Daughter of Sandy Hook Victim Partners With South Jersey Mental Health Nonprofit

marysherlachMary Joy Sherlach lived for the kids. A school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Mary did what her daughter Maura Schwartz says was utterly in keeping with her character when a gunman opened fire at her school in December 2012: She ran toward the gunfire, not away from it.

That was the kind of teacher — and mother — Mary was: totally engaged on behalf of the children she loved. And now Maura is making sure her mother’s passion won’t be forgotten.

Last week, Maura stood at a podium in a banquet room at the Valleybrook Country Club in Gloucester Township, N.J., and spoke about the day her mother died, describing her final act of heroism. She also described a terrific mom — an easy and empathetic confidante for her and her sister, Katy.

When Maura was growing up, Mary’s passion about the mental well-being of children and adolescents she worked with permeated their home life. After her mother died, Maura recognized not only their own loss, but that of so many children whose lives her mother would have touched. And it was especially ironic that Mary died at the hands of a troubled adolescent, who, Maura noted, had himself been lacking in mental health care resources that he obviously sorely needed.

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A Columbine Anniversary Threat Was Scrawled in a Bathroom at Temple

The FBI and the Philadelphia Police have been alerted to a threatening message written in a bathroom stall of an academic building at Temple.

Here’s what was written: “April 20th I’ll bring honor to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold” and “April 20th you will all learn the meaning of suffering.” Harris and Klebold were the Columbine shooters, and the shooting occurred on April 20th.

While some students seemed worried, at least one brushed it off: “It takes away the seriousness. People scribble on bathrooms all the time. That’s high school type of stuff.” Perhaps she’s forgotten: Harris and Klebold were high schoolers. [Fox 29]

Found in Adam Lanza’s Home: Over 1,700 Rounds of Ammunition

In the days after the Newtown massacre in Connecticut, investigators found an astonishing trove of gun-related paraphernalia in shooter Adam Lanza’s home. A very small sampling of the findings:

  • 1700 rounds of ammunition
  • 15 knives and/or Samurai swords
  • 2 rifles, a revolver and one BB gun
  • NRA certificates for Lanza and his mother Nancy;
  • Book: NRA guide to basic pistol shooting
  • Book: How to Train Your Brain to Be Happy
  • Receipt for gun range in Oklahoma
  • Playstation II and Xbox 360
  • Holiday card from Nancy Lanza to Adam, including check to purchase a gun
  • New York Times article on 2008 Northern Illinois University shooting

The full list, which became available when search warrants were unsealed today, reveals the monomaniacal fixation Lanza had on weaponry. It also documents his close relationship to Sandy Hook Elementary School, which had not been previously reported.

According to the unsealed documents, a witness told authorities that Lanza was a “shut in” and “avid gamer” who played “Call of Duty” and that the school where the killings took place was his “life.” That description doesn’t mesh with published reports indicating that Lanza bounced in and out of Newtown schools.

The NRA, for its part, denies any connection to the Lanzas, despite the apparent evidence of certificates in their name. [Washington Post]


PA Gun Background Checks Have Tripled Since Sandy Hook

Since the Sandy Hook shooting, background checks on firearm sales have nearly tripled in Pennsylvania. Though the state’s background check process has recently improved, this jump is most likely due to a spike in gun sales, as occurred all around the country after the Newtown massacre.

Speaking of which, gun stock-piling isn’t the only response gun owners had to the Sandy Hook massacre (and the inevitable, but actually never going to happen) gun control legislation it will spur. Susquehanna County, in far northeastern Pennsylvania, has passed a law declaring that federal laws restricting gun rights won’t apply to it. That’s not allowed, but at least we know where they stand. [Philly Weekly]

Gun-Rights Advocates Heckle Father of Murdered Sandy Hook Boy

Sometimes it’s just a good idea to shut the hell up. For gun advocates, that time would’ve been, say, Monday at the Connecticut Legislature, where the father of a boy killed in the Sandy Hook Massacre was shouted down by gun-rights activists:

The sometimes boisterous public hearing — after nearly four hours of testimony from State Police, parents of slain Newtown first-graders and city mayors — seemed dominated by gun owners, who railed at more than 90 proposed bills.

“The Second Amendment!” was shouted a couple of times by as many as a dozen gun enthusiasts in the meeting room as Neil Heslin, holding a photo of his slain 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, asked why Bushmaster assault-style weapons are allowed to be sold in the state.

