A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
Yesterday morning, a former Navy reservist shot and killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., before he was killed by police. The mass shooting at a secure military facility was the deadliest such attack since a gunman killed 26 at a Connecticut school last year. The suspect in the Navy Yard shooting was found with three weapons, including an assault rifle. In the wake of the tragedy, some lawmakers are calling for stricter gun control laws. Gun rights’ activists say the focus should be on strengthening mental health services. Guest host Steve Roberts and a panel of experts discuss the problem of gun violence.
- E.J. Dionne Jr. senior fellow at Brookings Institution and author of "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent."
- Devlin Barrett reporter covering security and law enforcement for The Wall Street Journal.
- Richard Feldman president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association and author of "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist."
- Dr. Liza Gold clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center and vice president of the American Academy of Psychiatry & The Law.
- Daniel Webster co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation but will be back tomorrow. Joining me in the studio to talk about yesterday's mass shooting and the politics of gun control: E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, also of Georgetown University, Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, and Dr. Liza Gold, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSAnd joining us from a studio in Jupiter, Fla., Richard Feldman of the Independent Firearm Owners Association. Welcome to you all.
MR. DANIEL WEBSTERGood to be with you, Steve.
DR. LIZA GOLDMorning.
ROBERTSNice to have you. And you can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. We're reachable on Twitter, Facebook. But first I want to turn to Devlin Barrett. He's a reporter covering security and law enforcement for the Wall Street Journal and has been covering the shooting on the ground. Devlin, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DEVLIN BARRETTHi, Steve. How are you?
ROBERTSGive us an update. What do we know at this point about the shooting?
BARRETTWell, we're getting basically a much broader picture of the gunman's personal history. And what's emerging is that he had an apparent history of mental health problems, including having sought treatment from the V.A. and as recently as last month, and possibly increasing over the past year, although we're still reporting out the details of that.
BARRETTBut essentially the image that's being put together of this person is someone who was a Navy reservist, was basically pushed out of the Navy for a series of disciplinary and problematic behavior issues, left the Navy in 2011, but in such a way that he was able to keep his security clearance which allowed him to work as a contractor for the military, and which is how he apparently had a valid pass to get at least on to the property of the Navy yard Monday morning when the shooting happened.
ROBERTSNow, one question that's being asked very prominently, Devlin, is, given this history--there are at least two incidents, if I'm not mistaken, of gun violence in his past. He was a general discharge, which often is a symbol of a troubled military career. How could he maintain his security clearance?
BARRETTWell, it's -- I think it's going to become one of the big questions here. And I think what we see so far -- and obviously the details of this could change somewhat -- is that, on a number of levels, he seems to have approached the line that would have triggered, you know, a bar to buying a weapon or having a security clearance.
BARRETTBut he didn't -- doesn't -- he seemed to be careful to not actually completely cross that line. So, for instance, with the arrest, they were misdemeanor arrests. They were basically not prosecuted at the time. With, you know, his mental health history, there was no sort of court declaration of a mental health problem that we can find, which makes it, you know, difficult to -- you know, you can't just take a security clearance away because someone is seeing a psychiatrist, for example.
BARRETTAnd it's been -- seems like in a number of areas, you have what you can call red flags or disturbing warning signs, but he doesn't actually cross the line that would have created a bar to a security clearance.
ROBERTSNow, Mr. Alexis, Aaron Alexis, his name is. What do we know about the weapons he had in his possession? And where did he get them?
BARRETTWell, they're still working on that. And, you know, any decent cop reporter will tell you, the facts can change. But I think the sense we have of it now is that he bought a shotgun in Lorton, Va. last week sometime and that that's the weapon he brought with him on Monday. The working theory I have heard from people involved in the investigation is that he used that weapon to fire on a security guard -- a security officer at the building he entered and that he may have -- again, this is the working theory.
BARRETTHe may have, in fact, taken two other weapons off of that officer or one of his other victims and then used those weapons as he moved through the building shooting people. That's -- again, that's the working theory. That could change, but I've spoken to a number of people who, at this point, believe that's the most likely explanation of how this happened.
ROBERTSNow, Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal, I have one more question for you. And I know that the issue of motive is still very murky, and we don't -- we only want to say what we know. We don't want to speculate. But do we have any information at all yet on that question?
