Too Many Guns, Too Many Deaths

“How many more, Lord, how many more?”


This is the agonizing question I ask myself, sitting here in my once-comfortable chair that grows increasingly uncomfortable with each report of another mass shooting — at a theater, a church, a school, a military recruiting office, a military base, or some other public venue where the norm used to be expectations of safety, and little reason to fear that death or disfigurement are just one crazed or angry gunman away. And, of course, that gunman is armed to the teeth.

Yes, this is the “new normal” in the heavily armed, intensely divided un-United States of America, where buying guns and ammunition is not much more cumbersome than buying a head of lettuce.

The latest mass shooting — which will, no doubt, soon be eclipsed by the next one — happened in Lafayette, La., this week. According to Associated Press accounts, a 59-year-old man — John Russel Houser — allegedly stood up about 20 minutes into the movie, “Trainwreck,”  and fired “first at two people sitting in front of him, then aimed his handgun at others.”

Police, the report said, found 13 shell casings at the scene inside the theater. When Houser was done, he had allegedly killed two members of the movie audience, wounded nine others and shot and killed himself.

According to news reports, the silent gunman was “so mentally ill and violent that years ago, his wife hid his guns, and his family had him hospitalized against his will before obtaining a court order to keep him away” from them.

Also this week, jurors in Colorado were deciding the fate of the convicted gunman who opened fire at an Aurora,  Colo., movie theater three years ago, killing 12 people and wounding 70 others, while — back East — family members, friends and co-workers were still reeling from the tragic shootings at military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn., that left four Marines and a Navy sailor dead.

Last month, an apparently racist gunman shot and killed nine African Americans during an evening Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C.

Going back a little, there is Columbine, Newtown, Blacksburg, Washington, D.C., Red Lake Indian Reservation, Minn., Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Santee, Calif., Meridian, Miss., Jonesboro, Ark., Forth Worth and Fort Hood, Texas, Oakland, Calif … The list goes on and on. The American landscape is littered with memorials to gun violence and our ever-escalating personal arms race — from sea to shining sea.

Irony of ironies:  Just hours before the shootings this week at the movie house in Lafayette, President Barack Obama told a BBC interviewer the issue that has frustrated him most during his presidency has been an inability to break through legislators’  repeated roadblocks to limiting access to arms, despite repeated massacres during his tenure.

According to one news report, he “contrasted the numbers of Americans killed in terrorist attacks since 9/11 with the near-routine killings by domestic shooters, highlighting a huge discrepancy in the figures. “If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism,” he told the BBC, “it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands.

“And for us not to be able to resolve that issue has been something that is distressing,” he said. “But it is not something that I intend to stop working on in the remaining 18 months (of his presidency.)”

A news report of the BBC interview points out that, “under the U.S. Constitution, every American is entitled to ‘keep and bear arms’ — a tenet jealously guarded by millions of law-abiding gun owners as a symbol of liberty and a foil against tyrannical government.” The article said the political clout of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the gun lobby on Capitol Hill is so strong that proposed legislation “to mandate background checks for all gun sales — not just those at federally licensed gun shops –” has never cleared the Senate.

Such checks could possibly have prevented several of the gunmen in recent mass shootings from legally acquiring the weapons they used to destroy lives, while shattering the social compact. Several of them had histories, or strong indications, of mental illness in their backgrounds. A meaningful background check might have foiled their wicked plans, or at least, made them much more difficult to carry out.

Further complicating matters is the voodoo mathematics of many proponents of unfettered gun ownership and use. They argue that, if more people were armed in more places (schools, churches, bars, restaurants, movie theaters, ballparks and the like,) then we’d see fewer mass killings.

Imagine what would likely have happened earlier this week in that Lafayette, La., movie theater if two dozen other people in the audience were armed when Houser allegedly got up and started shooting. What happened during the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral would have looked like a church picnic in comparison. The death toll could have been mind-boggling.

A new study, according to recent news reports, “throws cold water on the idea that a well-armed populace deters criminals or prevents murders. Instead,” Yahoo News reported, based on the study’s results, “higher ownership of guns in a state is linked to more firearm robberies, more firearm assaults and more homicide in general.”

The report quotes researcher Michael Monuteaux, an epidemiologist and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, as saying: “We found no support for the hypothesis that owning more guns leads to a drop or a reduction in violent crime. Instead, we found the opposite.”

According to the study, firearm assaults were 6.8 times more common in states with the most guns, versus states with the least. “Firearm robbery increased with every increase in gun ownership, except in the very highest quintile of gun-owning states (the difference in that cluster was not statistically significant),” Yahoo News says of the study’s results. “Firearm homicide was 2.8 times more common in states with the most guns, versus states with the least.”

The study points out, however, that while the research shows that more guns are linked to more gun crime and overall homicide, it does not prove that access to guns alone directly causes “this criminal uptick.”

But researcher David Hemenway, the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, said: “This study suggests that it is really hard to find evidence that where there are more guns, there are less crimes, but you can easily find evidence that where there are a lot more guns, there are a lot more crimes.”

Even though such studies are not likely to convince those who want no limits on gun ownership, whatsoever, to change their minds, the staggering truth is that we must try even harder.

Because: We can’t shoot our way out of this horrible mess.





Ga. Supreme Court Fails Inmate, Us

DNA evidence, conviction and sentence don’t add up

This is one of those cases that leaves you shaking your head.

