Monday, December 17, 2012

Seeking a Solution to Violence

           What is the appropriate response to tragedies such as the one that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday?  Certainly, the best immediate response is to pray for those whose loved ones were ripped away in a matter of minutes.  And, of course, to be thankful that your family is safe.  But what can we do as a society about these man-made tragedies, which seem to occur over and over again?  One argument would be to strengthen gun control.  To me, that sounds like taking a pill to treat the symptoms, instead of addressing the disease itself.  Mass killings have happened throughout history, long before handguns and semi-automatic rifles existed, or as President Obama would say, back when men fought with “horses and bayonets.”  To be sure, knives and swords have surely killed far more people than guns have.  So we can’t really blame mass shootings on the weapons themselves.  To draw on a tired cliché, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. 

            So back to my earlier question.  What can we do as a society about these tragedies?  It’s not just the Connecticut shooting.  It was the Aurora theater shooting back in July.  Columbine 13 years before that.  The NFL's Javon Belcher's murder-suicide earlier this month.  Here in Birmingham, a local restaurant owner recently took his mother’s life and then his own.  Just last week in Birmingham, a federal courthouse employee committed suicide in front of his coworkers.  Over the weekend, in separate incidents, several gunmen were killed by police, one at a local hospital in Birmingham.  A quick reading of the newspaper articles on these events suggests that in nearly all of them, the shooter was suffering from some level of mental disease or distress.  That’s not excusing the crimes.  All of the shooters likely knew what they were doing at the time.  But whether you look at Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris from Columbine High School 13 years ago, James Holmes from the Aurora movie theater massacre, Adam Lanza in the Newtown shooting, or any of the murder-suicides or other recent shootings, there is a thread that seems to connect them all.  Extreme mental distress or disease during the period of time leading up to the shooting.  An argument can be made that strong restraints on gun ownership could have prevented one or more of these incidents.  But an equally strong argument can be made that each of these tragedies would have unfolded in the exact same way.  The sad truth is a motivated killer will find a way to accomplish what he wishes.

            In the wake of most of these tragedies, there has been a common theme: those acquainted with the killer either suspected serious mental issues or knew of the fact that the killer was, in fact, a ticking time bomb.  It was the case at Columbine, it was the case in Newtown, and, tragically, it will probably be the case in the next shooting, unless we as a society are willing to take responsibility for those around us.  Mothers and fathers need to be involved with their children and understand what’s going on in their lives and in their heads.  Wives need to be aware of changes in their husband’s behavior, and husband’s their wives.  Coworkers need to be familiar enough with other coworkers so that trouble can be spotted before it erupts.  Actions must be taken by those family and friends.  Warning signs can't be ignored or explained away.  To this lawyer and writer, admittedly untrained in the ways of the mind, this seems to be the only viable way to get to the actual disease that has infected society for so long now.  I know the solution may not be as simple as I just stated, but it can’t be as simple as taking guns away either.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How Does Marijuana Legalization Affect Businesses and Universities?

            When a state passes a law making recreational use of marijuana legal, what does that mean for schools, businesses, and other entities located within that state?  This very issue is being raised in several states, such as Colorado, that have recently legalized marijuana.  To completely understand the issues at hand, it’s important to realize that marijuana remains illegal under federal law.  Even if Colorado state law allows personal marijuana use, federal law does not.  To take that a step further, some believe that businesses involved with federal contracts or receiving federal grants, as well as educational institutions/universities could lose their federal funding and research funds if marijuana is used by those employees or other personnel.  After Colorado legalized marijuana last month, University of Colorado president Bruce Benson explained that "marijuana threatens to cost the university nearly a billion dollars annually in federal revenue, money we can ill afford to lose.”

            Another issue is whether employers will be able to terminate an employee who tests positive for marijuana in a state where it has been legalized.  In some states, like Alabama, an employer has the ability to terminate an employee for almost any (non-discriminatory) reason.  Some states, however, specifically forbid an employee from being terminated for any private conduct that is legal.  These laws are generally aimed at preventing an employee from being fired for smoking or drinking while away from the office, but with the legalization of marijuana, these employment laws may need to be reexamined, especially given the conflict between an activity that is legal under state law but remains illegal under federal law.  Should an employer to be required to retain an employee who (now legally) smokes marijuana after work?

            With every election bringing another handful of states deciding on whether to keep marijuana use criminalized, it will be interesting to see how states move to protect employers and universities, in particular those relying on federal funding, that wish to prohibit marijuana use.