BARRETTNo. I mean -- and the answers are essentially at this point touchy-feely ones, which is that this is a person who seemed to have a long-term problem with anger, who seemed to occasionally have outbursts with weapons related to that anger, and who had a, let's say, difficult history with the Navy where he was a subcontractor. None of those really add up to a motive. And, frankly, in mass shootings, you often never get anything like a satisfactory motive, a motive that truly makes sense because, again, you're firing at a bunch of random strangers.
BARRETTSo they are still working very hard to try to piece together a motive and talk to some of the people involved in the investigation. I've had some of them say, well, do you have a motive? Because we're looking for one. And I think that's the big question obviously. It's the one they're working to try and figure out. But, you know, if it's like some of these cases, you will not ultimately end up with a motive that is very satisfactory to anyone.
ROBERTSOK, Devlin. Thanks so much. Devlin Barrett, he's covering security, law enforcement issues for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks for the update. We appreciate it.
ROBERTSLet me turn to you, Dr. Liza Gold. We don't want to diagnose from a distance. I know, as a physician, you cannot be very definitive. But you've heard the report. What's your reaction in terms of helping us understand Aaron Alexis?
GOLDWell, obviously I only know what I've heard, and some of this information I've only heard even this morning. And in regard to the mental illness question, it's common, typical, in these unfortunate circumstances to focus on the perpetrator and try to figure out what the perpetrator's mental illness or possible mental illness might be. And in a sense, that's almost a red herring because the fact is that this man has a history. With or without mental illness, this history would be troubling.
GOLDAnd so the question then becomes, how does a person with this kind of history, with or without mental -- a history of violence, gun-related violence, possibly alcoholism, again, with or without alcoholism, with -- or alcohol abuse, with or without mental illness, how does a person with this kind of history of violence who sounds like perhaps he's decompensating over time -- how does he access firearms so easily in our society that we don't have regulation, again, with or without mental illness?
GOLDMost people with mental illness are not dangerous, and most people who are dangerous don't have a serious mental illness. These mass shootings can be exceptions to that general rule, but they are so statistically rare, as I'm sure Dr. Webster will talk about, as to not really be giving you much information...
ROBERTSAnd, Daniel Webster, to this point, a lot of attention focuses on an incident like this, on Aurora, on Columbine, on Newtown. But in your research, you point out that this is actually statistically a very rare event.
WEBSTERWell, it's rare in comparison to all gun violence that occurs. And so in that sense, it's rare. If you look at mass shootings across the globe, it's not rare that it occurs in the United States. We're quite unusual. We stand out like a sore thumb. No country comes close to us in the rate of mass shootings that we have. So we do see these all too frequently.
WEBSTERBut as someone who studies gun violence and its prevention, this is a very small sliver of the overall problem. And it's sometimes frustrating to me, when I'm invited on shows like this or other venues, it's always following a mass shooting. And we get so wrapped up around the very particulars of a particular individual rather than seeing the big picture. And I hope in our discussion today we'll focus on this big picture of 11,000 deaths a year from gun violence.
ROBERTSE.J., on this point about this, the fact that in the United States, it seems to be -- it's so much the world's leader in terms of these kinds of incidents, you've written a lot, and you've thought a lot about the question of gun violence. What occurs to you as some of the explanations of why the United States in Daniel's point sticks out like a sore thumb on this?
MR. E.J. DIONNE JR.Well, Daniel is absolutely right. Ezra Klein in the Washington Post actually sort of went back and counted. And what Ezra found is that 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years took place in the United States. We are number one in a category we don't want to be number one in. In second place was Finland with two entries. So 15-to-2 on mass shootings. That tells us something very peculiar is happening in our country.
MR. E.J. DIONNE JR.Now, I, for one, refuse to believe that we are an unusually violent or crazed people. If somebody out there wants to make that case, let them go ahead. I think that, when you look at particularly the well-off democracies, we have, by far, the most permissive gun laws in the world. Somebody could correct me if I'm wrong. Maybe somewhere else has, you know, more permissive gun laws. I don't think so.
MR. E.J. DIONNE JR.And what really troubles me is, after every event like this, we can have a perfectly rational and constructive conversation about mental health. We can have a perfectly rational and constructive conversation about security at our military bases. But we can't -- we're kind of barred by a certain political correctness from asking basic questions about firearms. Why should people be able to buy assault weapons?
MR. E.J. DIONNE JR.They were banned as recently as 2005. Why shouldn't we have universal background checks? Why can't we limit the sizes of big magazines? And, you know, Dr. Webster's entirely right. We should be looking at the whole picture of gun violence. But, my Lord, when we have events like this, can't we at least have a rational debate on these very basic measures that we might take to make us a little less violent?