Prison inmates are not among the most-favored members of our society, and  understandably so. Many of them are in prison precisely because they have done terrible, violent and traumatizing things to others in our society, sometimes even to innocent children.

But that being said, our system of law and order is supposed to be prudent, fair and just, but also influenced by common sense.

That is where the case of Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia has jumped the judicial tracks and crashed into the ditch of overly fine points of procedure and time limits.

Here’s the story:

 Bharadia, now 41, is in a Georgia prison serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, following his 2003 conviction in the sexual assault of a special education teacher in Thunderbolt, Ga., a Savannah suburb.

During the trial, Bharadia put forth an alibi that placed him in Atlanta (working on a friend’s car), more than 200 miles from the scene of the crime on the day of the attack, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A witness testified that he came to her house to borrow tools, left there around noon and returned, presumably with the tools, six hours later.

He was convicted anyway. There was damaging testimony from a second man, an acquaintance of his, who admitted to being at the scene. His admission, however, came only after police discovered the knife and gloves used in the attack, and items stolen from the victim. These items were found at the home of the second man’s girlfriend, the AJC reported.

The second man, Sterling Flint, was charged along with Bharadia, but only Bharadia was accused of sexual assault. Before trial — the newspaper said — Flint  pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property and, of course, agreed to testify against Bharadia.

A year after the trial, DNA tests determined that skin cells found on the gloves (that were worn by the assailant) did not belong to Bharadia. Eight years after that, The Georgia Innocence Project was able to get a court order for a DNA profile to be run through a national database of samples from prison inmates. There was a match: Sterling Flint, the acquaintance of Bharadia’s.

Despite the DNA evidence, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled, recently, that Bharadia does not deserve a second trial. Because his lawyers did not try to obtain the DNA evidence before the initial trial, they can’t use it now to seek a new trial, according to the AJC’s report.

The justices were unanimous in the decision, the paper said, with Justice Robert Benham (who is a former chief justice of the body) writing the opinion. Benham said it was incumbent upon Bharadia to show that newly discovered evidence had come forward after the trial. Benham said that before the trial, Bharadia’s lawyers had not been making a concerted effort to find it. He added that the defense team knew the gloves existed prior to the trial and could have had them tested then.

“Once the results showed the DNA was not a match for Bharadia,” Benham wrote, according to the newspaper, “he could have requested, prior to trial, the DNA testing of his co-defendant … to determine if the DNA was a match to him.”

The justice concluded that Bharadia “avoided the risk that pre-trial DNA test results from the gloves would implicate him in the crimes and waited until after trial and conviction to request these initial results, at which time he would have been no worse off by a positive test result.”

Aimee Maxwell, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, argues, however, that it was Bharadia’s lawyer who chose not to have the gloves tested.
“There is no way Sonny would have said, ‘Don’t test the DNA,'” she told the AJC. “That’s because Sonny would have known his DNA wasn’t going to be there.”

I see the supreme court’s procedural issue. The mind does wonder why the DNA evidence wasn’t sought pre-trial. For whatever reason, Bharadia and his team did not choose to do it. But the charges upon which Bharadia was convicted are serious charges, and the sentence he is serving is severe (he has no chance for parole.)

The gloves are critical evidence in the case: The victim, a special education teacher, returned from church to her apartment on Nov. 18, 2001, according to the AJC. “A man wearing distinctive blue-and-white gloves emerged from behind a door. He put a knife to her throat and said he’d kill her if she did anything stupid. He blindfolded her and then committed aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery, prosecutors said. There were times when she could see him from under the  blindfold.”

According to the newspaper, the first time the victim was shown a photo lineup of six men, she circled photographs of Flint and another man — not Bharadia. When she was shown another lineup sometime later, she stopped at a photo of Bharadia and said she was sure he was the guy.

But we have had several cases now, in which men serving time in cases where they were convicted largely on eye-witness testimony, have been freed through DNA evidence. They weren’t the culprits.

There are too many questions in this case. Could Bharadia have been in two places, miles apart, at the same time? Was he at the scene, but didn’t commit the actual assault? Was his legal team lax, and did not serve his best interests?

Something’s wrong here. Even if there is a strong likelihood that he may have committed some crime in this case, but not the one for which he was convicted, our system owes him, the victim — and us — a good-faith effort to get it right, beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the truth is that he committed a lesser crime than the one for which he has already served many years in prison (or committed no crime at all,) the situation should be rectified.

The justices applied the law the way they see it on strict procedural and technical grounds. As we know from experience, that does not always lead to the truth. If that is the extent of what accused people in this state can count on, then, as Mr. Brumble, from Charles Dickens’ novel, “Oliver Twist,” declared:  ”  .. the law is a ass.”




Fireworks And Firewater?

This had to be the news of the day.

From the Associated Press, out of Maine:

CALAIS, MAINE  — A young man who was drinking and celebrating the Fourth of July tried to launch a firework off the top of his head, fatally injuring himself, authorities said Sunday.

Devon Staples and his friends had been drinking and setting off fireworks Saturday night in the backyard of a friend’s home in the small eastern Maine city of Calais, said Stephen McCausland, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. Staples, 22, of Calais, placed a fireworks tube on his head and set it off, he said.

The firework exploded, killing Staples instantly, McCausland said. His death is the first fireworks fatality in Maine since the state legalized fireworks on Jan. 1, 2012, authorities said …

Wow! … My question is, how drunk do you have to be?

And what about his friends who, presumably, watched him do it …?