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August 25, 2008

"No one should have to go through this..."

Here at Bullet Counter Points we like to highlight the exceptional work that everyday Americans are doing to prevent gun violence in their communities. Today we focus on a young lady who faced tragedy at Virginia Tech before channeling her grief into a positive campaign to keep America’s campuses safe.

On the morning of April 16, 2007, Megan Meadows was sitting in her Media Writing class at Virginia Tech when a friend turned to her and said, “Something’s happened.” For the next four hours, her class was in lockdown as word spread about a shooting at West Ambler Johnston Hall. She and her fellow students spent that time watching CNN for developing news and hiding under their desks for protection.

During this time, Megan began calling her close friend Reema Samaha to see if she was okay, but there was no answer. Hours later, she would go to the Inn at Virginia Tech, where many families who could not get in touch with their loved ones had congregated. When she saw Reema’s brother there, she knew immediately—Reema was one of those killed at the shooter’s second stop that day, Norris Hall. In Megan’s own words:

“That was the most awful place I have ever been in my life. Just hoards and hoards of sobbing people, crying out names… I was so fixated on the one person I lost, that I couldn't even fathom the real number of people killed at the hands of one person until later.”

“No one should have to go through this, especially at their own school,” she thought.

Shortly thereafter, Megan saw a letter from a new group called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus in Virginia Tech’s school paper, the Collegiate Times. “I was not aware that allowing guns onto campuses was even being considered,” Megan remembers, “and when I saw this letter in support of allowing guns into schools, I became quite angry. I did not understand how after having such a tragedy happen because of guns at our school, how anyone would want to support more guns on campus. I knew I had to be a part of taking a stand against it. I knew Reema would not want this and I knew her family would not either.”

Megan met with Reema’s family soon thereafter and her suspicions were confirmed. Together with Reema’s siblings, Omar and Randa; VT survivor Lily Habtu (who was shot three times in Norris Hall); and another close friend of Reema’s, Brian Hickey; she would form Students for Gun Free Schools (SGFS).

Why does SGFS object to the presence of concealed handguns on campus? “I don't want to be forced to go to school where someone sitting next to me could possibly be carrying a weapon, and having to worry about it in class,” Megan said. “Unless that person is a police officer, I think they have no right carrying in a campus setting. The college learning environment is such a sacred thing…allowing guns—or any weapon for that matter—in schools is essentially promoting violence in that environment.”

SGFS stresses that America’s campuses remain some of the safest places in the country, with an extremely low rate of homicide. They would prefer to see a focus on tightening gun control and mental health laws to prevent future Seung-Hui Chos from committing horrific acts. “That doesn't mean that I don't think people shouldn't be able to have guns,” Megan says. “I am just saying that guns by nature are lethal weapons and we shouldn't be handing them out like an ice cream truck does popsicles.” Megan also regrets the many warning signs that were missed with Cho. “I don't think he was able to help himself, and I think the people around him at school just didn't know what to do,” she says. “There is nothing shameful about being sick, and I think this is a lesson for everyone—speak out if you know someone who needs help, who might be capable of hurting themselves or others. The SPEAK OUT campaign by PAX is a powerful resource, and I think their anonymous hotline (800-226-7733) where people can report potential threats is a step in the right direction in preventing future tragedies.”

Students for Gun Free Schools is welcoming students across the country to join their group on Facebook and become involved on their campuses. “Students can make a difference by becoming educated,” Megan says. “I think if more students were aware that state legislators could force their schools to allow guns in their classrooms and dorms, they would take action on this issue.” What can students do to make a difference? “The first step could be contacting your Members of Congress or state legislators, writing a letter to your campus newspaper, organizing a discussion on your campus to inform others of what you have learned, or starting a chapter of Students for Gun Free Schools at your school!” Megan says.

In the end, the issue is very simple to Megan: “The overwhelming majority of Americans do not want guns on campus, so why should we let a small contingent control legislation that will greatly affect our lives?”

August 11, 2008

"Even the smallest action can make a difference..."