ROBERTSI want to give Richard Feldman plenty of time to respond, but we're going to have to take a break in a minute. Very quickly, E.J., what's your basic reason for the fact that there is -- this issue is so different from every other?
DIONNE JR.I think it's because we have the most permissive gun laws in the world. Now, there may be other factors going on in the United States. But I do think the big difference is in our gun laws.
ROBERTSOK. We're going to be right back. And Richard Feldman of the Independent Firearm Owners Association will be with us to give his view on this. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane, and our subject this hour, the shootings here in Washington yesterday, 12 victims dead ,plus the shooter, Aaron Alexis. We've been talking about the whole issue of gun violence. And I want to turn to Richard Feldman. He is with the Gun Owners Association and -- I'm sorry, with the Firearm Owners Association -- Independent Firearm Owners Association.
ROBERTSAnd he's on the phone with us from Jupiter, Fla. And you heard Daniel Webster say that we lead the world in gun violence. You heard E.J. blame our permissive gun laws. What's your reaction to their comment?
MR. RICHARD FELDMANWell, actually, we don't lead the world, but any misuse of a gun is always going to be a tragedy. We do focus on these high visibility mass shootings and statistically 'cause they are unusual. We are the only democracy in the world that has a second amendment. We not only have the right to own guns. It's part of our history, part of our culture, part of who we are. What we need to do a much better job of in this country is articulating the problem in terms that allow us to move forward with solutions.
MR. RICHARD FELDMANIf we have the same fight we had in this country after Newtown, we will end up with the same results. Nothing will be achieved. Let's accept the fact that guns are here. And how do we do a much better job of dealing with them? And, indeed, if we ask the question correctly about guns and identify it right, we find almost universal agreement. And the most important group to have on one's side are gun owners. Gun owners support mandatory background checks before the transfer of a firearm between people who don't know each other.
MR. RICHARD FELDMANNow, would that have helped in this situation yesterday? It looks like it wouldn't have. And the doctor talked about the kind of history -- mental history record. I would think that certainly would be part of a high security clearance check, but I don't think the doctor's asking that every gun owner, the 100 million of them in this country, should undergo a thorough mental history check before they buy a gun. We just need to do a much better job of focusing on the problem, which is never the gun per se but is always in whose hands are the guns.
ROBERTSBut what about the argument that is made very frequently that if someone is prone to violence, has a history of mental illness or has other reasons for anger and violence, that the gun in the hand of that person allows them to do so much more damage than if they didn't have the gun and that it is not just, the argument goes, not just the mental situation or capability of the shooter? It's the shooter's ability to inflict so much damage as we saw yesterday, 12 dead -- 12 innocent dead because that person had a gun. How do you answer that argument?
FELDMANWell, two ways. If you want to commit mass murder, you don't need a gun to do it. And the biggest mass murder in the United States less than 20 years ago used dynamite. And before that it was all -- and before that the biggest mass murder occurred in the 1980s in New York City with one gallon of gasoline, the Happy Land fire in New York. So again, it's not the gun per say. It's how do we identify -- it's always easy retroactively to look back and go, look at what was in the record. The hard part is to look prospectively and say, gee, this is someone that shouldn't have had access to this facility.
FELDMANAnd I'm even more at a loss to say, well you know, we draw lines where you lose your right to own a gun once you've been adjudicated as having a problem. And I'm sure that Dr. Gold would agree. We don't want to limit people's rights because they seek psychological help. We want to encourage those people to seek help. If we tell them, if you see a psychologist or a psychiatrist, you lose your second amendment freedoms, we're discouraging people from obtaining help. And that's just the opposite of what we want to achieve.
ROBERTSLet me get Dr. Gold's reaction to Mr. Feldman's argument.
GOLDWell, I agree in the sense that singling out a single class of people categorically is not going to be particularly helpful either to people who need help and want to seek treatment. It increases the stigma, which stigma always deters people from getting help or treatment.
GOLDBut I disagree that the issue is not the prevalence of firearms in the United States in the sense that, you know, the data that's available -- and, again, Dr. Webster is an expert on this data -- indicates that one of the highest risk factors for violence of any type -- and I'd like to include suicide because, although there's 11,000 people or so who die every year from firearm violence committed by others, 20,000 people die every year by suicide firearm -- using firearms.
