It's the shooter, not the gun

Opinion: Columns

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By John Erickson

Editor's note: The author was a member of the Rights side of the recently disbanded Gun Rights and Responsibilities Committee, a citizens group that met for 11 months to see if it was possible to reach common ground on specific measures to reduce gun violence. He wishes to emphasize that he is speaking for himself, not for the Rights side of the committee.

I have learned a lot about gun violence in the United States over the past year. Suicide is more of a mental health issue than a gun issue, gun-related injuries and deaths among children have drastically decreased since the 1960s, as have injuries and deaths from firearm accidents.

Gun violence today is caused by criminals and, to a lesser degree, the dangerously mentally ill (DMI). Efforts over the past decades have focused on restricting gun possession by law-abiding citizens (more successful) and criminals and the DMI (unsuccessful). The persistence of gun violence is not surprising since law-abiding citizens do very little gun violence.

I am impressed with how many gun-related injuries and deaths are armed attacks or executions where the shooter has a gun and the victim does not. Very few gun-related injuries and deaths occur during actual gunfights where both parties have guns. (Why aren't gun owners attacked as often as unarmed individuals?) 

I propose changing the focus from the gun to the shooter. The shooter needs a gun, a criminal act, and a target to do damage.

How does society prevent the shooter from getting a gun — or disarming the shooter if he gets a gun?

Potential shooters are easy to identify — disproportionately males, age 15-25 years, convicted felons, known street-gang members (the few not included in the prior two categories), domestic abusers, violent paranoid schizophrenics and bipolars with violent manic phases. The trick is how to deal with them without trampling upon their constitutional rights.

Currently, the Chicago Police Department keeps paper cards with information from stops of suspicious individuals that do not result in arrest. (Interestingly, this is how the suspects in the Hadiya Pendleton shooting were apprehended.) Current sociological research has found that interacting with certain other individuals (felons, gang members) puts individuals at increased risk of a violent death. 

We know who they are. We need a way to track these individuals. Illinois already has a functioning Firearm Owner's Identification Card (FOID) system in place. Why not create an un-issued FOID card for convicted felons, domestic abusers, known street-gang members (if not already picked up by the first two categories), violent paranoid schizophrenics and bipolars with a history of aggressive manic phases? 

This information would then be readily accessible to the authorities — law enforcement, public health, social services, schools, etc. — and the approach would be extendable nationally with each state implementing its own system.

Once the potential shooters are tracked, they can be approached, counseled, provided financial support while learning a skill so they can support themselves, warned, hassled (if necessary) or arrested. Gang members are the vast majority of shooters — get the guns away from them and aid them in getting out of the gangs. 

But distract them from violent activity right now by persistent contact and reminders that possessing a gun is a no-no and they will go to jail. 

The DMIs are a smaller proportion of the shooters but they cause a large amount of damage in a short time. Their behavioral histories are usually replete with red flags. By personal interview, home searches, review of cellphone and credit card records, etc., gun possession by these individuals could be determined. How do we deal with them without singling them out and treating them unconstitutionally?

There are ways to deal with the DMI that do not infringe upon rights. For example, the psychiatrist of the Aurora theater shooter notified University of Colorado police of written threats against her a month before the shooting. The University Police did nothing because the student was no longer enrolled and not under their jurisdiction. The ball was dropped after a legal identification of a potential shooter was made. Allow the authorities to act when presented with a psychiatric threat.

When gang violence flares up, gang members are "contacted" — the area is flooded with police and (surprise) the shooters head elsewhere until the police leave. A less manpower-intensive form of persistent contact might include phone calls, emails, tweets, letters, randomly generated home visits, etc. In other words, keep them busy so they have no chance to get their gun and use them in a crime.

The past and current gun control focus on law-abiding citizens is akin to looking for your lost keys under the streetlight because the light is better rather than in the dark alley where you actually lost the keys.

I propose focus on the shooters rather than the gun in order to decrease gun violence. 

I welcome comments, corrections, suggestions, violent disagreements, name-calling, etc. I only wish I was smart enough to say the above comments are the answer to the problem of gun violence. (If I was that smart, I would be charging $600/hour to tell this to high-level government officials instead of to the Journal readers for free!)

Next week, fewer targets for the shooters.

Reader Comments

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joe from south oak park  

Posted: January 7th, 2014 8:16 AM

I wonder where OP's law banning the transfer and sale of firearms sits in light of the Benson v City of Chicago decision. The judge found district court judge found that a complete ban on the transfer and sale of firearms is unconstitutional... Unless OP wants to write another check maybe the trustees should consider looking at this law.