Here at Bullet Counter Points we like to highlight the exceptional work that everyday Americans are doing to prevent gun violence in their communities. Today we focus on a nurse/attorney/writer from New York who became involved with this issue after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

In 1980, Robyn Ringler was employed as a nurse at George Washington University Hospital. In December of that year, she and her fellow staff suffered a tremendous shock when a beloved cardiologist at the hospital, Dr. Michael J. Halberstam, was shot and killed by an escaped convict. That night, Robyn said, “was one of my worst as a nurse.” And questions about Halberstam’s killer began to form in her mind: “How did that guy get a gun?” she thought. “How could we as a society allow this to happen?”

Then, on March 30, 1981, President Reagan was shot and wounded by a deranged individual, John Hinckley, Jr., while leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel. As Robyn describes it:

“The experience was exciting, scary, exhilarating, and eye-opening. When President Reagan was rushed to the emergency room at the hospital with a gunshot wound to the chest, I had no idea I would take care of him. But after surgery and a stint in the intensive care unit, he was brought to the medical/surgical unit where I was an assistant head nurse. The first two evenings, he was in terrible shape—his breathing was labored, he spiked a fever and became disoriented. We administered intravenous antibiotics and chest physical therapy and monitored his vital signs and the blood drainage from his chest tube. When I spoke to the president to offer reassurance, the gray-white color of his face scared me. I thought there was a good chance he would die.”

Each morning, the Washington Post would quote a hospital spokesman who said how well the president was doing. But, as Robyn notes, “It simply wasn’t true. The president was fighting for his life and the country was kept in the dark. I gained a quality I had never had before—skepticism—and learned to always question things.”

And again, the most haunting question of all was:“How could a guy like John Hinckley, with a history of severe mental illness, have gained access to a gun?”

It wasn’t until the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, however, that Robyn would become actively involved as a volunteer in the gun violence prevention field. As she recalls it: “When Columbine happened, I was a mom. I could see that shootings like this could happen to any child, including my own. It was a devastating realization.” On Mother’s Day 2000, Robyn would join 750,000 other Americans on the National Mall during the Million Mom March. “Marching on Washington with thousands of others who agreed that we needed change—in the form of sensible gun laws—was a life-changing experience,” says Ringler. “I returned home and immediately joined New Yorkers Against Gun Violence (NYAGV), becoming the leader of the capital district chapter and a board member. We lobbied at the New York State Capitol for safe gun laws and had some huge successes under Governor George Pataki.”

One of Robyn’s next experiences, writing a blog about gun violence for the Albany Times Union, was not as positive. In her words, it “was one of the most disheartening experiences I’ve ever had. Most of the comments I received were so mean and lacking in compassion and empathy it was hard to believe people would write such things. Death threats were common. When I wrote about children dying from gun violence, responders wrote that inner city children were not really children, but rather thugs and monsters. Racism and prejudice seemed to motivate a lot of the comments.”

Recently, Robyn opened an independent bookshop in upstate New York, adding bookseller to her long list of professions. But she remains active with NYAGV and the League of Women Voters and continues to write editorials and letters to the editor on the subject on gun violence prevention.

Can Robyn imagine a future free from gun violence? Yes, she says. “If every person, whether they believe in the right to unfettered gun ownership or not, took action to help other human beings, we could go a long way toward ending gun violence. We need to obliterate the poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and hopelessness that feed gun violence and help it grow. And we need to maintain safe gun laws that will keep guns out of the hands of children, the mentally ill, criminals, and others who should not have them.”

Robyn cites the collective power of people of good faith. “Even the smallest action can make a difference if everyone decides to take that action together,” she says. “I believe in that.”

August 4, 2008

The Same Old Story

In the aftermath of the shooting at Northern Illinois University in February of this year, Americans struggled to understand how Steven Kazmierczak could have perpetrated such a terrible tragedy. National media outlets quoted close friends of Kazmierczak who described him as “probably the nicest, most caring person ever.” His professors said he was “a nice kid” and “extremely respectful.” NIU Police Chief Donald Grady said that law enforcement had "no indications at all this would be the type of person that would engage in such activity … There were no red flags.”

They were wrong.