GOLDAnd so if you add that together, that's 30,000 people. That's a public health epidemic, and I don't think that you can look at that public health epidemic and say it's not that the prevalence of guns, which has routinely been found -- consistently been found to be a high risk factor for either suicide or homicide, is irrelevant to that discussion.
ROBERTSAnd, Daniel Webster, how do you come down on this argument about -- that Richard Feldman has made that it's -- that the prevalence of guns is not the problem?
WEBSTERWell, I do think that prevalence of guns and gun availability is quite relevant, but getting back to -- there are points that Mr. Feldman made that I do agree with. So I do think that availability of guns generally matters, and that's why the United States is so unusual in its high rates of homicide compared to other high income countries. And...
ROBERTSBut he conceded that there is a very wide availability of guns. He said it was part of our culture, part of our history.
WEBSTERRight. But one point he was making that I agree with is focusing on in whose hands those guns are. And every time we have these mass shootings or very generally talk about guns and public policy, it always gravitates to a pro-gun anti-gun -- you know, you like guns, you hate guns, we ought to get rid of them all, we ought to -- everybody needs to have one kind of thing. But I don't think that's very productive. There's actually a lot that we agree upon, that there are certain people who should not have access to guns. And that's the first part of the important debate for public safety.
WEBSTERAnd the second part of the debate, what can we do to keep guns from those people who we think are too dangerous? And I -- you know, it's not that I think assault weapons aren't relevant in some mass shooting context, but that is an issue that will gravitate to the general pro-gun anti-gun -- that, again, we're just going to spin our wheels. We're not going to get anywhere.
WEBSTERI think, moving forward, we're going to have fewer people die from gun violence when we focus on what are the appropriate standards -- I suspect my standards would be much higher than Mr. Feldman's -- and what do we do to keep guns from those dangerous people?
ROBERTSNow, E.J., we've had this debate politically in this country over and over again. We had it again after Newtown. Huge majorities in this country said they favored background checks. One of the mechanisms people offer as a way to keep guns out of the hands of people who could be dangerous to themselves or to others, and yet, despite the overwhelming public support in every public opinion poll, defeated in the Congress. Talk about the politics here. And why is there such an imbalance that the pro-gun lobby seems to win every political battle?
DIONNE JR.Well, I want to talk about that, but I want to pick up real quick on a couple of points. Daniel said something that I just think isn't true. It's not pro-gun anti-gun, where one side of the debate wants to take all the guns away. I accept there is a first amendment, but that...
DIONNE JR....second amendment, rather. I also accept there's a first amendment for all of us to speak freely. We have a second amendment, but we still ban machine guns. The second amendment, as interpreted in a relatively pro-gun decision by the Supreme Court, gives us lots of room to regulate firearms. That's number one. And that...
ROBERTSThe fact that all rights in the Constitution are limited. Even free speech is limited by libel laws and hate speech laws. None of these laws are totally without limits.
DIONNE JR.Right. And if the gun is not relevant, if that -- the person -- if the shooter yesterday had had a pistol and not an assault weapon, we wouldn't be telling the same story today. I'd be very surprised if we were. Thirdly, I was happy to hear Mr. Feldman say he's for mandatory background checks, which I'd like to ask him, does that mean he supported the Manchin-Toomey bill? If he did, why did the entire gun lobby oppose it? Because that would be a step forward.
DIONNE JR.I think the problem here is that the pro-gun side broadly can see the National Rifle Association and its allies have been organizing on this single issue for 30 years. And I think that the folks who want what I would see as rational regulation of firearms have not been as well organized. They finally got better organized after the horror of Newtown. And I think it was the sight of little kids getting killed in this incident that really sort of got people saying, wait a minute, we can't go on like this. But it's still the case that the anti-gun regulation side is better organized.
DIONNE JR.I was struck by finding in a recent Pew poll earlier this year, 12 percent of people told Pew they had given money to -- for lack of a better term -- pro-gun organizations. Only 3 percent said they had given money to pro-gun regulation organizations. It seems to me that's a pretty good measure of the two bases, and their political base is bigger. And until people who want tougher regulation of firearms get as organized, they're going to take some political defeats.
ROBERTSBut, as you well know, it's not just organization. Organization is a reflection of feelings.
DIONNE JR.Oh, it's intensity. I agree.
ROBERTSIntensity matters in politics. Why is it that the -- for lack of a better -- the pro-gun side seems to be -- feel so much more intensely about this issue?
