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(Editor’s note: This was republished on Jan. 8, 2014, and corrects the number of shots in second paragraph, and updates the seventh and 14th paragraphs to clarify that the memorandum does not represent the views of all family members. The column was originally published Jan. 21, 2013.)
When I saw Alexis Haller last week, he looked much as I remembered him from college: just more tired, and a lot sadder. It wasn’t the reunion either of us would have wanted.
His nephew, 6-year-old Noah Pozner, was among the murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He had been shot several times at close range. My old friend had come from Seattle to Washington to talk to lawmakers about reforms that might prevent future massacres.
He had sent a memorandum to the White House task force on gun violence on behalf of Noah’s mother, brother, sister and seven other family members. It included a number of novel proposals. One is a new reporting requirement: If you have “knowledge of a grave and imminent threat of serious physical harm” that someone else has made, and “reasonable cause to believe” that person has access to a gun or bomb, you would have a legal requirement to inform a law-enforcement agency.
As you may be able to tell, Haller is a lawyer. He points out that 18 states require any person who suspects that child abuse or neglect is going on to notify the authorities.
There’s no reason in principle, he argues, to say that a legal obligation should exist in those cases but not when you have reason to believe that someone plans to shoot up a school. In the memo, not making the call would be a misdemeanor with a penalty of as much as six months of confinement.
Again, though, Haller draws a parallel to the child-abuse reporting requirement: People are rarely prosecuted for not observing it. The laws have, nonetheless, helped to shape a valuable norm.
A second proposed statute would establish a standard for securing firearms. Someone who has “reasonable cause to believe” that he has made a gun accessible to a person who is mentally ill and considered dangerous, or otherwise poses a grave and imminent danger to others, would be guilty of a misdemeanor, and maybe even a felony, if that dangerous person gets the gun.
The memo also proposes that the government fund school-security reviews and upgrades, and augment emergency grief counseling. (“After Noah’s death,” it says, “family members underwent an initial extended and horrible period without any mental health assistance.”) The memo credits lockdown procedures for saving Noah’s sisters, and urges schools to do mandatory lockdown drills.
These proposals are carefully and narrowly drawn. Haller notes that it wouldn’t be a crime, for example, to allow someone who is merely depressed to have access to your gun. If that person were depressed and torturing animals, on the other hand, the reasonable-cause threshold might be met.
Haller is staying out of the fight over the assault-weapons ban, which he fears will achieve nothing because it polarizes Congress and excludes so many kinds of guns. He developed his ideas in consultation with school-security and law-enforcement professionals. He also drew on a federal report issued after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, which found that targeted violence at schools rarely results from sudden impulses and that others usually have some idea of the attacker’s plans.
The reporting requirement is designed to increase the chances that information gets to the authorities. The proposals don’t restrict the rights of responsible gun owners, and they aren’t attacks on gun culture. Instead, they seek to strengthen norms — like the norm that firearms should be secured — that are already present in that culture. So they are more politically viable than most gun-control proposals, and more likely to achieve practical success, as well.
At the same time, they don’t follow the template of the National Rifle Association. They don’t assume, that is, that the only solution to the problems caused by bad people with guns is good people with guns. There is room for debate about what level of government should put these reforms in place.
Haller points out that in a time when kids could be reading disturbing messages from chat-room friends across the country, it might make sense to have a national hotline where such instances could be reported — especially if threat-assessment experts were available there.
One maddening feature of the gun debate since the Sandy Hook massacre is how disconnected the public discussion has been from what actually happened there. So many proposals would have changed nothing even if they had been implemented.
It seems much more plausible that the ideas in Haller’s memo might have made a difference at Sandy Hook or Columbine or Virginia Tech. And this constructive response to grief and horror should fill us all with awe.
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