The Navy Yard Shootings And The Debate Over Gun Control (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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The Navy Yard Shootings And The Debate Over Gun Control

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I’m Rebecca Sheir and when we started planning this week's show a few weeks back, we thought we'd bring you a rather light-hearted hour of radio. We were going to put together one our theme-free wild cards shows that we do several times a year, but by 9:00 a.m. Monday that plan went out the window.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:01:00
And since those first frenzied moments Monday morning, the Navy Yard Story has evolved. From the chaos and confusion of the initial search for the shooter, to the tributes to the 12 people who died, and now to the political back and forth among members of Congress and the White House. Part of that back and forth has to do with the government's process for granting security clearances and how it can be improved. Some people are also making impassioned pleas for improvements to the nation's mental health system. And in other quarters there are fresh calls for a national discussion about gun control.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:01:31
A discussion that was revived after the Newtown shootings last December, in which 20 children and 6 adults were killed. But in the spring, that discussion was tabled. To shed some more light on this issue, we sat down with Robert Cottrol.

DR. ROBERT COTTROL

00:01:44
I’m the Harold Paul Green research professor of law at George Washington University, and also a professor of history and sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

SHEIR

00:01:55
Cottrol has long been interested in gun control issues.

COTTROL

00:01:58
I've been following this for 40 years now.

SHEIR

00:02:00
And he says the continuing debate is, of course, a thorny one.

COTTROL

00:02:04
If we look at the aspects of the shooting in the Navy Yard, none of the standard gun control arguments seem to fit. This was done with a pump-action shotgun, not a semi-automatic rifle. The individual, in fact, had background checks, not only sufficient past background checks to buy the shotgun -- he bought the shotgun at a licensed dealer in Lorton, Va., but also had a secret clearance from the Navy. So this is a person who, you know, would have passed any background check and there was nothing particularly unusual about the shotgun.

COTTROL

00:02:43
By the way, I think in terms of the gun control issue, focus on this gun or that gun as a particularly bad kind of gun is misdirected. What we really need to do is focus on who should be eligible to buy firearms and who should not be, and how do you integrate mental health information into that equation.

SHEIR

00:03:04
Speaking of mental health, I mean there are signs that the shooter Aaron Alexis was mentally ill. His father said he suffered from PTSD after participating in rescue efforts on September 11, 2001. And other people who knew him said he showed signs of anger management issues. And yet, he bought this gun in Virginia over the weekend without any problems. Do you expect we might see more of a national focus on mental health and the restrictions that should be placed on people with mental health issues having access to guns?

COTTROL

00:03:30
The mental health issue, I think, is a more difficult one because we want to encourage people to go to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, and yet we don't want the mere fact that one has visited such a professional to be a reason for in fact losing the right to purchase a firearm for legitimate purposes. So we need to work on how do you fine tune that so that individuals who are clearly disturbed are prevented from buying firearms, but not everybody who has a psychological issue and visits a psychiatrist or psychologist finds themselves on a banned list.

COTTROL

00:04:12
But certainly looking at the clues in Mr. Alexis's background, the incident in Rhode Island where he had claimed that he was hearing voices, the incidents of discharging a firearm at various people or at his neighbor's ceiling or whatnot -- all that should have raised red flags, and somehow that wasn't integrated into any kind of system. And that's, by the way, been the common thread in all of these mass shootings, people with histories of mental disturbance.

SHEIR

00:04:43
So let's turn to the District now. I mean, you're an African American. You're working in a city that's pushed some of the nation's strictest gun laws for years. What impact do you think that push for strict gun control has had?

COTTROL

00:04:54
Well, I don't think it's had any effect on crime in the district. During the height of the gun ban in the District of Columbia, the District of Columbia had horrendous crime rates. And it wasn't shown to have any effect whatsoever in terms of reducing crime. And I don't even think that even its defenders would argue that it did. You know, we know that there are black markets in illegal guns. And they certainly got to the District, you know, before Heller, before the Supreme Court overturned the District's gun ban.

COTTROL

00:05:28
All the ban did, quite frankly, was to prevent law-abiding citizens from defending themselves. It certainly didn't stop the gang bangers and the drug pushers from being armed.

SHEIR

00:05:40
So I wonder, if not Sandy Hook, if not the Navy Yard, what do you think it would take for Congress and the U.S. to have a fresh start, as we talk about guns and their role in our culture?

COTTROL

00:05:51
The question I would ask is what do you want done? In a country where -- I think the estimates are that there are 300 million guns in civilian hands, are you seeking a ban? If, in fact, you're seeking a ban, how do you intend to enforce it? Go door-to-door in every home in America searching out guns? If you have any fears of a police state, that will be a police state. So, I mean, this idea that there's some kind of stalemate, we need to reach some solution, I don't think the solution lies in any kind of major gun ban. The solution lies in refining our steps in terms of who's able to purchase guns.

COTTROL

00:06:34
What I'd like to see is the mental health community, the gun owners' community, law enforcement all sit down and, you know, have a conversation about, okay, what kinds of mental disabilities or mental disturbances should prevent an individual from being able to purchase a firearm. And, you know, let's sort of look at it and let's sort of develop some realistic criteria along those lines.

SHEIR

00:07:03
That was law professor Robert Cottrol of George Washington University.
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