DIONNE JR.Well, I think that on that side of the issue there are a lot of people who believe that this is not simply about regulating firearms. It's about their own culture. And their view of people like me is that we disrespect their culture, we disrespect their way of life. And I recently wrote a column -- I've written a bunch of columns saying, no, that's not the case. I do not disrespect rural culture. I understand that firearms are parts of the lives of a lot of people. I have folks in my own family who grew up with firearms, including my godfather who is a hunter.
DIONNE JR.It's not about disrespecting a way of life, but the argument I want to make back is, we care about some of the same exactly old-fashioned values of community and looking out for each other, protecting our children, as people on the other side of this debate. And I think we have to join this cultural and moral argument in a way that says this is not about east coast big city elitists trying to wreck another culture. We're trying to protect kids and innocent people.
ROBERTSThis is -- I'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Richard Feldman, your take on this question of why, even though public opinion polls show general support for things like the background check, defeated in the Congress because, as E.J. says, intensity matters. And it's no doubt that organizations like yours are far more energetic, far better organized than the other side. Your take about why this is so.
FELDMANWell, first I'd like to answer E.J., the Independent Firearm Owners Association enthusiastically supported the Manchin-Toomey bill.
DIONNE JR.Good for you.
FELDMANWell, it was limited. It went after the problem. It didn't overreach the (unintelligible) ...
ROBERTSLet's explain very briefly -- please explain very briefly to our listeners the Manchin-Toomey bill. The bill was defeated in the U.S. Senate, but what basically did it call for?
FELDMANThe part that was arguably controversial -- there were a lot of parts to it that were very pro-gun rights -- was the background check at gun shows. Had the Feinstein assault weapons legislation not become part of the debate and the whole package last -- earlier this year, I think it would have passed overwhelmingly. But the -- all the enthusiasm and the anger was directed towards the Feinstein ban.
FELDMANAnd we can see the results similarly last week in Colorado in that special election. It wasn't about the background checks at gun shows or at flea markets. That has the enthusiastic support of American gun owners. And the key point you're all discussing is really the issue, whose ox is being gored? And when you're talking about guns, the people who care about guns are gun owners. And if you don't have gun owners with you in the debate, it's going to be a very difficult legislative process. And there's no reason not to have gun owners onboard with this problem.
FELDMANGun owners don't want to see what happened yesterday happen. Moreover, we don't want to see the far more overwhelming intentional misuse of guns that go on. By the end of today or tomorrow, there'll be far more people shot and killed in Chicago and New Orleans than died yesterday in Washington. But it's almost not news anymore when people are killed in ones and twos. And we don't deal with our problems. We deal with the high visibility problems...
ROBERTSWell, let me ask you all this. If there does seem...
FELDMAN...don't talk about them.
ROBERTSIf there does seem to be areas of agreement here, why is this debate so polarized? And why is there such little progress in finding at least the common ground? E.J., what do you think?
DIONNE JR.Well, first of all I think that the people who oppose all gun regulation or most gun regulation beyond what we have take a slippery slope view on almost any issue that comes up. And so they say, well, if you pass Manchin-Toomey or if you ban assault weapons or if you limit big magazines, this is just one step down the road to total gun confiscation. And I think that they have sown among their -- the leaders of these organizations have sown among their supporters all kinds of notions that are simply not true.
DIONNE JR.And, you know, in fairness, slippery slope arguments are common at many points on the political spectrum. But I think that it is particularly effective and, I believe, unfortunately, in this case. And then I also believe it's been linked to a larger sort of anti-big government view. I mean, there's something almost seditious about a major line of argument that you hear on the anti-regulation side saying, we need our firearms 'cause we need to rise up against an oppressive government.
DIONNE JR.And I could sort of produce here, if I had a little computer in front of me, a whole lot of quotations along those lines. I hear that myself from gun owners. That's a very odd view in our democratic republic. We're supposed to believe that change comes about through the ballot box. And I think that -- but that's a very powerful sentiment in a segment of the anti-regulation community.
ROBERTSVery quickly, Daniel Webster, what's your take on why there's no ability to find the common ground you're talking about?
WEBSTERWell, first of all, I'm not that pessimistic. I actually think it is possible to find some common ground. But I agree with the points that E.J. just made of what makes this so difficult. It is a lobby that is pushing a very extremist view based upon a lot of misinformation. And I think if we can get back to what Mr. Feldman -- of actually bringing (unintelligible)...
