In the aftermath of the mass shooting in which three nine-year-old children and three staff members were killed by a former student at a church affiliated elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, the PBS NewsHour conducted an interview with a child psychologist, Dr. Tori Cordiano, in which the interviewer, Amna Nawaz, asked Dr. Cordiano what parents and caregivers should tell their children about school shootings. Dr. Cordiano replied:
You can start with, “I want to tell you about something that happened in Nashville.”…Of course, you may get emotional when you’re talking with your children, and that is OK. It is emotional. It’s sad, its’s scary, it’s angering. But you want to have your own space separate from them where you can really process your own feelings about it, so that your conversation with them can focus on caring for them in that moment….But certainly, when children are exposed to violence, when it is happening around them, when it is part of their daily experience, when they have survived these attacks, or even if they are – just this is part of their reality, that they are hearing about these and worrying about these, that can certainly take a toll and for some children can lead to trauma and more mental health issues down the line….”
You can listen the full interview, if you like, on the archives of the PBS NewsHour, but in summary, Dr. Cordiano said nothing of any substance about what to tell children in the United States about school shootings – the Nashville shooting being the 89th shooting on a US school campus so far this year. And like all the other “experts” I’m aware of who have written or spoken in recent years about what to say to children about the epidemic of gun violence in our country, Dr. Cordiano failed to mention any of the following facts; and in doing so, strongly implied that it’s best to stay mum about them when talking to children and youth:
- A study published by the CDC in 1997 documented that the rate of gun-related deaths in U.S. children under the age of 15 was 12 times higher than the average rate in the other 25 high income democratic countries of the world. Instead of passing stringent gun control laws comparable to the laws in other high income democratic countries, Congress reacted to this study by cutting the CDC’s funding by $2.6 million, exactly the amount that the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control had spent the previous year on gun violence research. Congress also inserted language into the omnibus federal budget bill stating that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
- A more recent independently funded study published in 2018 documented that high school age youth in the United States are being murdered with guns at a rate that is 82 times the average for their counterparts in other high income democratic countries.
- Despite repeated horrific mass shootings on school campuses, including, but not limited to, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 in which 20 first graders and six female staff were murdered; the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida in 2018 in which 14 students and three staff were killed and 17 others wounded; and the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde, Texas in 2022 in which 19 fourth grade children and two teachers were killed, Congress has taken no definitive action to prevent similar massacres in the future.
- Since 2020, gunshot wounds have become the leading cause of death for U.S. children and youth ages 1-19.
The interviewer asked Dr. Cordiano what she thought about “lockdown drills” conducted in response to the threat of school shootings. Dr. Cordiano replied:
So there is research being done on how best to conduct these drills if they are going go happen, so that they don’t create more trauma for children and more difficult experiences.
Dr. Cordiano didn’t mention that the United States is the only high income democratic country in the world in which children and youth are regularly subjected to “lockdown drills” from the time that they first start school through the end of high school. And you don’t need to await the results of the research to which Dr. Cordiano refers in order to appreciate the traumatic effect of such drills on our children and youth. You can click the search icon in the right upper corner of the Americans Against Gun Violence home page and enter the term, “lockdown drill” in the search field to read what past winners in our annual high school essay contests have written about lockdown drills, even when the topic of lockdown drills wasn’t a specific part of the prompt for the essay contest that year. Better yet, you can send us an email at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org volunteer to be an essay reader in this year’s contest, in which the prompt, chosen based on input from past winners, specifically asks students to discuss their thoughts about lockdown drills. The topic has clearly struck a nerve in our nation’s youth. The deadline for students to submit their essays isn’t until April 15, and already we’ve received more than three times the number of essays that we received in any past year.
I’ve written in greater detail in past messages about the devastating effect of our country’s epidemic of gun violence on our children and our youth, including in a message in 2018 entitled, “Sacrificing Our Children to the Gods of the Gun Lobby.” As the title of that message implies, the focus was on the obstacles created by the gun lobby and by politicians – including politicians in black robes – beholden to the gun lobby to the adoption of the kinds of definitive gun control laws that are needed to protect our children. Since writing that message, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that the gun lobby and its minions aren’t the only major obstacle to the adoption of stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws in other high income democratic countries. Sadly, after spending more than two decades in trying to work collegially with some of our nation’s other best known other gun violence prevention (GVP)organizations, I’ve come to the conclusion that in some ways, these organizations may currently be doing more harm than good.
