New Perspectives on America’s Gun Violence Epidemic

Violence is inevitably senseless, as it was again on Wednesday when a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, went on a shooting spree that took 17 lives and injured dozens.

Senseless though it is, scarcely a month passes without news of yet another mass shooting — defined as four or more gunshot victims in a single incident. The question: How do we prevent gun violence? The obvious answer: Restrict access to guns. Indeed, there is truth to the argument that the ease with which guns can be obtained in the United States contributes to the ease with which they are available for use in crime.

While gun-control measures are often touted as a solution, such measures are far from foolproof. Take the case of Devin Patrick Kelley, who despite a discharge from active-duty military service in the wake of domestic violence charges, managed to pass a background check that allowed him to lawfully purchase the firearms he used in the Texas church shootings in 2017. On the flip side, some — the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, among them — have no criminal record by which to prevent the legal purchase of firearms. Others are not mentally fit to own firearms and yet manage to pass background checks — as describes Jared Lee Loughner who, in spite of mental health problems that resulted in suspension from a community college, legally purchased the weapon with which he shot Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona politician. Restricting access to firearms through more stringent gun-control measures also falls short when the weapons used in a shooting are unlawfully obtained.

So what do we do when the approaches we have put in place to screen out would-be killers fail?

Think smarter.

See Something, Say Something 

Although some shooters, such as Stephen Paddock, never let on what their beef with the world is, others — a significant number, in fact — are far from silent. The Internet is a platform on which violent inclinations often come to light. Columbine shooter Eric Harris in 1997 generated a hate-filled website, whereas Nikolas Cruz, the MSDHS shooter, attracted the attention of the FBI after outing his intentions on a bail bondsman’s YouTube channel.

Mass shootings are rarely without precursors. Parents, school administrators and health professionals, in particular, must become attuned to warning signs. If that means monitoring the social media activities and/or the diary of a teenager who has become withdrawn or cynical, so be it. Children and adults, alike, must appreciate what responsible citizenry looks like. If it is necessary to “rat out” an individual who may pose a threat to themselves or others, it is a moral obligation — not a baseless betrayal — to speak up.

It Takes a Village

A commonality among mass shooters is that of disillusionment and disaffection. Real or imagined, shooters report feeling alienated and ostracized. Many mass shooters become preoccupied with firearms because it gives them a sense of power. If love and adulation are not in the cards, notoriety will “settle the score”.

By catapulting those who seek to “take their power back” in a hail of gunfire to the top of the news cycle, journalists and social media commentators may inadvertently sew the seeds of the next mass shooting. Why? Because mass shooters, by in large, are comfortable being characterized as individuals who “snapped” , which is the extent to which so-called shooting sprees are portrayed in the immediate aftermath. If instead national media portrayed the actions of mass shooters as “cowardly”, “sick” or “pathetic”  — exposing a shooter’s internal state of humiliation — coverage of such events may serve instead to quash the idealization antisocial sympathizers feel toward mass shooters in the wake of such tragedies.

In recent years, appreciation for the depressive, suicidal-homicidal traits shared among numerous mass shooters has led to a focus on anti-bullying campaigns. But educators should take it a step further. Just as public high schools have for decades required a course in “sex-ed“, schools across the country need to implement mandatory middle-school mental health education. Topics such as bullying cannot be limited to handouts and orientation-day lip service. Students ought to be immersed in a year-long class in how to cope with the challenges of an ever-more complex world of social media, academic pressures, peer group dynamics, parental expectations and, more importantly, how to channel frustrations into benign, if not creative, coping mechanisms — of which mindfulness training is a core component.

Preventing the next mass shooting, more so than anywhere else, begins in the home. A vital step parents can take is to prevent early-onset desensitization to violence. Although the argument persists that plenty of non-violent people enjoy violent entertainment without undue harm, American Psychological Association findings indicate otherwise. If a movie is rated “R” or a video game is rated “M”, parents ought not fall into the trap of making their child an exception to the rule. Guidelines exist for good reason. Children, after all, are not the best judges of their own limits. But neither, in many cases, are their parents. Had Adam Lanza’s mother survived her son’s murderous Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage she would have undoubtedly revisited the wisdom of introducing her troubled son to the responsibilities of gun ownership. Authorities who searched the Lanza home after the tragedy not only learned that the shooter’s guns were obtained at the family home but that Nancy Lanza had written a check with which to gift her son a firearm for Christmas — a Christmas she did not live to see.

Adult supervision is no less important in the teenage years as compared to early childhood. While “teenage angst” is far from unusual, wholesale “social realignment” may be cause for concern. Social realignment may manifest as keeping “bad company” — as typified by the us-against-the-world friendship of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — or may manifest, instead, as prolonged withdrawal. In the aftermath of the 2011 shooting of Rep. Giffords, David Kaczynski, brother of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, spoke of the way in which his brother became isolated — a “lone wolf” pattern echoed in a number of mass shootings in which mental illness played a role. Mental illness is a life-long disorder, often emergent in the late teens or early- to mid-20s, for which ongoing support and supervision is critical, particularly on behalf those who are unable to appreciate the severity of their condition. Simply because a child ages into an adult is not license to look the other way. There is only so much “the system” can do to help mentally disordered individuals in a nation that values civil liberties and for which the socialization of healthcare is eschewed. That means a whole lot about preventing the next mass shooting is up to us.

