Politics — 14 August 2014

It’s not uncommon to hear stories of heroic doctors saving lives with their hands. But, it’s not too often that one hears about a doctor saving lives with his gun.

Lee SilvermanOn July 24, 2014, a psychiatric patient, Richard Plotts, entered Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital outside of Philadelphia with the intent to kill, and he did.  But, his killing spree was cut short because 52-year-old psychiatrist, Lee Silverman, pulled his firearm from his desk and shot Plotts, critically wounding him.

Psychiatric caseworker Theresa Hunt, was killed by Plotts in the incident.

Silverman’s head was grazed by one of the 36 bullets Plotts had on his person before Silverman ended the carnage by emptying his .32 caliber, semi-automatic handgun, hitting Plotts three times, once in the arm and twice in the torso.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan said, “If Dr. Silverman did not have the firearm and did not utilize the firearm, he’d be dead today. And other people would be dead. We believe he was there and he was going to reload that revolver and continue to fire and continue to kill.”

Richard PlottsElements of the story ring familiar:  1) a mentally ill person chooses to kill innocent people, 2) a convicted criminal obtains a firearm illegally, and 3) murder occurs at a building that is a “gun-free zone”.  But in this case, compared to so many of the recent mass murders, there was a fourth element – a firearm owner who neutralized a murderer and saved lives in the process.

This story is re-igniting debate about gun rights and gun control, and civil liberties in general. Here are some of the facts behind this case.

  • Plotts is a convicted felon who has been arrested twice for carrying a firearm without a license, and who was convicted of federal bank robbery, which made it illegal for him to own a gun.
  • Plotts has a history of mental illness, but no details related to his illness have been provided by healthcare professionals.
  • Silverman legally purchased his semi-automatic firearm and had a conceal-carry license, which means it is legal for him to have his gun with him in a hidden manner, whether on his body or in his control.
  • Mercy Fitzgerald Health Systems is a “gun-free zone” where it is against policy for anyone, including Silverman, to carry weapons unless they are on-duty law enforcement.
  • The DA said, “There is evidence he (Plotts) took offense to the issue that there were signs posted (at the hospital) indicating it was a gun-free zone.  That’s the only motive we have at this point.”

It is generally accepted that there are approximately 300 million guns in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) there an estimated 26.2% (~83 million) of American Adults have a diagnosable mental disorder.

There is one thing no one disputes: Mental illness is the cornerstone of the nation’s mass killings.  The dispute about guns and their control is, however, quite alive.

Gun rights advocates point to the fact that restrictions on guns and ammunition impact only those who are law-abiding citizens who have the right to own firearms, and they do not impact the criminals or mentally ill who seek out guns to commit murder.

Gun control groups state that severely restricting the laws around the purchase of guns and ammunition would diminish the likelihood of mentally ill people gaining access to guns, and therefore would lessen the likelihood of mass killings.

Just a few months ago, Elliott Rodger – a student at UC Santa Barbara – stabbed three students to death, shot and killed three more, and ran over five more with his car on campus.  He was mentally ill and posted a lengthy video to YouTube describing his pending actions and reasons for the killings – he was a virgin.

His own therapist contacted authorities after seeing disturbing videos he posted on his YouTube channel. Sheriff Deputies visited him for a “wellness check”, which is when an officer decides whether a person needs to be seen by a therapist.  Rodger convinced the deputies he was fine.  One would think that a treating clinician’s plea to evaluate a mentally ill patient would be enough for law enforcement to act. Had Rodger been taken in for evaluation, it is likely that the carnage would never have occurred.

Even so, those that support gun control, including one father of a victim, Richard Martinez, noted that the NRA and politicians that support gun rights were culpable.

Martinez said, “They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’ right to live?”

Those who support gun rights pointed out that mental illness was the cornerstone of the problem and that Rodger’s gun was not the only weapon used. They noted that no one was calling for a ban or restrictions to having knives, which Rodger used to kill half of the victims, or restrictions on cars, which Rodger used to plow into a crowd.

Martinez has been traveling throughout the country advocating for stricter gun control laws. He visited Florida’s Capitol with a message for Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott, stating, “Do you really want to live in a country where little kids have to worry about being shot?”

A spokesperson for Sen. Rubio responded via email, writing, “Unfortunately many of the gun control proposals from President Obama and Congress simply target the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of addressing the underlying causes of violence and won’t keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. Rather than try and undermine Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms, we should focus on the real problems of violence in this country caused by criminals and mentally ill people prone to violence.”

Civil liberties, particularly the 2nd Amendment, are the heart of the concern for gun advocates. Better mental health laws are the heart of the concern for everyone.

The Silverman story has gained little media attention compared to the killing spree in Santa Barbara, Sandy Hook or Aurora.

It’s likely that if Silverman had not acted, the country would know about Mercy Hospital for horrific reasons. Instead, thankfully, the last statement out of the hospital was, “We look forward to Dr. Silverman’s return to serving patients in our hospital,” a spokesperson said.

Silverman has kept his silence since being shot himself, and critically wounding Plotts. He’s posted photos and brief info to his Facebook page.

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