The day before Omna Nawaz interviewed Dr. Cordiano on the PBS NewsHour, her co-host, Geoff Bennett, had interviewed Kris Brown, President of Brady (formerly known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence). Mr. Bennett asked Ms. Brown what policy would have prevented the Nashville mass shooting, and Brown answered, without hesitation, “Extreme risk protection laws.”
Brown went on to explain that extreme risk protection laws, also known as “red flag laws,” provide a mechanism for family members to initiate a legal process to remove firearms from the possession of persons who are deemed to be at extreme risk of hurting themselves or someone else with a gun. Brown noted that 19 states and the District of Columbia have such laws in place, but Tennessee does not. Brown further stated, presumably in reference to the parents of Audrey Hale, the person who committed the Nashville mass shooting:
So, when I hear what the parents are saying, it breaks my heart. I think they tried and did what they could. But Tennessee does not offer them other solutions that they need.
Immediately prior to the interview with Kris Brown, though, the NewsHour had shown a video clip in which Nashville Police Chief John Drake stated that neither the police nor Audrey Hale’s parents knew that she currently owned a gun, and Geoff Bennett had noted this fact at the beginning of his interview with Brown. Bennett didn’t confront Brown, though, with the contradiction between her claim that a Tennessee red flag law could have prevented the Nashville mass shooting and the fact that no one who might possibly have implemented such a law, if one were in place, knew that Hale had a gun.
California has had a red flag law in place since 2016. A study of the effectiveness of this law showed that from 2016 through 2018, red flag laws were used to temporarily remove 52 guns from individuals deemed to meet “extreme risk” criteria. During this same period of time, more than two million guns were sold in California. Despite efforts in California to increase the implementation of red flag laws, in January of this year, there were four horrific mass shootings in California in just eight days. The most recent data released by the California Department of Justice reveal that the number of gun homicides in California increased by 27% from 2016, the year red flag laws first went into effect, to 2021. The truth about red flag laws is that at best, they provide cumbersome mechanisms for temporarily removing firearms from the possession of the tiny fraction of U.S. gun owners deemed to be at the most extreme and immediate risk of harming themselves or others with a gun, while guns are being sold to millions of other people who have no legitimate need for them.
During the interview with Kris Brown, Geoff Bennett noted that Tennessee Congressman Andy Ogles, who represents the district in which the Nashville mass shooting occurred, had offered no apologies for posting a 2022 Christmas photo on Facebook of himself and his family holding assault rifles.
Bennett also showed a video clip in which Tennessee congressman, Tim Burchett, stated that the only way to stop gun violence was to “change peoples’ hearts,” and that Congress could only “mess things up.” Bennett asked Kris Brown if she agreed.
Once again, Brown didn’t hesitate in answering. She replied that 93% of Americans want expanded background checks “because they know that background checks save lives.” She continued:
We have stopped more than four million, through the Brady law, four million sales of guns to prohibited purchasers.
Brown’s statement as president of Brady that “we” have stopped four million gun sales to prohibited purchasers might be interpreted as implying that the Brady organization should get credit for saving lives through background checks. It’s important to note, however, that while both the Brady organization and the Brady Act are named for President Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, who was critically wounded and who subsequently died of complications of the gunshot to his head that he suffered during an assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981, the Brady organization wasn’t in existence in 1993 when the Brady Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. It is true, as implied by Kris Brown, that there was a significant initial reduction in gun related deaths in the United States from 1994, when the Brady Act went into effect, through 1999. According to Brady’s own website, though, the Brady organization was founded in 2000, and from 2000 through 2021, the most recent year for which data are available from the CDC, the number of annual gun related deaths in the United States rose from just under 29,000/year to over 48,000/year.
Kris Brown correctly noted later in the interview that a deficiency of the Brady Act that should be corrected by Congress is that while the Act requires background checks for gun purchases through federally licensed firearm dealers, it doesn’t require background checks for private gun transfers which are estimated to account for approximately 20% of all current gun sales. As with red flag laws, though, it’s clearly false to imply that expanding background checks to include private gun sales would have prevented the Nashville mass shooting. As both the Nashville Police Chief and Geoff Bennett noted during NewsHour coverage of the shooting, like most other mass shooters in recent U.S. history, Audrey Hale had purchased the guns she used in the shooting legally, after passing federal background checks, even though it was generally known that she had “an emotional disorder.”
It’s important to understand that what we call “background checks” in the United States – checks that are done instantaneously by computer in most cases – are not in any way comparable to the thorough background checks done in other high income democratic countries. As discussed in our recent press release concerning the Nashville mass shooting, in all other high income democracies, the burden of proof is on the person seeking to acquire a gun to show that he or she has a good reason to own one and can handle one safely, not on the government to show that he or she is on a perennially incomplete list of persons prohibited by certain narrow criteria from owning firearms. And many other countries, recognizing that there’s no net protective value in owning or carrying a gun in a democratic society, don’t accept “self defense” as a legitimate reason for acquiring a firearm.
