MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, our parenting roundtable debates whether high school sports are really worth all that time and money. Author Amanda Ripley, who's made a splash with a new book comparing student achievement around the world, says maybe not. We'll hear why. But first, we want to talk about a subject that we return to all too often and that is violence. It's been just over a week since a shooting at Washington's Navy Yard, left 12 victims and the gunman dead. It was a traumatic event, perhaps, all the more so because it took place just a few miles from the Capital and the famous Washington Monuments. But it was only the latest such event to scar the country, as President Obama observed at a memorial to the Navy Yard victims on Sunday.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As president, I have now grieved with five American communities ripped apart by mass violence - Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook, and now the Washington Navy Yard.
MARTIN: Now for a variety of reasons, this story has essentially moved past the front pages, but we wanted to know what kinds of conversations are still going on and whether there might be some consensus emerging about what can be done about these shootings. So we've called three people who've been thinking about and writing about the issue of gun violence. We're joined now Asa Hutchinson. He's a former Republican congressman from Arkansas. He's now running for governor of that state. But you might remember that he headed up a task force assembled by the NRA in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last year. He's on the phone with us from his office in Rogers, Arkansas. Mr. Hutchinson, thanks so much for joining us once again.
ASA HUTCHINSON: Oh, great to be with you, Michel.
MARTIN: Also here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, Ann Harkins. She's president and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council. That's home of McGruff the Crime Dog. That's a non-profit that focuses on how regular people can prevent crime. Welcome to you. Thank you for coming.
ANN HARKINS: Thank you, Michel. It's great to be here.
MARTIN: And Ron Honberg is director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI. He's here with me also. Thank you so much for coming also.
RON HONBERG: Thank you, Michel, appreciate being here.
MARTIN: Now I'm going to make a decision that some people will not agree with, but I'm going to make it. I'm going to say that we're not going to focus on gun control, at the moment. And that's because there was a big debate about gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook - a big push on that issue. That issue failed in Congress. So we're going to move past that for now and start by asking what else? What else makes sense? So Ann Harkins, I'll start with you. Your group teaches regular citizens about how to prevent crime. Is there something that you think makes sense?
HARKINS: There are lots of things that make sense, Michel. I think if we start with knowledge, training, practice and engagement, civic engagement, we can do a lot to prevent these kinds of violent crimes, but crime in general.
MARTIN: Well, tell us what that really means, particularly in a case like we're talking about with the Washington Navy Yard where you had a person who had a past, seemed to be disgruntled, had mental issues. What could an average citizen have done in a situation like that?
HARKINS: Well, there're lots of opportunities for knowledge. For example, if people know the signs of mental illness, they can begin to report them to the appropriate authorities. They can help people get help, which is so important in situations like this. In turn, we at the National Crime Prevention Council promote - along with architects and law enforcement across the country - crime prevention through environmental design. There are things you can do to help keep your workplace, your community, your schools safe. Simple things like where you put the lights, where you put the parking lot, natural access control, natural surveillance, the ability to monitor and territorial reinforcement. So where's the fence? Where's the walkway? All those things can help prevent crime. And then, of course, it's vitally important to maintain the design that you build in to prevent crime from happening.
MARTIN: OK, Ron, so let's pick up the thread on mental illness - those questions of mental illness. I mean, there are - a lot of people react with very - with a lot of alarm at the idea that people who present with any kinds of mental health issues should automatically be barred from owning firearms. I mean, they consider that a nonstarter and stigmatizing and a violation of human rights. But short of that - civil rights - but short of that, are there other things that you think would be helpful that, perhaps, we're not considering?
HONBERG: Well, Michel, it's really about better mental health care. We know that fewer than 50 percent of all people with serious mental illness in this country have access to any care. If we had a similar statistic for cardiac conditions, we'd have a lot more people having heart attacks. The fact is that it's - we can start with the fact that we've made significant cuts in mental health care - over $4 billion in the states over the last four or five years during the period of the recession, and the baseline wasn't very good. So it is in fact very, very difficult for people to get care until their situations become an emergency, and that's too late for a small subset of people.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the shooter in the Navy Yard. He had had contact with law enforcement where he told them that he thought he was hearing voices and that people were following him and a number of symptoms that I think a lot of people will recognize. And he knew he was in trouble, and they told him, basically, stay away from the people who are bothering you.
MARTIN: What should their response have been?
HONBERG: Well, again - without pointing fingers - because these are difficult situations, we've worked very, very hard around the country on a program called CIT - stands for Crisis Intervention Team programs. And it's a program specifically geared to create partnerships between first responders and the mental health system. And had such a program existed in Newport - and it really doesn't - conceivably, the police officers responding would've known where to get him help, would've taken him either to a psychiatric emergency room or a crisis triage center. And that may have started him towards the path - towards getting the kind of treatment that he needed.
