I was recently skimming through my Facebook newsfeed when I happened upon a debate between two friends. The pair were arguing over gun control, and I couldn't resist giving it a read. My friends were at opposite ends of the spectrum, with one being the proud conservative and the other a devout liberal on the matter.
As they argued back and forth through the string of comments, I couldn't help but notice one thing: they were both so misguided and uninformed. It was when the gun rights advocate said, "Why is it called an assault rifle? A rifle can't assault anyone," that I realized the argument was becoming ridiculous. He thought his argument as cunning and clever, but the reality is it's cliche and pointless. If the gun control debate in America has been diminished to arguing over the semantics of the term "assault rifle," we are all in a lot of trouble.
There's no doubt there is a gun violence epidemic in the United States, but the issue is being tackled from the entirely wrong direction. America is a nation built on firearm ownership, and anyone who thinks that is going to change any time soon needs to return to reality. Each time we have a major shooting incident, the cries for the elimination of guns becomes louder and louder, but that is just never going to happen. We, as a nation, desperately need a new approach.
I have a lemon tree in my back yard. As the lemons bloom, the fruit attracts hornets, and I am constantly plucking the lemons to rid myself of the pests. Just as fast as I pick the lemons, however, new ones arrive in their place. Rather than picking the lemons, I have to remove the tree if I want to eliminate the hornets. As far as gun violence is concerned, we need to stop looking at the guns and start looking for the root causes - we need to eliminate the tree.
Gun violence can be broken down into two main groups: the result of criminal activity and the result of mental disorder. Gun violence related to criminal activity is that which is the result of drug or gang activity, robberies, home invasions, and so on. Gun violence related to mental disorders are those incidents which leave us scratching our heads and all wondering why this had to happen - the incidents which just don't seem to make sense.
The gun violence incidents related to mental instability are the incidents that gain the most media attention - mass, rampage-style shootings such as those in Newtown, CT or Aurora, CO. These types of incidents nearly always point back to a very deeply disturbed shooter, and leave people screaming "Why didn't anyone do anything to stop this?"
America needs to wake up and take a fresh look at the way we approach those with potentially violent mental illness. Digging our heads in the sand and pretending it isn't there just isn't working. The problem is there, and it isn't going away; it's getting worse. Organizations such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) struggle to implement programs to get deeply troubled people the help they need, but the funding isn't available. It's cheaper for America to medicate the mentally ill and look the other way, but prepare to pay the piper.
Gun violence resulting from criminal activity is far more common and is the result of our revolving-door justice system. Violent criminals are arrested, prosecuted, and are back out on the streets to commit more crime at a lightning fast pace.
So where is the root of this problem? Most likely within your local District Attorney or State Attorney's office.
Your local state prosecutor is an elected position, and we've all seen the ads during campaign season where the incumbent candidate lauds his 99.8 percent conviction rate. The in-office state prosecutor needs to keep his conviction rate up high so as to ensure another victory at the next election. After all, are you going to vote for the candidate who only had a 28 percent conviction rate?
One needs to ask how a state prosecutor maintains such a high conviction rate, and the answer is through plea deals. If a defendant pleads guilty to a crime, it's considered a win for the state prosecutor's office. The reward to a defendant for pleading guilty is very often a reduced charge and, almost always, far less actual jail time. A criminal arrested for armed robbery with a firearm may plead guilty to aggravated assault, and he'll quickly be back on the streets to commit crime again.
I believe the remedy to this situation is quite simple. Let's start urging our leaders to enact legislation requiring candidates for state prosecutor positions to make full disclosures. If a candidate wants to rely on his conviction rate, he should also be required to announce his percentage of plea deals. The 99.8 percent conviction rate doesn't sound so stunning when it's followed by an 89 percent, reduced charge, plea deal disclosure.
When it comes to gun control and gun-related violence, I certainly admit I don't have the answers. I can say, however, that I do know we are looking for them in the wrong places. Just like the lemon tree in my backyard, let's stop focusing on plucking guns off the street, and let's start going after the actual root of the problem.
We need to start focusing on addressing mental health concerns before they erupt in violence. We need to focus on getting violent criminals off the street the first time, and not waiting until a criminal's fifteenth conviction before we start taking it seriously. We need to hold our state prosecutors and the judicial system far more accountable for their role in our society. And whatever we do, we need to stop splitting hairs over the semantics of the term "assault rifle", because that's just getting us nowhere.