Violent gun deaths buoyed by obstacles

by Jim Longworth

As sometimes happens, two ironic or eerily connected stories occupy news headlines on the same day. Such was the case last Wednesday when James Holmes was officially sentenced for murdering twelve people and wounding 70 others at an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre in 2012.

Holmes was given 12 life sentences, plus another 3,318 years without parole. Meanwhile, as closure came for one massacre, another was unfolding 1,300 miles away. WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward were conducting a live interview on location in Moneta, Virginia when they were gunned down by their former colleague Vester Flanagan.

Flanagan (aka, Bryce Williams) was fired from WDBJ two years ago after he demonstrated behavioral problems, including repeated incidents of aggression toward fellow employees. His was a pattern of disturbing behavior, dating back to his last two television jobs in San Diego and Tallahassee, where he got into physical altercations with staff. According to a “manifesto” he faxed to ABC News immediately after shooting Parker and Ward, Flanagan indicated that he had been bullied, and was the victim of racism at WDBJ. But, in fact, that harassment never took place, except inside Flanagan’s sick mind. Nevertheless, he took out his wrath on Parker and Ward by discharging seventeen pointblank rounds at them from his .40 caliber Glock handgun. They died instantly. Flanagan later took his own life.

In the aftermath of the WDBJ shooting, Ms. Parker’s father vowed to fight for gun control. Good luck with that. Congress is noted for its inaction when it comes to handgun reform. They failed to act after Columbine, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Charleston, and even after one of their own members was shot. And for all the blame that Republicans receive for hiding behind the Second Amendment, let’s not forget that following the Newtown massacre, President Obama’s Democrat controlled Senate refused to enact his gun control legislation.

Not long ago I asked Governor Pat McCrory if he favored stricter gun laws, such as increasing the age for purchasing a handgun, requiring that the applicant be gainfully employed, and extending the wait time to allow for more thorough background checks. McCrory told me that we did not need new laws so long as local Sheriffs continued to be responsible for background checks. He has a legitimate point. For example, a federal background check will red flag someone who has been convicted of a previous crime. But a county Sheriff can deny a gun purchase if he simply thinks an applicant is not of good moral character, even if that person has never been convicted of anything. Who knows, perhaps if sheriffs in Virginia, California, and Florida had had more shared information available, and more latitude with investigations of moral character, Vester Flanagan’s history of workplace aggression might have kept him from purchasing the Glock that killed Parker and Ward.

On the other hand, there are enough guns in circulation now that Flanagan might have obtained one without going through a legitimate dealer anyway. Just look at the statistics. As of 2010, the population of the United States was 306 million, but according to the Congressional Research Service, there are 310 million firearms in America. Those astounding numbers make it easy to believe the CDC who says that over 11,000 people are murdered by a handgun each year, and another 21,000 commit suicide with a handgun. Last week’s tragic incident in Virginia is an example of both categories. But Flanagan’s murder/suicide act is not just a by-product of guns. It is first and foremost a by-product of mental illness.

So why then did WDBJ hire Flanagan in the first place if he had a history of behavioral problems? Former WDBJ News Director Dan Dennison released a statement saying that “the station had no idea of his (Flanagan’s) shortcomings.” Seems plausible given the nature of the TV business. In other words, had one of Flanagan’s former employers blackballed him to Dennison, he or she would have been open to a lawsuit. Ok, but why didn’t WDBJ just fire Flanagan at the first sign of trouble? Once again you can thank the legal system for that obstacle. In the corporate world, there are strict guidelines an employer must follow before discharging an employee, or else risk being dragged into court on civil rights violations. A TV station manager can’t even force a troubled worker to undergo psychological treatment as a condition of continued employment. Such treatment can only be suggested. In other words, the laws that are in place to protect the rights of sane people, also keep us from dealing expeditiously with insane people.

Last week, Mental Health America issued a statement, saying that “there is currently solid, bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress to address our mental health system…Now is the time to erase the discrimination and stigma surrounding mental illness…and to intervene effectively to save lives…” It’s a nice sentiment, but, given Congress’ track record, I won’t hold my breath for reform of any kind until I see it enacted.

For now, America is a victim of its own unwillingness to develop effective gun laws and comprehensive mental health services, and its propensity for creating legal obstacles that tie our hands when it comes to early intervention. It’s no wonder, then, that we lead the world in homicides and prison populations. Let’s face it, we’re mainly good at two things: killing and sentencing. We need to get better at preventing. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).