MARTIN: So does the infrastructure exist to offer somebody like him the kind of care that he needs?
HONBERG: The infrastructure...
MARTIN: I mean, is this a training problem or is this a availability problem? Does what he needs exist?
HONBERG: It's both. And it's an additional problem, too. It's a training problem. It's an infrastructure problem. It's also a problem of lack of coordination among many, many different systems that are extremely fragmented. So even when - you know, let's say, hypothetically, he had gotten emergency care in Newport. There would have been a need for continuous care. There would have been a need for communication with the VA system, which is where I understand he had received most of his care. That apparently never happened. There needed to be communications in place, and there needed to be some coordination. And that's what we talk about after every one of these tragedies.
MARTIN: Asa Hutchinson, let's go with you. You served on the NRA-funded task force that looked into the issues of school safety after Sandy Hook. Is there anything you learned during that process that you think would be helpful to bring up here, in talking about what just happened at the Navy Yard?
HUTCHINSON: Well, I think there's two things that we learned. When it comes to school environment, we do need to have more training within the school environment to identify mental illnesses that might lead to threats, and be able to train our teachers to bring in the guidance counselors and the mental health specialists and law enforcement when needed, when those are identified. So I think there is an issue of training and awareness that can be done in the schools, and it's one of our recommendations. The second part of the equation is the access to firearms. And I think, obviously, you don't want to create a stigma for those that have mental health issue or to discourage them seeking treatment. And so just someone seeking treatment should not trigger a prohibition or an entry into the National Instant Crime Information system, which is the gun check.
MARTIN: So what should trigger that? So what should trigger it?
HUTCHINSON: Well, right. It's a court adjudication. There should be an adjudication by a court before there is an entry, and that's the standard right now. The problem is that many states are not entering their data when there even is a court adjudication. But secondly, some states are modifying that to, not just a final adjudication, but if someone is referred for 72 hours for mental health treatment, then they can't get a firearm, I think, it's for six months. But that information is not entered into the system because it violates federal rules. So I think the states need to innovate and the federal rules need to adjust to what the states are doing.
MARTIN: Ann, what about this? I know we've talk about school safety and teachers and guidance counselors, but students show up every day to school and teachers and guidance counselors kind of feel that they have a duty and a right and they can intervene with parents. What about when a person becomes an adult with colleagues? I mean, often, colleagues at work don't feel that they are empowered to discuss somebody's mental health issues, even if they are alarmed. Is there some common sense, wisdom, that you have to share about what can a person do if they feel like a colleague is in trouble and they have reason to believe that something - that just something's wrong, you know?
HARKINS: It's very important for the employer to create an environment of respect and to create an environment where his or her employees feel comfortable coming and talking about potential problems like that. So employees need to be empowered by the employer that if they feel unsafe, whether that means asking someone to walk them to their car at night or I think this guy's got a problem, what are the signs? The employer can do a very simple - have an employee assistance program, bring the employee assistance program person in to talk about, what are the signs of behavior that you should, perhaps, bring to our attention - depression, unusual behaviors out of the norm, talking more loudly than usual, signs of stress. These are things that, if we just use our common sense, follow your gut. If your gut says this person is in danger of - for lack of a better term - cracking up, then talk to your employer. But it's on the employer to make sure that all the employees know that's a safe place for them to be and to talk about and to help keep all the employees safe.
MARTIN: Ron, I thought you had something to say about that.
HONBERG: Yes. I want to just talk briefly about how differently we respond to people with mental illnesses than we do with physical illnesses. I mean, the fact is, is there's been a long-standing - there are long-standing, stigmatizing attitudes about mental illnesses that cause people to sort of walk away from individuals who may be experiencing psychiatric crises rather than thinking in terms of helping them. And, you know, we've made some progress as a country, but we still have a long way to go. So the fact is, rallying around someone, trying to encourage that person to get help, learning as much as we can about where the person can get help, continuing to be a support to that person - we know that recovery is very, very possible if people get the kind of treatment that they need. But the fact is we tend to turn our backs and walk away, and that is a big part of this problem that we're talking about today.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with three people who've thought a lot about gun violence. We're talking about this in the wake of the shooting at the Washington Navy yard, and we're asking if there's something that could be done to reduce the level of gun violence in this country. Our guests are Ron Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That's who was speaking just now. Ann Harkins of the National Crime Prevention Council. And former congressman Asa Hutchinson. He headed that NRA task force on school safety. I wanted to wheel around, though, in the time that we have left and talk about - you know, these mass shootings are very traumatic. They get a lot of attention partly because they're so unexpected, and I'm saying that in air quotes. But what about the kind of routine violence, if I can use that term, that is equally traumatic.