ROBERTSI'm going to have to stop you right there. We're going to be back with your comments, your calls and your questions. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour, the shooting yesterday at the Washington Navy Yard, 12 dead, plus the shooter, Aaron Alexis. We're debating the whole issue of gun control and the role of mental health and background checks and all the issues that are pretty familiar after a shooting like this. And my experts with me, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, Brookings Institution, has written a lot on this subject.
ROBERTSDaniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Dr. Liza Gold, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University. And from Jupiter, Fla., Richard Feldman, of the Independent Firearms Owners Association. Let me read some emails and get your reactions. "I am a gun owner and a hunter," writes Les, from Texas.
ROBERTS"I've trained my children in the proper handling of firearms. I do not understand why we do not require background checks and proper gun use training. You can't get a driver's license without training, testing and demonstrating you can operate a vehicle safely." Richard Feldman, we've had a lot of emails making this analogy to the fact that we license cars, we license drivers, and we don't do the same thing for firearms. Your reaction to Les?
FELDMANWell, Les, just like when you get a hunting license, you do need to take a hunters safety course. When you apply for a concealed-carry license, in most places, you have to pass a lot more than just the background check. In Texas, as you know, there's a long course that one must take in order to be eligible to get that concealed-carry license. The distinction is there's no Constitutional right to drive a car. There is a Constitutional right to own a gun, at least for self-protection in your home.
FELDMANBut part of the problem is just the way we discuss it. We talk about gun control. The words gun control mean almost diametrically opposed things to different people. It's not what you say. It's what people hear. And pro-gun people hear the words gun control, and they hear taking -- limiting my rights. Most people who use the words gun control mean keeping guns out of the wrong hands. That's something gun owners agree with. So instead of constantly debating the things we disagree about, why don't we start moving forward on the things we all agree upon, firearms safety?
FELDMANNow, even President Obama had that in one of his Executive Orders last January. It's easy to issue an Executive Order. We're going to support gun safety. I've seen nothing out of the White House in nine months since that Order. I've offered my assistance to participate. And small towns around this country -- the town I live in, in Rindge, N.H., we ran a firearms safety program because it was the right thing to do. Our police department did it. Why can't we do the simple things and move on to the more difficult ones later?
ROBERTSLet me read a message from Mike on Facebook. And we encourage you as one of the ways to reach us, through Facebook or Twitter. Here's what Mike says, Dr. Gold, "Evidently--" and he's referring to the shooter. "Evidently he was a 'good guy' at one point. Federal clearance requires a background check. Perhaps -- and the thing is you are a law abiding citizen until you are not.
ROBERTS"A bad string of luck, a layoff, a divorce, and suddenly a normally 'law-abiding' citizen does something tragic, becoming a murderer, a criminal or suicide. Police and soldiers, who have been vetted and trained as good guys, still have accidents and still could commit crimes. We are talking about an absolute right to a deadly weapon for human beings who are fundamentally mercurial." Your reaction to the email?
GOLDWell, you know, I think that the -- it brings up an excellent point. The dangerousness is not a static condition. People are not born either dangerous or not dangerous. Circumstances change, medical conditions, psychiatric conditions can wax and wane, and people can become dangerous at certain points in their life. Often what's asked is, how come nobody noticed that this person was having a problem? That typically is not the case. Most of these individuals who commit the mass shootings, the people closest to them do know that there's a problem. The question is, what can they do about it?
ROBERTSAnd often this only comes out later, though.
GOLDThat's correct. Because the standards for becoming adjudicated, mentally ill -- and, you know, we don't have time to talk about exactly what that means, but the standards for that are so high that there are many people who have risk factors for becoming dangerous that won't meet that standard. And so it becomes a question of, what else can we…
ROBERTSShould those standards be tightened?
GOLDWell, I think that in some ways, again, that's a whole other program about involuntary commitment and should the standards be tightened because you're also talking about depriving people of their liberty, which is another right that we hold.
ROBERTSSure. These are always balancing acts.
WEBSTERRight. And these are always balancing acts. But the question then is -- again, it goes back to, you know, if we can sort of provide support for people who can be identified as dangerous at the time they're dangerous -- so, for example, one of the categories of people who are not allowed to own or possess firearms are people who have a domestic restraining order on them. Somewhere down the line legislators got together and recognized that that is a high-risk situation.
GOLDThose people should not have guns available to them. All of these situations, when we approach them categorically, we are both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. And we don't really address the direct problem. So I agree there has to be a change in how we discuss this. It's not about keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. It's about recognizing that people, mentally ill or not mentally ill, can become dangerous at points in their lives. And how do we recognize and then provide support and perhaps intervene at those times?
