Victims of gun violence question ease of access to firearms

By Hailey Winslow, General assignment reporter, hwinslow@wjxt.com
Published On: Apr 30 2014 12:37:55 PM EDT
Updated On: May 01 2014 05:40:00 PM EDT

VIDEO: Carl Harms and Ryan Backmann share their story of loss and working through PTSD by joining "Compassionate Families," as gun violence victims and advocates.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

Despite sporadic calls for new gun laws after mass school or workplace shootings, 21 states have passed laws expanding the rights of gun owners over the past year, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Eight states now allow administrators or teachers to have guns in schools, and legislation to allow it in Florida passed the House earlier this week.  At least four allow them in bars.  Several states allow guns in churches.  Some allow guns on college campuses -- although Florida currently only allows them in locked vehicles.

Some ridicule the burst of pro-gun legislation, citing several recent mass shootings across the country.  They say far too often, the mentally unstable are getting their hands on guns.

While gun rights have strong support -- especially in the South and West, one man who consoles survivors of gun violence speaks out about the dangers of the easy access to weapons.

Carl Harms says he is among those who should not be allowed to own a gun. Hewas diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2005 after he lost his mom. 

Two years later, when drivers killed his dad, the PTSD intensified and Harms said he fell into a very dark place.

"I would just black out and (be) found in parking lots, laid out in the parking lot," Harms said. "I would wake up in the hospital."

A couple more years went by and Harms says he grew paranoid, afraid to even leave the house.   One day he did go out -- to buy a gun.

"There were a lot of things that went through my head. Never taking someone else's life, but definitely thinking about taking my own," Harms said. "I never should've been issued a permit."

Harms was amazed by how easy it was to get a concealed weapons permit, especially for someone suffering from PTSD.  The Department of Agriculture, which issues licenses, doesn't conduct a mental health evaluation, only asks if you've ever been adjudicated incapacitated, mentally defective or committed to a mental health institution.

Harms says he did not meet that criteria, so he checked "no" and was well on his way to being able to carry a weapon.

Dark thoughts persisted and Harms contemplated pulling the trigger.

"The state basically voluntarily gave me the means to take care of what my thoughts were," he said.

Fortunately someone stepped in and saved his life: Ryan Backmann, who was struggling through his own nightmare.

Months before, a man -- still unknown -- robbed, shot and killed Backmann's father on the Southside while he was vacuuming an office building.

It was a Saturday afternoon in October 2009, and Cliff Backmann was trying to earn a little extra money to support his wife fighting Stage 4 breast cancer.  Never did Ryan Backmann think his dad would go first.

After a year of no leads and few answers, Backmann left his job and made it his mission to help other survivors, including Harms.  They became best friends, both joining "Compassionate Families" as victim advocates.

Jordan Davis's dad, Ron, recognized the non-profit's efforts during last month's National Crime Victims' Rights Week which honored homicide victims and survivors.

"At what point did we decide shooting somebody was an acceptable resolution to a dispute?" Harms asked.

"If George Zimmerman didn't have a gun, would he have gotten out of the car that night? If Michael Dunn didn't have a gun, would he have said a word to an SUV full of teenagers?" Backmann asked. "It gives an inflated sense of self-importance and invincibility, and we will do things that we normally wouldn't do because we know we have a weapon in our pocket."

Backmann, Harms and Ron Davis share the same stance on guns.

"It's a dangerous weapon, but it's only dangerous in the wrong hands," Davis said.

They say the gun ends up in the wrong hands far too often, and the process is only getting easier.

"In Georgia, you can take a weapon into a bar -- a bar where they're serving alcohol, which impairs your decision-making abilities," Davis said.

"People like to compare guns to vehicles, you know, are we going to ban cars next? But, vehicles are a very highly regulated product," Blackmann said. "There has been leaps and bounds in safety features since the 60s in vehicles. We have seat belts; we have airbags; we have bumpers; we have anti-lock breaks. We know have cars that can stop when you get too close to somebody or they have a rear-view camera. When was the last safety improvement made in a firearm?"

Safety they say is what needs work in the gun industry.  Improved measures to protect the public because you never know what's going in the mind of the person behind the barrel.

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