On April 10, yet another mass shooting occurred in America. This one, in Louisville, KY. A 25-year-old gunman named Connor Sturgeon walked into his employer, Old National Bank, armed with an AR-15 that was legally purchased, and opened fire. The gunman killed five colleagues and wounded others, all while live-streaming his rampage on Facebook. Sturgeon was subsequently killed by responding police officers but not before shooting two deputies, critically injuring one.
Immediately following the shooting, politicians predictably talked past each other. Democrats reiterated their call for stricter gun control and more resources for mental health. The GOP stressed that random acts of gun violence are rare, and the bigger problem lies with soft-on-crime prosecutors that fail to punish criminals in a manner commensurate with their crimes, thereby perpetuating an increasingly violent crime cycle.
As You Were
The shooting in Kentucky was the 146th mass shooting in America in 2023. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a mass shooting is “any incident in which four or more people, not including the shooter, are wounded, or killed.”
Regrettably, the increased number of these incidents has rendered them unremarkable, so much so that they can all but be pre-scripted: A disgruntled perpetrator commits a senseless act of violence with a firearm, live streams it on social media to draw attention to himself (most perpetrators are men), Democrats and Republicans blame each other, the social media platform that hosted the content absolves itself of any responsibility, while the public has become so desensitized as to collectively shrug their shoulders and move on.
What can be done? Few issues are more divisive and held hostage by the extreme wings of both parties than the debate about guns in America. The sensible middle where compromise is often discovered – and perhaps surprisingly, where most Americans’ viewpoints lie regarding gun control - has been relegated to irrelevance.
A minority of staunch gun rights advocates are incorrigible and unwilling to entertain even the most benign ideas pertaining to gun control. This includes the need for any type of licensure, background checks, or making military grade-weapons that have no practical purpose other than for illicit activities illegal.
Certain anti-gun activists are equally as unreasonable. They refuse to consider anything but a blanket ban on both the sale and possession of all firearms. Their arguments are usually overly general, lack substance and are buoyed by silly statements such as “just get rid of guns” or “there should be no guns.” The fact is there are ~400 million guns in circulation in the United States, the vast majority of which are owned by law-abiding citizens. Furthermore, the probability of legislation being passed to confiscate those guns is zero. We must work with what the facts are, not what we may (or may not) like them to be.
Unbeknown to many on both sides of the political divide, most gun owners do support thoughtful regulation and consistent licensing procedures regarding the purchase, sale and usage of firearms. Many are in a moral quagmire, stuck between what they support – thoughtful streamlined rules and regulation – and the legitimate worry that new laws introduced to curb gun rights will set off a cascade of ever more restrictive legislation; with the end game being an outright ban on private firearm ownership.
Our view is that U.S. citizens should maintain the right to purchase and utilize most firearms subject to federal regulation including being licensed and undergoing a background check. The right to bear arms is protected by the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, when James Madison penned the 2nd Amendment, machine guns, military-grade assault rifles and bump stocks – which effectively turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons - did not exist. Hence, we must apply common sense and rationality when applying text written in 1791 to the present.
To that end, military grade assault rifles should be outlawed. These weapons have no place in society except for law enforcement and the military. They serve one primary purpose - to hurt and kill people. These weapons are not useful or needed to hunt, shoot skeet, or for target practice. They should not be available to private citizens. Indeed, in 2008 as part of the District of Columbia v. Heller, The Supreme Court found “support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”
Make illegal all over-sized magazines that enable a shooter to fire more ammunition without having to stop and reload, and accessories that modify guns to fire more rapidly. There is little if any practical reason to modify a firearm to shoot faster. Hunting laws do not allow it. And most gun owners do not modify their weapons this way. However, a disproportionate number of people who commit mass shootings do so with semi-automatic weapons that have been modified to inflict the maximum amount of damage.
We realize these bans will only have a limited effect; one can buy modified weapons on the secondary market and criminals tend not to care what the law is. However, commonsense rules that might make a mass shooting more difficult to facilitate – even at the margin – without putting onerous demands on gun-owning, law-abiding citizens - are worth implementing.
Finally, we must implement these regulations at the Federal level. Federal legislation - analogous to completing an application for Global Entry – is materially more efficient and effective than a patchwork of inconsistent, unwieldy rules that deviate widely from state to state and even intra-state.
Almost every subject who commits mass murder with a firearm suffers (or suffered) from mental illness. Using conservative estimates to control for over-diagnoses, ~17% of Americans experience a mental illness at least once and ~4% of Americans live with a serious disease of the mind. Since COVID, rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, (and domestic violence) have markedly increased. To that end, we agree with Democrats who argue that more resources must be marshaled to help the mentally ill.
Indeed, through a combination of talk therapy and (sometimes) medication, anxiety disorders and depression are usually treatable. Unfortunately, only ~33% of those suffering from anxiety disorder and 60% of those suffering from depression receive professional care.
There are three primary reasons for this:
1) Despite general progress understanding and appreciating mental illness, there is still a stigma associated with it. Those who suffer are loath to inform employers let alone loved ones and family members. They often suffer in silence.