DIONNE JR.Can I just say something? Because I think Dr. Gold raises a very important question. We do debate this issue of when people should be confined or not. But if we're talking about liberty, what is more intrusive to our liberty? Is it to say that we're just not going to allow access to a very particular category of weapons, like assault weapons?
DIONNE JR.Or are we going to be much more intrusive about putting people away and depriving them of all their rights? And so our kind of fear of doing -- not our fear, because collectively most Americans want to do something about this, but the blockage of sort of a set of rational limited gun measures forces us to reach to much more intrusive and, I think, liberty undermining measures.
ROBERTSLet me read another email. This is for you, Daniel Webster. "Richard Feldman made the point that people can use other weapons for mass killing, but when someone is in a rage, it is easier to pull out a gun and shoot. With something else, like dynamite, it takes planning and putting together, which gives the person time to calm down." And this is a common argument. It's not just in terms of shooters, but also in terms of suicide…
ROBERTS…where people seized with reactions to medications and other transitory conditions, if they have a gun available, they can do much more damage than with a stick of dynamite.
WEBSTERWell, I absolutely agree with the general point, that ease of availability of lethal means is incredibly important in determining whether acts people take, whether they're acts of violence towards themselves or to others, whether those turn out to be lethal and how lethal, how many bodies. So, again, when you talk about mass killing, you get into a subset, where you have probably more motivated individuals, probably less rational in some ways. But, again, if you look at this in the big picture of things, ready availability of guns, all the evidence says, matters a great deal in terms of fatality risk.
ROBERTSAnd, Richard Feldman, here's an email from Lois, in New York, who says, "This morning's discussion leaves out an important component, gun manufacturers. They financially support the National Rifle Association and have a vested interest in selling guns. Gun laws would hurt their business. Example, Remington Arms in nearby Ilion, threatening to move out of state after New York State passed good gun laws this year." Please answer Lois if you can.
FELDMANSure. I spent the 1990s as the head of the Firearm Industry's Trade Association. And I can tell all your listeners that every time this discussion about guns becomes part of the national debate, the buying frenzy starts anew. The gun manufacturers are no different from anyone else.
FELDMANIn fact, everyone I know in the gun industry, which is most of the people, find it -- don't have problems and are very supportive of background checks before transfers of firearms between people who don't know each other. But they're somewhat fearful of what can be done to them by other groups if they get out front on the issue. And I'd also like to ask Dan and Lois, if I'm not mistaken…
ROBERTSWell, just a second, just a second.
ROBERTSYou say gun manufacturers, like everybody else. I think a lot of listeners would say, wait, gun manufacturers are the only manufacturers in America who make a product whose specific purpose is to kill people.
FELDMANWell, actually, that's not true.
ROBERTSAnd it makes them very different from anybody else.
FELDMANThat's not true. Guns are capable of firing a projectile at high speed down range. It's the operator of the tool that decides how it will be used. And in the urgent, most extreme situations, who do we call? We call the police. What is it that the police come equipped with? They come with guns to be able to protect us and meet force with force, bringing us back to my point. It's never the gun. It's in whose hands are the guns. And, you know…
ROBERTSLet me -- I…
FELDMAN…the shooter yesterday took the gun, apparently, from one of the security guards. Well, obviously, if the security guards didn't have the gun, he couldn't have obtained a gun they didn't have. He would have just had the shotgun.
ROBERTSNo, no, no. I…
FELDMANI just think it misses the point.
ROBERTSPlease, I want to get some of our callers in, and we -- and I know everybody has a lot to say on this, but Mary, from Lake Mary, Fla., you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARYHello. Yes. I have really just two points I'd like to ask, and then you guys can discuss. And I'll listen to you on the radio, please. You started out with a question of why America has such a large number of these kinds of violent crimes. And I haven't really heard mentioned the correlation between the amount of prescribing of pharmaceutical antipsychotic drugs, which bring with them suicidal or violent possible side effects, coupled with the ability to buy a handgun or any kind of gun here.
ROBERTSOK. Thank you for your call. We very much appreciate it. Dr. Gold, please, it's a good question and deal with it.
GOLDWell, I think that that's somewhat misinformed sort of a question in the sense that people -- that drugs that are prescribed, particularly antipsychotic drugs, there's absolutely no correlation between the prescription of medication of any kind and violence of any kind. Most of the seriously mentally ill individuals in our society are not perpetrators of violence.
