Gun violence panel puts local issues into perspective

Published: January 10 2014 | 1:49 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:55 am in
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CORALVILLE — Every time Bernie Frank hears of another shooting or gun death, it takes her back to when she was a victim of gun violence.

"Every time I turn on the TV and there's a shooter at another school, or a shooter with untreated psychological issues, it continues to draw you back," said Frank, a co-pastor at Gospel Explosion Ministry in Iowa City. "There has to be something more that can be done."

Before a mostly-full auditorium of about 75 attendees at the Coralville Performing Arts Center, Frank shared her experience of being shot three times by her ex-husband and her frustration with persisting gun violence issues nationwide. She was speaking as part of a panel discussion intended to start a conversation about sensible gun use in Iowa.

The event, which also included a screening of the documentary, "Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence," was organized by Ripples 2 Waves, an ecumenical group with about six active members. The group's goal is to get the community talking about gun violence, to see if a middle ground can be found on gun legislation.

Though the panel didn't get into a heated discussion about specific law changes, each member explained his or her view on the issue, and some items they'd like to discuss further or see changed.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek spoke about the safety of Johnson County, and the challenges he faces based on Iowa's laws.

"I think living in Iowa we're safe, overall Iowa is typically a safe state, and here locally I think we're in safe communities honestly. But when you talk about public safety and how to make the community safer, it depends on what perspective you take," Pulkrabek said.

"There are people who are or do have lengthy criminal records that are coming in and filling out the paperwork and getting permits to get firearms, and the sheriff does not have discretion in Iowa anymore to deny those, other than a couple examples ... (and) that includes sex offenders," Pulkrabek said, citing Iowa's shall-issue law, which went into effect in 2011.

The shall-issue law requires a person be issued a permit to carry firearms unless he or she is a felon, domestic abuser or has been adjudicated by the court as mentally incompetent.

Pulkrabek also said he has concerns with the training requirements, as people now can do an online training course and get a permit to carry a gun without proving proficiency.

Panelist Mike Willey, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in his last year of training, spoke to the group about some of his work with trauma patients and victims of gun violence, and how much damage injuries from guns can leave.

Willey said he reviewed six years of data — 2007 to 2012 — from the trauma registry, looking at firearm treatments at UIHC, and found that 210 people suffered firearm injuries.

The age group at the highest risk was 20- to 29-year-olds, and the second highest-risk group was 10-19-year olds. Ninety percent of the people were men.

Willey said one-third of those patients had an accidental trauma, one-third of the patients were being treated for a self-inflicted gun wound and another third were treated for assault. He said a handgun was used in more than 50 percent of the assault cases.

In general, Willey said these patents stayed seven days in the hospital, two days in the intensive care unit, and approximately one day on a ventilator.

"I think some of the recent patients we've taken care of, and just the amount of time  they have to spend in the health care system and the amount of surgeries they have, it has a drastic impact on their life," Willey said. "In a split second, it (a gun) can cause a lot of damage."

Stephen Trefz, executive director of the Community Mental Health Center and Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, talked about the importance of funding for mental health programs and promoting the idea that mental illness is a treatable disease, and encouraging loved ones to seek treatment.

"It's fair to say the individuals that have been involved in the recent mass shootings ... did have a mental illness diagnoses, but I think to use mental illness as the root cause of where all this violence is occurring only accounts for 4 percent of that violence," Trefz said. "

Bolkcom talked about dwindling funds for mental health, how the state needs more resources, and that there aren't crisis services for people in most parts of the state. He added that he was glad so many people attended the event, but added that it was up to the people to communicate with their legislators about what changes they'd like to see in the laws. 

"Being here is good. But when you leave here tonight, the work here begins — whether you want to see more mental health funding or see us bring some more sanity to how we issue permits and the requirements that went away recently," Bolkcom said.

At the end of the event, organizers made clear that they'd like to continue having conversations about gun laws and gun violence. The group provided information to audience members on how to contact their legislators and submit letters to the editor in local newspapers.

Ripples 2 Waves intends to hold more discussions in the future.

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