“There are a lot of things that should be changed to prevent what happened,” said Heslin, who said he grew up using guns and was undisturbed by the interruption of his testimony.

“That wasn’t just a killing, it was a massacre,” said Heslin, who recalled dropping off his son at Sandy Hook Elementary school shortly before Lanza opened fire. “I just hope some good can come out of this.”

Some thoughts for gun advocates:

• You can be in favor of the Second Amendment, and against any new rules, but letting other people state their case without shouting them down might make you seem more reasonable, less like jerks, and help you come across like you care about other amendments in the Constitution. Like, say, the First.

• Even if you think you’re right, shouting down the father of a murdered child makes you no friends and allies, and in fact makes you look like fanatics that the rest of us want nothing to do with. A lousy way to win a political argument.

• Even if you don’t care about the tactics of winning a public debate, consider this: Maybe you just don’t want to be the world’s most horrible people. Horrible people shout down and heckle grieving fathers. Stop it. [Connecticut Post]


Protests Force Postponement of Harrisburg Gun Show

A casualty of the post-Sandy Hook culture war: The Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show, planned to start Feb. 2 in Harrisburg, has been delayed in the face of protests over the display—or lack of—of firearms there.

Organizers posted the announcement to the show’s website today:

Reed Exhibitions has decided to postpone, for now, the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show given the controversy surrounding its decision to limit the sale or display of modern sporting rifles (also called ARs) at the event. The show was scheduled to take place February 2-10 in Harrisburg, PA.

“Our original decision not to include certain products in the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show this year was made in order to preserve the event’s historical focus on the hunting and fishing traditions enjoyed by American families,” said Chet Burchett, Reed Exhibitions President for the Americas. “In the current climate, we felt that the presence of MSRs would distract from the theme of hunting and fishing, disrupting the broader experience of our guests. This was intended simply as a product decision, of the type event organizers need to make every day.

“It has become very clear to us after speaking with our customers that the event could not be held because the atmosphere of this year’s show would not be conducive to an event that is designed to provide family enjoyment. It is unfortunate that in the current emotionally charged atmosphere this celebratory event has become overshadowed by a decision that directly affected a small percentage of more than 1,000 exhibits showcasing products and services for those interested in hunting and fishing.

“ESS has long been proud to participate in the preservation and promotion of hunting and fishing traditions, and we hope that as the national debate clarifies, we will have an opportunity to consider rescheduling the event when the time is right to focus on the themes it celebrates.”

MSRs, to clarify, generally refers to “modular sniper rifles.” Which aren’t used often in hunting. But pro-gun activists were angered by the decision to keep such rifles out of the event, and pulled their support from the show, even as rallies on both sides of the gun debate occurred in Harrisburg. No word on when the show might be rescheduled. [Fox 29]

Updated to clarify that pro-gun protests forced the show’s postponement.

President Obama’s Gun Agenda is Too Big

President Obama this week chose to do Something Big about guns. But he should’ve started small. He should’ve started with the bad guys.

He should’ve started with one item—background checks—and thrown his political capital into that.

Why? Because background checks keep guns out of the hands of known bad guys. And while that single action on its own wouldn’t have prevented the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre—sometimes it’s the unknown bad guys who get guns—expanding the system of background checks for gun buyers might, over time, reduce the overall level of day-to-day gun violence that permeates our urban lives.

How would that work?

It turns out there’s already bipartisan agreement, mostly, that certain sectors of society shouldn’t be allowed to bear arms. Felons. Veterans who received dishonorable discharges. People who have been committed to mental institutions. And a few other categories. When federally licensed gun shops do background checks, these are the people who are supposed to be flagged and rejected for gun ownership.

To some extent, that system has been effective, resulting in 1.5 million gun rejections over 14 years.

But there are big holes in the system. Nineteen states—including Pennsylvania—have declined to contribute more than 100 mental health records to the system, suggesting there are million of eligible names that should be in the background check database, but aren’t.

And, of course, perhaps as much as 40 percent of all gun sales don’t use the background check system, because they fall under the so-called “gun show loophole.” Bizarrely, some Second Amendment defenders deny the loophole even exists, but the reality is that private sellers at gun shows, flea markets, or Internet sellers often exchange guns for money, without any background checks being performed. Eliminate that loophole—with some exemptions for passing a gun down through a family—it it becomes more difficult for the wrong people to improperly buy a gun.

Some defenders of gun rights still hate background checks, saying they cut against a “presumption of innocence” that gun buyers should enjoy. I’m not sure if that’s a Constitutional argument—that presumption seems to belong mainly to courts of law more than bureaucratic record checks—but in reality, government does this kind of thing all the time: When you get carded while buying wine at the store, you’re being subjected to a background of sorts. If it’s an intrusion on liberty, it’s a manageable one.

There are other measures that could help keep guns out of the wrong hands. Gov. Corbett, to his credit, just signed a bill that toughens prison sentences for “straw purchasers” of guns—criminals who circumvent the background checks by letting people with clean records buy a gun for a felon.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Because the president should start with small ambitions.

Despite the howls of tyranny coming from some quarters on the right, there’s nothing in his 10 legislative proposals or 23 “executive actions” that suggest the president is coming for anybody’s guns, at least if they possess them legally. But by offering such a large program—again, 10 legislative proposals and 23 executive actions—the president has created a huge target for conservatives and gun advocates. We could spend the entirety of his next four-year term just debating this one agenda.

Starting with one, small act—improving background checks—would’ve reduced the size of that target, made it harder to mischaracterize the president as swooping down with black helicopters to confiscate private guns. It would’ve been achievable.

The president’s attempt to “go big” is understandable, though. It’s the way he’s made, and it’s also true that Sandy Hook seems to have affected him greatly. But sometimes the most effective agendas are pursued one small chunk at a time. Given the deep feelings on both sides of the gun debate, that’s probably true this time around, as well.

New York’s New Gun Law Conflates Violence, Mental Illness

Huzzah and hallelujah, that’s what I should be saying in response to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tough gun control law that he signed with lightening speed as of yesterday. The New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act—the first piece of legislation to come out of the Newtown shooting—increases the kind and number of banned weapons, enhances background checks and refines rules for gun storage.

But it also has a section titled “Provisions Related to Persons with Mental Illness,” which “will require mental health professionals, in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment, to report if an individual they are treating is likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to him- or herself or others.” That’s a serious problem. I’ll tell you this: If the same language is enacted in Pennsylvania, I’m not going to have much confidence in doctor-patient confidentiality. I sure as hell wouldn’t talk about feeling suicidal, a crucially important and potentially lifesaving part of a therapeutic conversation.

This is just one bill in one state, but it’s a sign of things to come. From pundit to politician, if they say “guns” in one breath, you can be sure they’ll say, “mental health” in the next. That’s a spurious connection, and one we have to guard against. Richard A. Friedman M.D., in a New York Times piece called “In Gun Debate, a Misguided Focus on Mental Health,” wrote:

But there is overwhelming epidemiological evidence that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts. Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness.

Consider that between 2001 and 2010, there were nearly 120,000 gun-related homicides, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Few were perpetrated by people with mental illness.

Statistics show that the majority of people who are violent do not have mental illnesses, and that risk factors for violent behavior are more likely to be substance abuse; a history of physical abuse or juvenile detention; recent stressors like family troubles or losing a job; and a family history of violence or abuse.

And when it comes to mass shooting in America, it helps to be an angry white male.

So why are we writing mental healthcare law at the same time we’re legislating guns? Because we’re legislating in response to a tragedy and to try to prevent that tragedy from happening again. Since 1982 there have been 62 mass murders in the U.S. In many of these cases—but not all—the perpetrators have had mental health issues. They’ve also been white males without much social interaction. Should we legislate sock hops? Classes in not being so white? In our grief and fear, we imagine that if we do something about “crazy people,” we won’t have any more mass murders to contend with in the future.

But that’s not realistic, as Friedman points out:

Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University and a leading expert in the epidemiology of violence, said in an e-mail, “Can we reliably predict violence? ‘No’ is the short answer. Psychiatrists, using clinical judgment, are not much better than chance at predicting which individual patients will do something violent and which will not.” It would be even harder to predict a mass shooting, Dr. Swanson said.”

