Sunday, November 12, 2017

We Can Stop the Next Shooting

By Emily Rudenick Leblanc
Chief Program Officer, CASA of Travis County

Every time there is a mass shooting, I go through the same range of emotions. Helplessness as a mother who can’t protect her kids. Horror that each incident gets worse and we all seem shocked for a day or two and then go back to our daily lives like it’s normal for people to get shot at church. Then anger—the kind of rage that makes you scream at the sky and want to throw things at every politician that sends thoughts and prayers as they deposit their checks from the NRA. Then, finally, I settle on introverted detachment. I stop engaging with people because, as a bit of an empath, it’s too hard to absorb all of the feelings around me.

Then I wait. I wait for the revelation that the shooter had a history of domestic violence. This is, of course, something that I know and my advocate friends know long before the media figures it out. And then we rage some more at the fact that we have a canary in the coalmine that nobody wants to listen to. We post articles, we argue with friends on social media, and we recommit ourselves to lobbying hard for change. But nothing changes.

After the most recent incident (the one where 26 people, half of whom were children…children who were killed in church), there are fingers pointing every direction. Some are calling for laws banning abusers from having guns. We have those laws on the federal books, but they aren’t enforced. At least not in Texas. Texas gives guns back after 2 years. In fact, most counties never even take them away when a protective order is issued because, in Texas, we don’t take peoples’ guns. Our legislature even tried to pass a law 2 sessions ago to make it a criminal offense to try to enforce federal gun laws banning abusers from possessing firearms. But don’t worry, those same legislators are thinking and praying hard so we should all feel safer.

Here’s the thing about laws…they only work if they are enforced. Federal prosecutors aren’t going to spend time going after family violence offenders. They think that’s the work of local officials. And local prosecutors often negotiate plea deals that mean no family violence offenses will end up on the offender’s record. It is common practice to offer deferred prosecution agreements for family violence offenses—agreements that are secret even from the victim and that result in no official prosecution and no criminal record. Let that sink in for a minute. That means laws that make repeated family violence a felony cannot be invoked because there is no record of the first assault (or perhaps the second, or third, or fourth). That also means clear background checks the next time the perpetrator goes to buy a gun.

I’ve heard many blame the Air Force for failure to report the offender to the FBI database. That was a failure for sure, but a common one. The databases are only as good as the reporting jurisdictions and it’s quite common for offenses to never get reported or to not get reported in a timely manner. Protective orders are issued and never entered because there is disagreement over who should enter them, which means law enforcement has no record of the order in their database and even the victims who get the courage to call police aren’t protected because the order is sitting on someone’s desk who thinks it’s not their job to enter it.

I’ve heard leaders say it’s not a gun problem, it’s a mental health problem. I’m a licensed mental health professional and have worked in domestic violence for most of my career. It’s not a mental health problem. The belief that one can and should control another human being, that one should have the power to decide who lives and who dies--that’s not a result of depression or anxiety. That a result of toxic masculinity and a sense of entitlement that is regularly reinforced by a society that does nothing to stop it. It is the result of a culture that rewards men who brag about taking control of women’s bodies without consent by electing them to high office. It is the result of a legal system that discounts victims, says there are 2 sides to every story, and refuses to hold perpetrators accountable in any meaningful way.

Many friends have asked me what I think the solution is. I wish I could say there was an easy answer. I wish stricter gun laws or stronger prosecutors or better background checks or a DV registry could solve the problem. They can’t. I learned a lot about entitlement working at a drug treatment facility for adolescents. What I learned is that the only cure for entitlement is accountability. But here’s the other thing I learned: it’s not enough to hold the offender accountable. We must hold the entire community accountable.

We have to hold the abusers accountable by charging them with the crimes they commit and ensuring they see meaningful consequences. But we also have to hold prosecutors accountable for making sure that happens. We have to hold law enforcement accountable for believing victims. We have to hold the clerks accountable for entering orders in a timely manner and database technicians accountable for keeping things running smoothly. We have to hold gun sellers accountable for checking backgrounds. We have to hold family members accountable for not allowing abusers access to firearms. Ever. We have to hold elected official accountable for doing more than thinking and praying. We have to hold the NRA accountable for buying politicians and blocking common sense legislation that would make us all safer. We have to hold advocates accountable for believing victims, even when the perpetrators are donors or public figures that support our causes. We have to hold each other accountable for creating a culture in which violence in any form is unacceptable.

Domestic violence isn’t a private matter. It’s my problem, it’s your problem, it’s the problem of everyone who wants to be safe sitting in the pew next Sunday. Terrorists practice on their families first. That’s a proven fact. If we want to stop the church shootings and school shootings and movie theater and nightclub and concert shootings, we need to look at intimate terrorism first. And before we point the finger at all the folks who should have done something, let’s look inside ourselves and figure out what every single one of us can do to combat the culture that allows this to continue happening.