ROBERTSBut there are well-known cases of people who have been prescribed drugs who are then seized with suicidal tendencies and then commit violence on themselves. That is an issue.
GOLDWell, that is certainly true. Those are individuals, typically, who are being treated for depression generally, and that can be an unfortunate side effect -- an extraordinarily unfortunate side effect of some medications, but it is certainly not common. It is much more unusual. I think it's probably more rare even then mass shootings in this country. And the idea that somehow these drugs are tied to people going off and shooting other people, there's really -- it's a rarity.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got time for a couple of more callers. And let's turn to Baxter, in Manassas, Va. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BAXTERGood morning. I have two quick questions. Why are we debating gun control with regards to the Navy Yard shooting when the shooter acquired the AR-15, that's the subject of the banned discussions? They're using a Joe Biden-approved legally-acquired shotgun, a shotgun that would be legal in literally every state in the Union.
BAXTERSo that's my first question. And my second is, why are those like E.J. Dionne not serious about having the moral courage and honesty to actually take on any gun homicides through ending the war on drugs, thereby drastically decreasing the drug-related homicides in big cities that make up the majority of gun homicide numbers?
ROBERTSThanks very much for your call, Baxter. E.J.?
DIONNE JR.Just on the war on the drugs, I do think we need to rethink that. And I've talked about that before. I've worked on some projects. You know the whole -- and also there's a whole imbalance in the way sentencing goes on drugs. So -- but I don't believe that what the -- ending the war on drugs is going to end episodes like the one we just saw.
DIONNE JR.And if I could just go back on one point, which is -- there are a lot of points I have differences from. And one is the Feinstein amendment he mentioned early on, that wasn't part of Manchin-Toomey. The Feinstein amendment was voted down by even more than Manchin-Toomey was.
ROBERTSThat, of course, is the…
DIONNE JR.The assault weapons ban.
ROBERTSReinstating the assault weapons ban.
DIONNE JR.Which, I should say, I would have supported, but it wasn't even part of that. Secondly, we may regulate the manufactures of a whole lot of other consumer products more strictly than we regulate guns in our country. And there's something odd about that. And that has nothing to do with the Second Amendment. You can regulate all kinds of products, including Second Amendment protected products. And so I think that the gun manufacturers have really kind of used this mass movement as a kind of front to protect their industry in all kinds of ways.
ROBERTSWe have time for one more quick call. Clayton, in Charlotte, I'm afraid we don't have much time. But what's on your mind this morning?
CLAYTONReal quick, two questions. First of all, I just wanted to ask what the correlation between the statistics between the United States and other countries that don't have weapons, like we have guns, but many other countries have knives and machetes. And I think a lot of the crimes would actually be very comparable, as far as people killed. And the second question was quickly, assault rifles and assault weapons, if you look back in so many of the mass shootings that we've had in the United States, oftentimes these weapons actually weren't, by definition, assault weapons.
ROBERTSOK. Clayton, thanks. Thanks very much. Daniel Webster?
WEBSTERWell, I just want to hit maybe the central question here about gun availability and this connection to homicide rates. Guns are far more lethal than knives or machetes. If you compare U.S. cities with cities in high-income, democracies, we're right in the middle. We're normal. The only thing we're not normal in is our homicide rate. And it's very directly tied to much greater ease of availability of guns and getting back to the gaps in our laws that E.J. referred to.
ROBERTSAnd how much of this is related to something Richard Feldman said earlier, which is a culture and a history of America, where guns are so much a part of that culture and history?
WEBSTERWell, that explains in part some of the politics and the difficulties around guns. It doesn't explain the disparities in violence. I mean, again, it's not just a culture of violence, that we accept violence more here because, again, our rates of violence aren't that out of the norm. What's out of the norm is the lethality, which is connected to guns.
ROBERTSThat's going to have to be the last word. Thank you. That was Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Also with me here in the studio, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Dr. Liza Gold of Georgetown University.
ROBERTSAnd thanks, too, to Richard Feldman, who's been on the phone for us from Jupiter, Fla., of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, and Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal, who gave us an update. I'm Steve Roberts, siting in today for Diane Rehm. And thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.
Most Recent Shows
Kate Mulgrew, who stars as "Red" in the Netflix TV series "Orange Is The New Black", opens up in a new memoir about her complicated family and the baby she gave away for adoption as a young woman.
On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”