My greatest concern about the interview with Kris Brown, though, is the rhetorical question she posed near the end of the interview:
And I have to say the issue that we as Americans should really internalize is, do we want a version of the Second Amendment that is a death sentence to our fellow Americans?
Based on my repeated attempts to engage with the Brady leadership in urging them to join Americans Against Gun Violence in combating the fraudulent misrepresentation of the Second Amendment, I believe that Ms. Brown was probably aware that in my writings and public presentations on behalf of Americans Against Gun Violence, I’ve repeatedly referred to the Supreme Court’s rogue 2008 Heller decision as a death sentence, wrongly decided, for tens of thousands of Americans annually. In Heller, a narrow 5-4 majority of Supreme Court justices reversed over 200 years of legal precedent, including four prior Supreme Court decisions and scores of lower court decisions, in ruling in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller that Washington DC’s partial handgun ban violated the Second Amendment. This was the first time in U.S. history that the Court had ever ruled that the Second Amendment conferred any kind of individual right to gun ownership that was not directly related to service in a “well regulated militia.”
The majority opinion in Heller, written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, has been publicly condemned by respected constitutional authorities as a “radical departure” from prior legal precedent, an example of “snow jobs” produced by well-staffed justices, and as “gun rights propaganda passing as scholarship.” In his book, The Making of a Justice, the late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “Heller is unquestionably the most clearly incorrect decision that the Court announced during my tenure on the bench.” Stevens added that Heller majority endorsed an interpretation of the Second Amendment that the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger had called, “One of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word, ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
My serious concern about Kris Brown’s rhetorical question concerning the misrepresentation of the Second Amendment being a death sentence is not that she plagiarized me or that she overstated the adverse impact of misconstruing the Amendment, but rather that Brady endorses the Heller decision as legitimate binding precedent. In the recent Supreme Court case of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, the gun lobby challenged New York’s requirement for a special permit to carry a concealed handgun. We filed an amicus brief on behalf of Americans Against Gun Violence in this case in support of New York’s stringent restrictions on carrying concealed handguns. In our brief, we also made the point, though, that the Heller decision, upon which the gun lobby’s case rested, was egregiously wrongly decided, and that as a matter of life and death, the Court should not only uphold the constitutionality of New York’s concealed handgun laws, but also take the opportunity of the Bruen case to overturn Heller. In the same case, though, Brady filed an amicus brief stating that the Heller decision “reaffirmed longstanding constitutional guardrails on the Second Amendment.” In a previous message entitled, “Are You Unknowingly Contributing to the Other Big Lie,” I noted that stating that Heller put guardrails on the Second Amendment is like stating that Donald Trump put guardrails on free and fair elections.
To be fair to Brady, it isn’t the only organization to endorse the Heller decision as being legitimate. The Giffords Law Center also filed an amicus brief in the Bruen cased in which it stated:
As Heller observed, self-defense is “the central component” and “core lawful purpose” of the Second Amendment right.
There’s nothing in the history or the text of the Second Amendment to support this statement, and as the Second Amendment itself states, and as the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the 1939 Miller decision, providing for a “well regulated militia” is the “central component” and “core lawful purpose” of the Second Amendment. The above statement in the Giffords brief also tacitly endorses the myth that keeping a gun in the home confers net protective value. As discussed on the Facts and FAQ’s page of the Americans Against Gun Violence website, there’s overwhelming evidence that a gun in the home is more likely to be used to kill, injure, or intimidate household members than to protect them, especially when there are children in the home.
Ultimately, a total of 32 amicus briefs in support of New York State’s concealed handgun laws were filed on behalf of 84 organizations, 606 individuals (including 152 members of Congress), 13 cities, and 18 states in the NYSRPA v. Bruen prior to the filing deadline, but Americans Against Gun Violence was the only organization in the entire country to file a brief that openly stated that the Heller decision was wrongly decided and should be overturned. As expected, with three members of the original Heller majority still on the Court (Roberts, Alito, and Thomas) and with three new Trump nominees joining them (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett), the Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the gun lobby in the Bruen case. Nevertheless, the answer to Kris Brown’s rhetorical question, “[D]o we want a version of the Second Amendment that is a death sentence to our fellow Americans?” should still be an emphatic, “No!” And we at Americans Against Gun Violence will not rest until the Heller decision and its progeny, which now includes the Bruen decision, are overturned.