A recent article in Esquire, published more than five months after the shooting, paints a far different picture. Unlike the sweet, award-winning graduate student that we heard about in February, Esquire writer David Vann tells the story of a troubled, volatile individual who was clearly a threat to himself and those around him.

The warning signs in Kazmierczak’s behavior date back to his childhood. In high school, he idolized serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, and was fascinated by Hitler and his crimes against humanity. Along with this obsession with violence, Kazmierczak developed severe mental health problems as a teenager. By the time he graduated from high school, Kazmierczak had attempted suicide three times, taken eight different medications for mental illness, and been institutionalized on five different occasions—including a stay at the Mary Hill Residence, a psychiatric hospital, where he spent nine months in in-patient care.

After leaving Mary Hill, Kazmierczak decided to join the Army. When it was found he had lied on an enlistment form, Kazmierczak was sent to the William Beaumont Army Medical Hospital’s psych ward. The Army then determined he was a potential danger to himself and others, and Kazmierczak was given an “uncharacterized” discharge and kicked out of the service.

After 22 troubled years, Kazmierczak arrived at Northern Illinois University, where he tried his best to conceal his past from his new peers, friends and mentors. However, his disturbing behavior continued. At NIU, Kazmierczak engaged in long, detailed conversations about school shootings with a friend on campus. When Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 fellow students at Virginia Tech, Kazmierczak was excited. He studied everything about Cho—his writings, his planning, his timing, and how he obtained his guns.

Not long thereafter, Kazmierczak began stockpiling his own weapons. In December 2006, he applied for a Firearms Owner Identification (FOID) The FOID application contained only one question that pertained to mental health. Kazmierczak was asked if he had been institutionalized in the past five years. He hadn’t been—and no further explanation was needed.

Having obtained his card, Kazmierczak purchased five handguns and two shotguns over the next 13 months from federally licensed firearm dealers. Then, on February 14, 2008, he entered NIU’s Cole Hall and killed six people (including himself) and wounded 18 others. Not long before the shooting, he told a former girlfriend, “If anything happens, don’t tell anyone about me” and “You can write a book about me some day.”

The truth is that Kazmierczak exhibited as many red flags as Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. Six months earlier, the Virginia Tech Review Panel had published a report detailing Cho’s disturbing and lifelong struggles with mental illness. The report also included a list of recommendations on how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again—including measures to improve screening of gun purchasers.

Regrettably, the U.S. Congress and state legislatures have taken little action in the wake of the panel’s report to deny deranged shooters access to firepower.

Today, gun laws in Virginia and Illinois remain fundamentally unchanged. The current FOID card application in Illinois is nearly identical to the one that Kazmierczak sailed through in December 2006. And while Virginia clarified the process by which mental health records are transmitted to their State Police, loopholes remain open that allow prohibited purchasers and others to buy guns without undergoing a background check.

At the federal level, the picture is no more impressive. Last year, Congress passed the “NICS Improvement Act of 2007,” which was signed into law by President Bush. The bill was intended to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by creating financial incentives for states to submit more disqualifying records to the federal database, including mental health records. Before it was passed, however, the National Rifle Association was permitted to make a number of detrimental additions. Contrary to its original purpose, the legislation will now require states who accept grant funding to create programs to restore firearm purchasing privileges to those previously restricted because of mental health disability. Moreover the bill has yet to be appropriated and no grant money has been disbursed. The bottom line, however, is that the U.S. Congress has not passed meaningful gun control legislation since 1997.

If the cases of Seung-Hui Cho and Steven Kazmierczak have taught us anything, it’s that red flags and warning signs do appear consistently among shooters before they engage in acts of mass destruction. What is needed is a screening process that effectively identifies these warning signs before individuals purchase handguns, assault weapons, and other firearms. A handful of states have effective laws that go beyond a simple computerized background check and thoroughly screen gun purchasers. New Jersey is a good example—the state conducts an actual background investigation on an applicant before licensing them to purchase a handgun. Moreover, the recent decision by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller expressly stated that background checks and licensing and registration laws were constitutional.

The question is, how much more bloodshed will it take until we implement such best practices on a national level to prevent terrible tragedies like the ones at Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech?