Auditor General Releases Firearm Safety Report
Gunshot fatalities account for about half of Erie County's record homicide count in 2018 and it's a problem the whole state of Pennsylvania is facing. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a special report on Tuesday, suggesting a focus on mental health is the key to decreasing gun deaths and injuries in the state.
Citing data from 2016, DePasquale said, " Four funerals every day. In total, about 1,500 deaths per year statewide. That is the human cost of of firearm-related violence in Pennsylvania." He continued, "of more than 1,500 lives lost statewide in 2016, nearly two-thirds died by suicide." That is why he's suggesting 12 recommendations that focus on improving mental health access and awareness across the state.
The recommendations are as follows:
1. The State should work to expand access to mental health care, especially in rural areas.
2. The stigma of seeking mental health must end; to do that, the state should mount a culturally responsive public awareness campaign.
3. Engage medical doctors and train all physicians, especially primary care physicians, to screen patients for risks of firearm violence.
4. Engage licensed firearms dealers in looking for red flags in customers who might potentially use a firearm for suicide.
5. The Pennsylvania Game Commission should expand its hunter education program section on firearm safety and create a voluntary training program on safe firearm usage and storage.
6. Encourage all firearm owners to voluntarily use safe storage best practices, such as locking unloaded firearms in a safe and storing ammunition away from firearms.
7. the state should continue to support hospital-based violence intervention programs and behavioral health resources in hospitals so they can be fully responsive to the violence they treat and ensure that unresolved trauma will not contribute to retaliation or suicide.
8. The state should support communities in organizing violence prevention efforts proven to be effective. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency's Gun Violence Reduction Initiative is a good example of that support.
9. The governor should sign an executive order requiring Pennsylvania State Police to issue quarterly and monthly reports on firearms traced from crimes to help track lost and stolen guns as well as firearm-related criminal activity.
10. The state should secure funding to increase Pennsylvania's participation in a national network that uses bullets to connect multiple crimes to single firearms.
11. Sheriffs and other law-enforcement officials who issue concealed-carry permits should thoroughly check applicants' references and backgrounds before approving applications and consider prosecuting those who provide false information.
12. Pennsylvania State Police should implement the Lethality Assessment Program, which connects victims of intimate partner violence to local domestic violence programs, statewide.
When it comes to funding some of these recommendations, the Auditor General said lessening gun deaths and injuries will open up funding options. "Over the last decade, firearm-related injuries cost Pennsylvania taxpayers about $1.5 billion in health care costs because 76% of shooting victims were either uninsured or publicly insured," he said.
Erie News Now talked with a local armory about the special report. Owner of Tamarack Armory, Mike Leonard, says a focus on mental health is good as long as it doesn't restrict people who have had minimal mental health issues. "In some instances I think it's good, in other instances I think it's not good," Leonard said.
"For example, if I get a Korean War veteran or a Vietnam War veteran that back in the 60s he came home, had a bad day and maybe tried to harm himself in 1960," he explained, "comes in here and tries to buy a gun and that's on his record? That would flag him. Maybe he's had a perfect record [besides] coming back from the military, 21 years old and had a bad day."
When it comes to screening potential gun owners for mental health issues, the background checks and paperwork don't usually help much. It's left to the gun dealers to decide if somebody seems stable enough to own a gun based on their interaction with them. "We're the last line of defense. If someone comes in here and they're acting weird, it's our right to say we're not going to sell you a gun," Leonard said, "I'm not going to sell anybody a gun that I think is either looking to do harm to themselves or somebody else."
Leonard recalled a specific instance where somebody came in looking to buy a gun to harm themselves, "I had an elderly gentleman come in and express interest. He had never owned a gun and he expressed interest in buying the cheapest gun possible because he had an illness that he was not going to come back from."
Leonard talked to him for a while and told the man he'd call him if something cheap came in, but did not sell him a gun that day. He then called other gun dealers in the area to alert them of the man's intentions and made a few more calls to have a welfare check done on the man.
Combating mental health is more than just preventing suicide; it's also about making sure people who may harm others don't get their hands on a gun. However, guns used in crimes aren't always legally obtained. In the city of Erie alone, police have recovered 142 illegally-used or owned firearms and made about 90 arrests for illegally having a firearm just this year.