May 27, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

An especially bloody week in America will raise, once again, the prospect of whether the country, Congress, state legislatures and local governments will be motivated to focus on gun deaths.

President Joe Biden wants the federal government and states to make it easier to seize weapons from people who are a threat to themselves and others. At exactly the moment police surrounded the latest shooting scene in San Jose, California, U.S. senators were questioning Biden’s choice to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives about why he favors a ban on assault weapons.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he has stood in news conferences following mass shootings too often, saying it feels like, “Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.”

“There is a sameness to this, a numbness that we are all feeling,” he said. “It begs the question, what the hell is going on in the United States of America and what is going on with us?”

He wondered out loud when the country would be “ready to do something” about gun violence. “It is time to take a little damn responsibility to move beyond the rhetoric,” Newsom said.

The lone shooter who killed eight Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority workers before taking his own life also worked at the VTA. We may learn more about a motive for this mass shooting in the days to come, but it is also possible there will be no clear motive. While investigators sort out the how’s and why’s behind the mass killing, it might be useful to examine workplace violence as we do when mass shootings occur in schools and public buildings.

The experts who study workplace violence say there are predictable root causes, and some wonder if we are in for a rise in workplace violence as people come back to the workplace after the pandemic. The Valley Transportation Authority was to enter a less restrictive phase when the shooting happened Tuesday morning. Buses that had been limited to carrying eight passengers were about to start carrying up to 18 passengers.

Rave, a workplace safety company, reported recently that a study it conducted found that workplaces are far more prepared for severe weather or cyberattacks than they are active shooter events. The report said:

In our 2019-2020 Workplace Safety and Preparedness Report, 30% of respondents said they were unaware or unsure of their employers’ Emergency Preparedness Plans for the most common types of workplace emergencies. Higher percentages reported that although Emergency Preparedness Plans existed for severe weather events, medical emergencies, and system outages/cyberattacks, the plans were rarely or never tested.

This doesn’t necessarily imply employers are failing to prioritize workplace safety. It’s more likely their efforts are being focused in the wrong areas due to regulations requiring events such as the periodic testing of fire alarms and fire drill procedures. However, it was particularly noted in the report that more than a third of female respondents were unaware of workplace violence emergency plans, despite workplace violence being the second leading cause of death for women in the workplace.

A month ago, when a shooter killed eight former co-workers at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, experts warned that we might be about to experience a rise in workplace shootings as people come back to work after a year of being separated by the pandemic. NBC News spoke with James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston and one of the nation’s top experts on mass killings, who said, “It’s quite possible there will be an increase in these kinds of killings when people who have been working remotely start to return.”

“Workplace killers see themselves as victims of unfair treatment and want revenge,” Fox said. “They generally think other people are getting the promotions, other people are getting the breaks and somebody has to pay.”

Workplace injuries in health care

If you had asked me what I thought the most dangerous occupation is for workplace-related injuries, I would have guessed work in prisons and jails. But in 2016, the New England Journal of Medicine published a comprehensive review of “Workplace Violence against Health Care Workers in the United States.” That report found that health care workers are nearly four times as likely to require time away from work as a result of violence.

Back injuries were prevalent, and nearly 75% of workplace assaults occurred in a health care setting.

The same study found:

  • 80% of Emergency Medical Services personnel have been attacked by patients.
  • Homicide is the second leading cause of workplace death for home healthcare workers.
  • 78% of Emergency Department physicians and 100% of Emergency Department nurses have experienced violence from patients within the last year.
  • The annual incidence of physical assault in a psychiatric setting is 70%.
  • Among nursing homes with dementia units, 59% of nursing aides reported being assaulted by patients weekly and 16% daily.
  • 46% of nurses reported some form of workplace violence during their five most recent shifts.

Why red flag laws are a tough sell

President Biden called on Congress to get busy working on federal red flag laws that would make it easier for authorities to temporarily disarm people who are considered a danger to themselves or others.

Florida and other states got interested in such laws after the shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. Then-President Donald Trump appointed a commission on school shootings, which recommended stronger red flag laws nationwide. But little has changed.

Nineteen states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington — and Washington, D.C., have enacted extreme risk laws.

Everytown, a gun control advocacy group, explains what such laws do:

Under current federal law, a person is barred from having guns only if they fall into one of several categories of prohibited persons — such as those who have been convicted of certain crimes, adjudicated as mentally ill or involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, or who are subject to a final domestic violence restraining order. A person who displays warning signs that they’re considering suicide or other acts of violence, but who does not fall into any of the above categories or is otherwise not prohibited under current law, would still be legally able to buy and possess guns. Extreme Risk laws help to fill this gap, protecting public safety and allowing people in crisis the chance to seek the help they need.

These laws are being used more than you may think. Everytown produced this graphic:

(Everytown for Gun Safety)

Thirty-one states still have no such laws today. The Associated Press says:

Nineteen states have versions of the laws in place, and research suggests they can reduce suicides and prevent other forms of gun violence. Supporters say they allow people to work through mental health, substance abuse or other crises while unarmed. Thousands of orders have been granted to disarm suicidal, threatening or other unstable people, from California to Connecticut to Florida, although their use has been uneven based on the discretion of local officials.

