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Panelists explore causes of gun crime

March 6, 2013

Panelists at a gun violence discussion at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln agreed that a lack of access to mental health care and family dysfunction are the roots of American gun crime. Point Blank: A Conversation About Gun Violence in America featured seven experts in law enforcement, psychology, constitutional law and policy to address issues involved in gun violence Tuesday, March 5.   

Discussion moderator and UNL Law School Dean Susan Poser began the evening by citing United States gun violence statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010 guns killed 31,076 Americans in homicides, unintentional shootings and suicides, with suicides making up 62 percent of those deaths. Superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools Steve Joel said U.S. gun violence is primarily a social problem. “We have a lot of broken lives. We have a lot of broken kids and we have a lot of broken families,” he said.    

Many of the panelists echoed Joel’s view that violent behavior can be attributed to a lack of meaningful relationships in childhood. UNL psychology professor Mario Scalora, a threat assessment expert, said violent behavior ties into family life and relationships with parents, teachers and authority figures. Another big part of the problem, according to the panelists, is the state of mental health care in the U.S.    

“Gun violence is a mental health issue,” Susan Swearer, UNL psychology professor, said. Joel cited a correlation between repetitive bullying acts and the likelihood of an individual committing gun violence, an issue he said could be addressed with a greater availability of counseling and social resources in schools. Swearer is the co-director of the Bullying Research Network and said “If we can get children off the bullying trajectory, we can reduce gun violence.”

Panelist Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, a staunch gun rights proponent, agreed, adding that there is a decrease in morality in society. “People are more into themselves than the people around them,” he said. While panelists largely agreed about the causes of gun violence, there was less consensus about the solutions. To solve the issue in his city of Omaha, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said there isn’t enough money to put officers on every block to deter gun violence. “There’s only so much law enforcement can do,” he said.    Something Schmaderer said he would be in favor of is a ban on assault weapons, which he said police chiefs across the country support.    “We’re for assault weapons bans just for the safety of our officers,” he said, citing an incident where an Omaha police officer was gunned down by a person with an assault weapon.   

Andy Allen, lobbyist for the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association, said past bans have been ineffective, but something that might work would be ensuring mental health care for parolees, who are more likely to be violent. School shootings were another issue panelists discussed, citing the recent Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults. When the LPS superintendent was asked if he was in favor of arming teachers, he said no, adding, “I have yet to meet a teacher that thinks that’s a good idea.” Joel said that what LPS is doing to prevent gun violence is security training and awareness, and threat assessment and management. He said LPS is also teaching students, faculty and staff to be aware of their surroundings, recognizing cues and clues of potential violence.    
After the panel, audience reaction was mixed. UNL journalism professor John Bender said the panel was good for the most part, but more emotional than informative. Bender, who has served in the military, supports a ban on assault rifles. “It’s not for civilians to have weapons of that nature,” he said. “Those weapons are designed to kill people.” Audience member Chris Bettell of Lincoln said the panel didn’t really address any of his concerns. Bettell described himself as a “libertarian constitutionalist” who said that individuals have the right to carry a concealed weapon under the protection of the Second Amendment. Bettell said one of the reasons that there is so much gun violence is because of a lack of respect for human life. But regarding solutions, he said there’s no single answer to the problem.   

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