injuries suffered when struck by a rioter with a metal pole.
7/15/21 Marking the twelfth such incident since 2018, and the third since March, on July 14 yet another Chicago police officer committed suicide. He was 24 years old, had two and one-half years on the job, and shot himself dead while off duty. A 2017 Federal report indicated that officer suicide is considered a “significant problem” at Chicago PD, whose officers take their own lives at a rate sixty percent above the national average.
7/11/21 Increased violence and fears of having to fend for oneself are helping fuel a wave of first-time buyers, driving gun ownership from 32 to 39 percent in 2020 according to the Washington Post. When George Floyd-related protests made her feel “like the world was in an apocalypse,” a 39-year old woman and “lifelong Democrat” got a rifle, then a handgun. “I never felt like I would want to own a gun because of the damage I thought they do to people. But when I started feeling unsafe, all of that changed.”
3/8/21 According to the Chicago Tribune, “at least eleven” Chicago cops have committed suicide during the past three years. In a recent week it took the lives of two officers: James Daly, 47, who was about to retire, and Jeffrey Troglia, 38, a fifteen-year veteran serving on an anti-crime team. Their motivations weren’t disclosed. But Louisiana sheriff’s deputy Clyde Kerr III, 43, who killed himself last month, had posted videos describing his despair in the face of police abuses of Black persons such as himself.
2/13/21 Described by one officer as “scarier than two tours as a soldier in Iraq,” the assault on the Capitol severely tested the mental health of its police. “Several” officers reportedly contemplated suicide in subsequent days, and one turned in their weapon. Mental health has now become a priority. But a move to classify the two officer suicides that took place as “line of duty” deaths lacks official support.
2/3/21 Two Capitol police officers who were present during the assault have committed suicide. On January 9 Capitol police officer Howard Liebengood, 51, who had been on the job fifteen years, killed himself while off duty. He is the son of a former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms. On January 15 officer Jeffrey Smith, 35, a 12-year veteran, killed himself while on his way to work. Officer Smith had been injured during the attack. Assault on the Capitol special topic
11/18/20 This year’s surge in gun sales has led to concerns about a corresponding surge in suicide. Firearms are a sure means of killing oneself, and account for more than half of America’s suicides. Suicide is also the predominant cause of gun deaths, with crimes and accidents accounting for about one-third.
9/15/20 In collaboration with BJA, the IACP established a National Consortium on Preventing Law Enforcement Suicide. One of its first initiatives is an overview of “safe and positive” messaging approaches that agencies, officers, and family members can use to help prevent suicides by law enforcement officers.
9/8/20 DOJ’s COPS office has set aside $4.5 million under its “Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act Program” to fund projects that seek to improve officer mental health and prevent suicide.
6/30/20 A middle-aged St. Louis lawyer couple exited their home and pointed an assault rifle and a pistol at protesters who allegedly crashed the entrance gates to their wealthy subdivision and marched to the mayor’s residence to demand cuts in police funding.
1/4/20 Blue H.E.L.P. reports that 228 law enforcement officers, including 39 who were retired, committed suicide in 2019. Figures for prior years are 172 in 2018, 168 in 2017 and 143 in 2016. PERF, which considers suicide cops’ “number one occupational risk,” recently published “An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do To Prevent Suicide Among Its Officers.”
10/31/19 In Chicago, the International Association of Chiefs of Police assembled police leaders and family members to address police suicides. So far this year 188 officers committed suicide, a toll twice that of line-of-duty deaths. “Removing the stigma,” it was said, is key to solving the problem.
10/6/19 A thirty-seven year old man flew to Florida from Norway. He banged on a front door, and when it was answered jumped out from the bushes. Meant as a birthday surprise, his actions startled his father-in-law, who shot him dead.
9/25/19 A grand jury refused to indict the off-duty LAPD officer who shot and killed the mentally disturbed man and wounded his parents. According to the D.A., the officer was assaulted while carrying a child, temporarily lost consciousness, and reacted accordingly.
9/25/19 Suicide rates are climbing in the military services. In the Navy, three off-base suicides by members of the same crew in five days - with two confirmed by gun - raised the number of suicides for their vessel to five in two years. According to the Defense Department, the annual suicide rate of service members is 20.1/1000,000, considerably higher than the civilian toll of 14/100,000.
9/18/19 For more than two months, the sister of NYPD’s ninth officer to commit suicide this year reportedly pleaded with his supervisors to take his gun away. NYPD is expanding its anti-suicide efforts, but other agencies such as LAPD have long fielded mental health units with suicide prevention as an explicit mission. Overcoming officer reluctance to seek help is always a problem.
9/13/19 A 60-year old Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney shot and killed his wife and teenage son at their home. He then shot himself dead. A daughter was also present but managed to flee. According to police “the recent loss of a loved one and ongoing health issues played a significant role.”
9/7/19 A newly-released study reports an increase in suicide rates in the U.S. between 1999-2016. Among its key findings is that “the presence of more gun shops was associated with an increase in county-level suicide rates in all county types except the most rural.” (It’s believed that household firearms ownership in the latter has already maxed out.)
9/3/19 A 14-year old Alabama boy admitted he shot and killed his father, stepmother and three siblings, ages six months, five years and six years, while everyone was home. He used a 9mm. pistol that, according to police, was “illegally” present at the residence.
8/15/19 One day after its unfathomable eighth suicide this year, a 25-year veteran NYPD officer brought the toll to nine. Reportedly, it’s the worst in a decade.
8/14/19 With the suicide by gun of a seven-year veteran, NYPD’s 2019 officer suicide toll now stands at eight. The officer’s best friend on the force was one of four who committed suicide in June.
7/28/19 On July 27 an as-yet unnamed sergeant became the seventh NYPD officer to commit suicide this year. Four suicides occurred in June, leading the agency to declare “a mental health crisis.”
6/27/19 An unnamed veteran NYPD detective (later named as officer Kevin Preiss) committed suicide yesterday. That brings the city’s tragic count to four officers in three weeks.
6/26/19 On June 19 Adel Ramos, 45, used a high-powered rifle to shoot and kill rookie Sacramento, Calif. police officer Tara O’Sullivan, 26, during a domestic violence call. Ramos, who had a record and an open warrant for domestic violence, had a shotgun, a handgun and two California-illegal AR-15 type rifles assembled from parts. This tragedy apparently led California Governor Gavin Newsom to change his mind and endorse expanding the State’s red flag laws to allow, among other things, “teachers, employers and co-workers to also petition the courts.”
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RELATED WEBSITES AND REPORTS
BJS - Preventing police suicide - programs and resources
IACP - National Consortium on Preventing Law Enforcement Officer Suicide Final report
“Officer Suicide: Understanding the Challenges and Developing a Plan of Action” (BJA exec. summary, Aug. 2020)
“An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do To Prevent Suicide Among Its Officers” (PERF, October 2019)
Blue H.E.L.P. Tracks officer suicides nationally and provides information about their prevention
Red Flag at Half-Mast I II Ban the Damned Things! Massacre Control A Ban in Name Only
Safe at Home - Not!