Bills have been introduced in at least 14 states this year to adopt red flag laws, but have had no success advancing.

A side effect of red flag laws may be that they reduce suicides. It is difficult to prove that one action prevents another, but Everytown notes:

Following Connecticut’s increased enforcement of its Extreme Risk law, one study found the law to be associated with a 14 percent reduction in the state’s firearm suicide rate.

While it is always hard to measure events that “didn’t happen,” an important study in Connecticut found that one suicide was averted for approximately every 11 gun removals carried out under the law.

In Indiana, in the 10 years after the state passed its Extreme Risk law in 2005, the state’s firearm suicide rate decreased by 7.5 percent. Like Connecticut, another study estimated that Indiana’s Extreme Risk law averted one suicide for approximately every 10 gun removals.

The National Rifle Association says its main concern about red flag laws is that they can be used to circumvent due process. But, where there is convincing proof that a person poses a threat, the NRA says these steps are important:

  • An order should only be granted when a judge makes the determination, by clear and convincing evidence, that the person poses a significant risk of danger to themselves or others.
  • The process should require the judge to make a determination of whether the person meets the state standard for involuntary commitment. Where the standard for involuntary commitment is met, this should be the course of action taken.

Then, the NRA says, there should be a court hearing. If the person is dangerous enough to have weapons removed, there should be some community mental health intervention.

Courtrooms are enforcing masks even when others are not

A United States District Court executive on March 12, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The National Center for State Courts is keeping track of how judges are enforcing mandatory mask orders. It is quite a patchwork of rules.


The NCSC says:

At least 18 state supreme courts or chief justices have issued orders currently requiring face masks in state courts, according to information compiled by NCSC. In some cases those orders were issued months ago, though in some others, like Michigan, the masking requirement was recently reinforced.

Many other states recently lifted existing mask mandate orders issued by state supreme courts or chief justices, and in some cases have indicated that whether to require masks will be left to local discretion or individual judges’ discretion.

Post-pandemic, is copper the new oil?

Forbes dives into the significant story of how commodities — including lumber, but also metals like copper, lithium and steel — are the key to big global plans to fix and build infrastructure.

Here’s a glimpse of ambitious plans being laid around the world, much of it keyed to climate change:

  • President Joe Biden is drafting up $2.2+ trillion plan to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, $320 billion of which will go to green energy in coming years
  • As part of a European green deal, energy companies in the EU are planning to shove up to a trillion dollars into renewable energy projects by 2030 (Kearney estimates)
  • And get this, China will have to spend a mind-blowing $15.5 trillion (not a typo, big T) to shift away from fossil fuels and meet its carbon neutral targets by 2050

In other words, the world is transitioning from a fossil fuel economy to a green energy economy. And that shift will require tons of materials from steel to lithium.

For example, all electric equipment needs the best-non precious metal conductor—copper. Solar panels need lots of copper. EVs need lots of copper (in fact, 10X more than the “dirty” cars). Everything.

Some analysts at Goldman Sachs go as far as calling copper the new oil.

The buildout of the green infrastructure will also require lumber, steel, and other industrial materials. Which could keep demand and prices for materials higher for years.

The police tactic that is banned and still used to deadly effect

The Marshall Project and NBC News worked together to document how often police departments use a widely banned tactic called hogtying. My friend Joseph Neff at Marshall describes the work that may spark a look in your area:

We found that most of the 30 biggest police departments specifically forbid the technique.

The Department of Justice warned against hogtying as far back as 1995, in a bulletin instructing police how to prevent deaths in custody. The paper instructed officers to move the suspect off his stomach as soon as he was handcuffed, and included this directive: “Never tie the handcuffs to a leg or ankle restraint.”

Nationwide, NBC News and The Marshall Project identified at least 23 deaths involving hogtying or a hobble in law enforcement custody since 2010. From California to Maine, police have appeared to use a hobble to either tie a person’s hands and feet together behind them, put pressure on their back with body weight, or leave them prone for longer than recommended. Those cases include a chemical engineer in Mississippi who police said was acting strangely after taking LSD; an unarmed man running naked through his Alabama hometown; and a man who died on a Tacoma, Washington, sidewalk after police deemed his actions suspicious. At least 13 people were mentally ill or in mental crises. Of those who died, 12 were White, nine were Black, and two were Hispanic.

Many departments do not track the use of the hobble device, or when it is used to hogtie, in their use-of-force data. But in those that do keep records, the hobble has been used hundreds of times in recent years.

Police used the hobble on Black suspects slightly more frequently than on others. Thirty-nine percent of the suspects arrested by Aurora police in the past five years were Black, but Black people made up 43 percent of the people on whom Aurora police used force — and 46 percent of the people subjected to the hobble.

In 16 percent of the roughly 350 hobble incidents, the person was injured and required medical treatment.

Journalists, pay attention to this detail that this project discovered. While looking into your local police department’s practices, know that “many departments avoid using the word hogtie. They use phrases like maximal restraint, four-point restraint, hobble, RIPP Hobble or Total Appendage Restraint Procedure (TARP).”

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

More News

Back to News