I mean, in Chicago, at the - you know, the Washington Navy Yard shooting was at the beginning of the week. At the end of the week, you know, 13 people were wounded in a street shooting. I mean, at this point, four people have been arrested. You know, one of those was a 3-year-old boy who had a bullet, you know, entering his ear. Is there anything that you feel makes sense to address this? I mean, it's almost as if we've reached a point where we think, well, people who live in certain places just have to get used to that, I mean, is that what we think?
HARKINS: No, that's not what we think. This is the civic engagement piece. People need to know their neighbors. They need to engage in the community, and sometimes it's hard. Sometimes, you just have to go to the busiest person on the block and say, we need your help. We need to clean up this block. We need to make a statement. We need to clean up the park. We need to make sure it's a safe place for our kids. We need to agree that we adults are going to be around, and we're going to make sure that kids are learning responsibility and respect for one another. All those are simple community engagement activities that anybody can start this afternoon.
HONBERG: Well, I would make two quick points. First of all, we do tend to hear, you know, these acts of senseless mass violence are the ones that get most widely reported and sometimes, they do involve a correlation with mental illness. But most violence that occurs, particularly most handgun violence that occurs, does not involve mental illness. And it's important to remember that. But I would also strike a very similar theme as Ann. It is about engagement.
And it's very, very difficult to engage people with mental illness in treatment, in part, because we make the whole idea of mental health treatment so unattractive. So we need to be thinking about how to make - help people understand that it is not a weakness, that it is not a crime to have a mental illness, that it's an illness like any other. And we also need to think about strategies for engaging people whose symptoms may be so severe at a particular point in time that they may not be able to, on their own, seek treatment. We need to be more assertive in engaging people in treatment.
MARTIN: Asa Hutchinson, I haven't forgotten about you. But, Ron, do believe that, even in some of these more street interactions, you think mental illness or mental health is a factor there, as well?
HONBERG: Less frequently, mental illness is a factor. I mean, it can be in some of those, in some of those factors, as well, but in talking about serious mental illness - like schizophrenia and other illnesses that when the symptoms exist, it may cause delusions and hallucinations - rarely.
MARTIN: Asa Hutchinson, what about you?
HUTCHINSON: Well, it, generally, is - the street violence is caused by drug-related crime or gang-related activity. And, certainly, the community engagement is important, the law enforcement plays a critical role. So we've got to understand the role that enforcement plays when it comes to drug crime that actually leads to violence in our neighborhoods. So that's a part of the equation, too.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Asa Hutchinson, I know you're running for, you know, another office. Do you feel, as a person who has committed himself to being in the public arena, do you think you can say to your constituents, we can fix this? Do believe that that's possible? I mean, do you believe that you can look at your constituents and say, if we all put our minds to this as a country we can fix this. We can stop having these conversations. Do you really think that's possible, or do you think this is something that's part of the American character or something of that sort?
HUTCHINSON: Obviously, we can make progress. We've done that. Violent crime's been reduced over the last couple of decades, even though we've had these horrendous incidences. And so, absolutely. We can make a difference whenever we work together as communities, enforcement's a part of it, and the mental health part of the equation is critical. And so, absolutely. That progress, it's - as long as we have freedom in our society, and we have other issues we deal with, we're going to have crime. We just want to keep it at the lowest level possible.
MARTIN: Ron, final thought from you?
HONBERG: Well, first of all, I appreciate you bringing up this very important topic. I mean, again, in my opinion, you know, yes, we can tweak gun laws, but if somebody is determined to get a gun, they're going to be able to get a gun. If there's one thing we do as a country, we really need to think about how to get people mental health care when they most need it. And if we do that, hopefully, we won't be back talking about this again.
MARTIN: Do you believe that we, as a country, have the will, or do you see some sign that we are, in fact, motivated to do so?
HONBERG: I think there have been some progress in recent years. For example, mental illness was included within the scope of the Affordable Care Act, which you were just talking about, and that's for the first time. I think we're starting to recognize that mental illness is a mainstream illness like any other, but we have a long way to go still.
MARTIN: Ron Honberg is director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. Ann Harkins is president and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council. That's home of McGruff the Crime Dog. She also served as chief of staff to Attorney General Janet Reno. They were both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Asa Hutchinson's a former federal prosecutor, a Republican congressman of Arkansas, now running for governor of that state. He headed a NRA-funded task force on school safety last year. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
HONBERG: Thank you.
HARKINS: Thank you, Michel.
HUTCHINSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.