2) There is an acute shortage of psychiatrists (and psychologists) in America. Though it varies by location, the general physician/patient ratio in the United States is ~275 doctors per ~100,000 citizens. However, there are only ~11 psychiatrists for every 100,000 citizens. “More than 60 percent of all counties in the United States-including 80 percent of all rural counties-do not have a single psychiatrist. In rural counties just 590 psychiatrists serve more than 27 million Americans.” Given that ~25% of psychiatrists are over 65 years old and < 5% of new residents choose psychiatry, this serious situation is bound to get progressively worse.
3) A disproportionate number of mental health professionals do not accept insurance. According to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), ~90% of all health care professionals accept insurance but only ~55% of psychiatrists do. The rationale is straightforward -- when it comes to remunerating doctors for psychiatric services, most insurance providers “don’t pay.” As a result, even in the few locations where there are enough psychiatrists to meet demand (typically in large metropolitan areas) outpatient treatment is only available to Americans fortunate to have the financial resources to pay “out of pocket,” or for people lucky enough to have the very best insurance plans.
Economics & Psychiatry
As it pertains to mental health, insurance companies and their respective polices are penny wise and dollar dumb. Insurance companies typically pay handsome sums per procedure, per test, per operation, etc. However, they do not pay much, if at all, for time.
Treating mental illness takes time; but as we previously noted, insurance companies do not pay much for time. This distorts the market for psychological services. As a result, a very small number of hard-working psychiatrists situated in a few cosmopolitan locations can earn upwards of $500,000 per year catering to a predominately wealthy client base (to be fair, many of these psychiatrists take pro-bono cases and /or cut fees for the less fortunate) – both doctor and patient unencumbered by the constraints of the insurance industry. Other psychiatrists work on staff in hospitals, dealing with psychiatric emergencies or the uninsured with no other options. The balance work in private practice and accept insurance. Most are overworked and grossly underpaid for treating some of the most vulnerable people in society.
The current healthcare system disincentivizes medical students from pursuing a career in psychiatry. It must change or the acute shortage of psychiatrists (and psychologists) in America will persist and too many people afflicted with mental illness will go untreated thereby increasing the probability of criminality.
We have reached an inflection point where serial offenders, arrested multiple times for violent crimes, face so few consequences that it has emboldened them to commit even more crimes.
To that end we agree with the GOP that too many soft-on-crime prosecutors fail to punish criminals in a manner commensurate with their infractions. Not enough consequences for committing violent crime fosters a community of zero accountability, increased levels of lawlessness, and degradation of daily life. This also must change.
The proliferation of social media is not the primary reason that gun violence has increased in America. That said, social media has aided and abetted this phenomenon. The ability for criminals to capture the attention of the public by posting their atrocities online for millions to view provides a perverse ancillary incentive for copycats looking for their 5 minutes of infamy.
To be certain, social media companies including Facebook, Twitter, and others, have the tools to remove and or greatly curtail people’s ability to post and view live streams of crimes in process. What they do not have is an economic and or legal incentive to do so.
The reason is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. Section 230 provides legal immunity to internet service providers (ISP’s) for content posted on their websites. Hence, they cannot be sued for material generated or viewed by their users.
Lawmakers should amend Section 230. Just like machine guns and military-grade assault rifles did not exist in 1791 when the second amendment was penned, neither did Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and others when the CDA was passed in 1996. Hence, we must apply common sense and rationality and make changes to Section 230 to hold ISPs (social media companies) liable, under certain circumstances, for illicit content posted on their respective sites.
Social media companies push back vociferously to any proposed changes regarding Section 230. A myriad of lobbyists works tirelessly on their behalf to defend the status quo (and their bottom lines). The main pillar of their argument is they must adhere to the First Amendment and protect the right to free speech (video).
In our view, this logic is self-serving and flawed. Unbeknown to most people, under the law, free speech does indeed have limits. In a landmark case in 1969 (Brandenburg vs. Ohio) now referred to as the “Brandenburg test”, free speech can be restricted when lawless action is imminent and or likely to incite lawless action.
Furthermore, even in its current form, section 230 does not protect ISP’s/social media companies from violations of federal criminal law (or intellectual property violations.)
The case against a former internet company called Backpage serves as a poignant example. Backpage was essentially an online classifieds add board. One section was called “adult services.” In that section, sex traffickers and other criminals facilitated prostitution, including pimping out underage victims.
Backpage’s owners were fully aware this was happening and did nothing to stop it. The main reason was that the “adult services” section of Backpage was by far the most profitable. In fact, its owners edited ads to make them more appealing to viewers and helped its “clients” (sex traffickers) conceal their activities.
In April 2018 the DOJ seized the website and shut it down. Its owners were charged with money laundering and other crimes. They were convicted. The case against Backpage set an extremely important precedent: that online platforms could be held liable for facilitating crimes on their websites.
*To learn more about we highly recommend reading the book, Taking Down Backpage by Maggy Krell.
Section 230 should be amended. But even if it is not, in our view prosecutors should look for every potential legal angle, narrow as they might be, to hold social media companies accountable for allowing somebody committing mass murder to live stream their crime on their website and millions of people to view it.