When we founded Americans Against Gun Violence in 2016, it wasn’t our intent to be in competition or in conflict with other GVP organizations like Brady and Giffords. We hoped that after laying out the evidence discussed above, other GVP organizations would soon join us in openly advocating and actively working toward overturning the Heller decision and its progeny and in working toward the adoption of stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws that have long been in effect in the other high income democratic countries of the world. So far, though, despite our best efforts, no other major GVP organization has joined us in this effort.
I’ve speculated in past messages as to why instead of joining us in working toward definitive measures to stop our country’s shameful epidemic of gun violence, other GVP organizations, in the words of Joshua Sugarmann, executive director or the Violence Policy Center, continue to “nibble around the edges of half-measures and good intentions, dramatically out of synch with the reality of gun violence in America.” For more than two decades, I’ve known and worked with many fine, intelligent, and well-meaning individuals in these other organizations, some of whom have lost loved ones themselves to gun violence. I believe, though, that some of them may be suffering from “anchoring bias,” the powerful tendency to stick with an initial hypothesis despite accumulating evidence that the initial hypothesis is incorrect. Anchoring bias is one of the most common causes of serious errors in the practice of medicine, and I believe it’s also become a significant obstacle to stopping our country’s epidemic of gun violence. I believe that other gun violence prevention activists who I’ve worked with in the past – and especially those who have lost loved ones to gun violence – may be suffering from a form of “Stockholm Syndrome,” also known as “capture bonding.” They may have been held captive by the gun lobby so long in a figurative sense that they’ve paradoxically come to empathize with it.
I’ve come to the conclusion, though, that old adage, “Follow the money,” best explains why the leaders of the other GVP organizations noy only refuse to join us, but to even engage in constructive dialogue concerning advocating and working toward definitive measures to stop our country’s epidemic of gun violence in the long term, even while they may focus on far more limited measures in the short term. Although there’s overwhelming evidence that the “nibbling around the edges” approach has been ineffective in stopping our epidemic of gun violence, the financial reports of the other GVP organizations show that this approach, coupled with their exaggerated claims of the impact of the limited measures that they advocate, have been effective in bringing in tens of millions of dollars in revenue from benevolent but misinformed members of the public.
Returning to the question of what to tell our children about school shootings, it’s been my experience as a physician, as a father, and now as a grandfather that although children love to engage in fantasy, they also have a tendency to be brutally honest. It wasn’t uncommon in the past for children with terminal illnesses to ask their doctors in a matter of fact sort of way, “When am I going to die.” Fortunately, though, at the same time that the rate of gun related deaths has increased in our country for children and youth, many previously fatal childhood diseases have become preventable or curable. Old age, though, is a different matter. One of our grandchildren recently told me, “You’re getting old, Grandpa, and you’re going to die.”
If we wanted to be brutally honest with our children or grandchildren, when they ask us why they have to participate in lockdown drills, or in later stages of development, why they have to face the threat of being gunned down in their classrooms every time they go to school, we should tell them that if they don’t like it, they should move to some other high income democratic country – in fact, to any of the many other democratic countries in which grownups have demonstrated through their actions, and not just their words, that they love their children more than their guns. On more than one occasion, my wife and I have seriously considered moving ourselves to another country and encouraging our adult children and grandchildren to join us. Other high income democratic countries all have their problems, but rampant gun violence isn’t one of them. As long as we continue to live in the United States, though, we plan to continue to continue our work with Americans Against Gun Violence so that when our grandchildren come to us with these difficult questions, we can tell them truthfully and directly that their fears are legitimate, that our country’s shameful epidemic of gun violence is unacceptable, and that we’re doing everything we know how to try to stop it.
Please contact your elected officials and let them know that you expect them to openly advocate and actively work toward overturning the rogue 2008 Heller decision and its progeny and toward adopting stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws that have long been in effect in all the other high income democratic countries of the world. Please also become an official member of Americans Against Gun Violence, if you haven’t already done so; please encourage others to join as well; and please make an additional donation, if you’re able.
Thanks for your support of Americans Against Gun Violence, and thanks for joining us in showing through our actions, and not just our words, that we are members of a society that loves its children more than its guns.
Bill Durston, MD
Note: Dr. Durston is a former expert marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps and a combat veteran, decorated for “courage under fire” during the Vietnam War. Dr. Durston is also a former board-certified emergency physician, now practicing in a volunteer capacity as a preceptor at a student-run free clinic.