Posted: January 3rd, 2014 10:43 PM

want a different life. If you ask some of them, they wIll be nice enough to you to say yes, especially if you are going to give them things they'd like. My question to you is who funds all of these additional hours of labor trying to intimidate people away from crimes they are determined to commit. When someone has made up their mind that they will get a gun illegally and use it the same, there is almost nothing you can do to prevent that. It's one adaptable human mind versus another.


Posted: January 3rd, 2014 10:38 PM

Lastly, it is overly idealistic to assume that the vast majority of these gang members want to disassociate themselves from their lifestyles and have vision to endure the solitude of making a complete change and forsaking their only experienced source of support. I had a 14 year old 4CH with a arrest record who does not know his father's name, has a parolee older sister, and a strung out mother laugh at me and tell he he makes more money than me (not even close). You expect that these people


Posted: January 3rd, 2014 10:34 PM

on the books does not guarantee an opportunity to use the information effectively or that the laws in place are being upheld. There is a sad proliferation in thought that career criminals fear arrest. They don't fear police enough NOT to shoot at them. Look at Illinois sentencing. Even a solid arrest for a heinous crime does not mean they are going to do any serious time even IF they are convicted. They know this state's statutes and the state's attorney's MO better than you.Seriously.


Posted: January 3rd, 2014 10:29 PM

Mr. Erickson, I appreciate your sincerity and your intent. Here are the holes: "track[ing] these individuals" is not a simple task. They will usually provide bogus contact information along with altered names i.e. with a middle initial one time, without one the next time, completely different middle name next time. Law enforcement databases store much of the "un-issued FOID card" information. The police already have it. As Brian, in the comments, alluded to..merely having information or laws on

Ray Simpson from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: January 3rd, 2014 4:43 PM

@ OP Res do you find it strange that virtually every mass murderer was certifiably crazy? Only crazy people do horrible acts like that. Profiling? - you bet! If you read John's column for content you might find that he poses your very concern and understands there need to be concessions.

OP Transplant  

Posted: January 3rd, 2014 3:26 PM

I've always thought it was strange that mental illness precludes gun ownership. Something's wrong when citizens can lose a right guaranteed by the Constitution because they become ill. When you find your government taking rights away from the weakest members of society to protect the strong, you have to consider the validity of those rights in the first place. The second amendment is at the core of the problem of gun violence.

joe from oak park  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 11:32 PM

Jim - here is some interesting data for you on causes of child mortality in Illinois. ( the national data ( Note that in the unintentional injury category firearm related deaths are by far the lowest number in the category. I think that educating parents in the ER regarding suicide would be effective. by covering strangulation, firearms and poisons regardless of ownership.

Ray Simpson from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 6:49 PM

@ Jim - Dr Erickson addressed both of your issues in the first paragraph of this column. The core issue is violence committed by one individual against another.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 4:49 PM

Not "all gun violence today is caused by criminals". More than half of the suicides in the US involved the use of a firearm and one child dies every three days as a result of an accidental shooting.

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 3:33 PM

Another university study released showing concealed carry states have much lower murders and showing that "assault weapons" bans are ineffective. Looks at data over a 29 year period.

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 2:48 PM

@ Joe: the purpose of the post was to show that the gun rights side was willing to discuss options. The other side didn't want to listen. you should have seen the faces on the gun resp. side when we read a list of persons who should not own a firearm. We were reading off the restrictions on the FOID card application. John Barret said out loud now we are getting somewhere. we told him those restrictions have been in place for 30 yrs or more.

joe from south oak park  

Posted: January 1st, 2014 10:40 PM

Brian - That could be an improvement over the current appeals system, but it could be a situation rife for abuse. As things stand now in Illinois, any contact with the mental health system either inpatient or outpatient makes one ineligible to posses a FOID the card for a period of 5 years. We don't need to worry about every person who comes into contact with a mental health professional, just those that are a danger to themselves or others.

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: December 31st, 2013 2:39 PM

When a mental health professional on the gun responsibility mentioned that in her line of work, they notify the Illinois State Police of all people who are committed so their firearms could be secured, I furthered that w/ a gun court similar to domestic violence court so judges may authorize search warrants for firearms so the firearms would not fall into the hands of the mentally ill.There was no response from the gun responsibility side.

Phil Harmonic  

Posted: December 31st, 2013 2:32 PM

Great article. I am pleased to see that our village still has some intelligent free thinkers whose reasonable voice can be heard despite the bleating of the <a href="">Hoplophobe</a>sheep.

Frank from Richmond  

Posted: December 31st, 2013 2:10 PM

Amazing to ear the voice of reason coming from somebody looking for answers that isn't rhetoric. I wonder if the powers that be will listen?

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