February 7, 2013

Maine Voices: Mass shootings represent a fraction of young lives lost to guns

Violence has many causes, but guns are too often a factor and changing the culture must start there.

By Claire Berkowitz

Twenty young souls were lost in the Sandy Hook shootings, but their deaths represent less than 1 percent of children who die by gunshot every year in the United States.

The Maine Children's Alliance supports President Obama's solutions to curb gun violence by strengthening gun laws, strengthening our mental health system and lessening children's exposure to violence that permeates our mass media.

Violence does not have a single cause, but the common denominator across the mass murders, single-victim murders and suicides is the weapon of choice -- a gun. The difficult work of healing our violent culture must begin with strengthening our gun laws. Assault weapons, and the high-capacity magazines that go with them, are made for one purpose -- killing lots of human beings. Prohibiting the manufacturing and sale of these guns and their ammunition will decrease a shooter's ability to fire multiple rounds with the pull of a trigger.

In Maine and many states across the nation, sales of firearms by private sellers are not regulated. This "gun show loophole" allows many guns to be legally purchased without a background check. This loophole allows people from other states to purchase guns legally in Maine and take them elsewhere to be used in crimes.

In 2009, 223 guns purchased in Maine were used to commit crimes in other states.

Congress should restore the ban on military style assault weapons and multi-round clips, as they are weapons of war and do not belong on the streets or in our homes. In addition, universal background checks must be enacted. If Congress won't act on these measures, Maine should.

While gun laws must be strengthened, there is also a need to strengthen the mental health system. In 2010, the Maine Children's Alliance released a report on the status of children's mental health in Maine. In our analysis, we found that 29 percent of Maine children (40 percent of U.S. children) with mental health issues did not receive needed mental health services. Now it should be said that most people with a mental illness are not violent; only 4 percent of violent crimes in the United States are committed by a person with a mental illness.

But these mass shootings have been perpetrated by young men who have been described as socially isolated, unable to relate to others, often having a break from reality.

What prevented them from receiving services? Inadequate health insurance and the stigma of mental illness often prevent people from seeking the help they need. Investments in early intervention programs, especially those that better connect health and education systems, should be a priority in Maine and the country.

Often when we speak of gun violence, we leap over the First Amendment and go straight to the Second. We need to talk about both. A 2001 report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Publication recognized that exposure to media violence in television, movies, music and video games posed a significant risk to the health and well-being of children and adolescents.

Science and research have a role to play in the reduction of gun violence. MCA applauds President Obama's directive to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study ways to reduce the epidemic of violence that plagues our nation. Solutions must be evidence based and Congress should fund research that looks at the link between media violence and brain development.

Finally, strengthening emergency preparedness within each school is essential. Maine law requires that school districts have a comprehensive emergency management plan in place that is annually reviewed and approved by the school board.

While MCA does not believe that teachers and administrators should be armed, we understand that some schools might want a School Resource Officer in the building.

However, many school districts lack the resources to adequately fund such a position, so federal money will be needed to fill the gap.

While the First and Second Amendments are constitutional rights, they shouldn't trump the rights of children to be safe in their homes, streets and schools.

The regulation of firearms is not confiscation. Understanding the science behind exposure to media violence is not censorship. Providing mental health services to those who need assistance is not a waste of public resources.

An estimated eight children are killed by a firearm every day in this nation. That number, that loss, is simply intolerable.

Claire Berkowitz is the research and KIDS COUNT director at the Maine Children’s Alliance.

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