Sweeping bills like Gov. Cuomo’s may not have any impact on the two people per year who commit mass shootings, but it will have a negative effect on the 20 percent of Americans who deal with some kind of mental health issue, from anorexia and ADD to Seasonal Affective Disorder and Compulsive Gambling. There are 300-plus conditions in the DSM, the text that lists disorders identified by therapists when they see patients. What about the disorders that are exclusive to or more prevalent in females? What about women who seek counseling for domestic violence, and then worry they can’t tell the truth? Wrong target audience, if you will.

Additionally, when you talk about guns, it’s easy enough to cite a weapon’s make and model and quantify rounds of ammunition. But what does a politician mean by “mental health problem”? The terminology is frustratingly vague. Panic disorder? Tourette’s? Depression? What they really mean is, “I don’t want to just talk about guns because it’s too controversial and yeah, these guys seem off their rockers.”

But look, I’ve been diagnosed over the years with at least eight different disorders, half of them wrong. I’ve taken dozens of medications. I’ve been hospitalized and jolted with shock treatments. Yet there’s no chance I will commit a mass shooting. If i lived in New York, however, there’s every chance that I’d censor my conversation with my therapist if I felt a lack of trust. I’ll bet even those of you who just go to therapy to talk about your marriage would be wary too.

I like what Dr. Alan Heisterkamp, who works with kids, had to say about these mass shootings:

[O]ur country has a major problem associating guns with power and control, and associating power and control with being a man. Gender construction on what it means to be a real, authentic man must be the new curriculum. … If we’re really serious about preventing more tragedies like the one in Newtown, Conn., we should expect to see more men in positions of leadership and power dispelling the myths that it’s a sign of weakness to advocate for gun control, and to mentor young boys to appreciate and celebrate their entire, emotional self.

We may have to implement a new bill: All schools play Rosey Grier’s “It’s All Right to Cry” in the mornings. And then the boys hug. Write to Gov. Cuomo today.

Joe Biden’s Choice: Crack Down on Fake Guns, Or Real?

Real guns are great. It’s the fake guns—the ones you see on TV, on film, and in video games—that pose the real danger to our society.

Overstatement? Perhaps. But consider this: Vice President Joe Biden’s gun violence task force is expected to release its recommendations tomorrow, exactly a month after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that ended with 27 people dead. And Biden’s task force ended up spending about as much time meeting with entertainment industry executives as it did with the NRA.

The NRA left its meeting decrying the Obama Administration’s “agenda to attack the Second Amendment.”

The entertainment execs—who included Comcast executive vice president David Cohen—were, uh, somewhat more conciliatory, committed “to doing our part to seek meaningful solutions.”

Which means a couple of things:

• The debate set off by the massacres at Sandy Hook, Aurora, and at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin have set America up for a test of which it values more: The freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment, or the right to bear arms covered in the Second.

• Judging by the opening stances, the Second Amendment’s defenders are far tougher and less willing to compromise than the First’s. (Make no mistake: Movies and video games are covered by the First Amendment.)

The result? Someday soon, it might be easier to buy and possess a super-manly Bushmaster assault rifle in real life than to play a video game in which characters use the exact same weapon.

““I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do something,” said Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf, who carries a B+ rating from the NRA. He was talking, of course, about video game regulation.

Which is absurd.

Forget, for a moment, that studies on the impact of video game violence have returned mixed results: For me, like Gov. Chris Christie, the advent of parenthood has meant the putting away of violent, childish things like “Call of Duty” games in order that my young son not be exposed to it—or, at least, that he’ll have to wait a bit before that happens. ““You cannot tell me that a kid sitting in a basement for hours playing Call of Duty and killing people over and over and over again does not desensitize that child to the real-life effects of violence,” Christie said, and, well, what he says makes a certain amount of intuitive sense.

But this also makes sense: It’s only rarely that violent entertainment seems to be the cause of our mass violence. The killers at Sandy Hook and the Sikh temple seemed motivated by illness and bigotry; there’s a better (if imperfect) case for Hollywood’s malign influence in the shootings at Aurora and Columbine.

All those massacres are different in the circumstances that produced them. But in every single case, they were committed using firearms. It sounds glib, but it’s true: Every gun massacre is a gun massacre. Not all of them are John Hinckley fantasies however.

Given the enduring power of the NRA, however, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that fake guns face more of a regulatory crackdown in coming months than do real guns. We may value the First Amendment, it seems, but not quite as much as the Second. Massacres aside, that should be real cause for concern.