Legal Reforms

Gun control measures can never get to the heart of violence: societal disaffection, mental derangement, emotional neglect and spiritual depravity. Nonetheless, these are the tools with which we must make do at the political level. To that end, smarter legislation is in order:

  • Mature Enough to Carry: Portions of the brain responsible for gauging risky behavior remain under development until age 25. In contrast to physiology, laws that establish the age at which individuals can legally own a gun are arbitrary. Raising the minimum legal age of gun ownership to age 25 would be be a step in the right direction. (With limited exceptions for hunters who possess only hunting riffles, law enforcement and military personnel in good standing.)
  • Grownups Only: Just as unaccompanied minors are prohibited inside many bars and are required to have an adult present to view an R-rated movie, minors should not be permitted to attend gun shows without a parent or legal guardian. While some states, such as California, already have such requirements in place, standards are not uniform across the country. Some 20-years after the Columbine tragedy, gun show organizers who fail to “card” gun-show attendees should be at risk of losing operational permits. It should not be permissible, either, to conduct numerous private gun sales without a license — because such transactions sidestep necessary background checks.
  • Set Limits: Limit the number of guns that can be lawfully purchased in a single year. Common sense suggests that stockpiling arms over a short period of time, in peacetime, gives rise to the possibility that the individual in question is troubled — regardless of whether or not that individual has a criminal and/or mental-health record. Stephen Paddock, as an example, purchased 33 guns in 12 months. Background checks can and should be amended to flag anyone, in any state, who attempts to purchase excessive numbers of guns in rapid succession. Gun buyers should anticipate, conversely, that such purchasing behavior — even in the event that it remains legal — may prompt a Court-ordered mental health evaluation for which failure may preclude future firearm purchases, trigger additional monitoring requirements and, potentially, result in the loss of previously-registered firearms. If such measures should create a backlog of pending evaluations during which time a prospective buyer cannot purchase additional firearms, so be it.
  • Mental Health Monitoring: Although the case has been made that automatic firearms should be illegal, an intermediary approach would be to implement additional screening requirements (i.e. mandatory mental health evaluation, a requirement to pass a reevaluation every five years thereafter and/or with each subsequent automatic firearm purchase, whichever comes first). True, this would add “red tape” to the lawful ownership of automatic firearms, but beyond the reality that we must entrust the most damaging of weapons to the most trustworthy of hands, is the fact that such requirements will serve to slow the rate at which automatic firearms enter the general population.
  • High-Tech for the Higher Good: Technology exists to key guns to their owners using fingerprint recognition. Congress, if nothing more, should enact legislation that requires gun manufacturers to phase out conventionally-designed firearms over a 10-year period. To reduce the number of conventional “dumb guns” in circulation, legislation ought to require gun dealers to accept registered conventional firearms in exchange for business/tax breaks. This would put gun dealers in the business not only of selling firearms but of incentivizing the trade-in of the conventional variety — which, in turn, may complement law enforcement buyback efforts. Will this be sufficient to remove every last dumb gun off of American streets? Not exactly. But over the years, as buyers gravitate toward “smart” firearms — firearms that limit the potential for children to obtain or mishandle weapons and reduce the odds that law enforcement will waste time investigating the wrong suspects — the number of conventional firearms in circulation will undoubtedly diminish.
  • Zero Tolerance: Domestic violence, whether charges are pressed or not, should result in the immediate confiscation of firearms until a competency hearing is held. Thanks to lax gun-ownership qualifying requirements, however, abusers such as Omar Mateen, the Orlando, Florida nightclub shooter, nonetheless obtained lawful firearms. With so many “loophole victims” — and seemingly more of them by the year as such tragedies become more widespread — there is absolutely no excuse for state and federal lawmakers to sit on their hands.
  • No-Nonsense Sentencing: Anyone caught in possession of an illegal firearm — whether or not it is used in a crime — ought to face a mandatory three-year sentence. Is this harsh? Absolutely. And that’s exactly as it should be if we, as a society, are going to send an unequivocal message about the seriousness of gun crime. Similarly, making it a federal crime to traffic in guns might slow the distribution of arms and, over time, take people off the streets who are up to no good. Critics, of course, will argue that we can’t afford to incarcerate so many people. But if we are serious about preventing future gun violence we must send a sobering message to people who are in possession of unlawful firearms, and that message must be conveyed whether or not the firearm is put to use. Gun crimes minor and major could be deterred still more if possession of an illegal firearm carried with it a nationwide three-strikes penalty: the risk of going away for life.

While no single solution will, in and of itself, make a significant dent in America’s gun violence epidemic, a multifaceted approach to curbing gun violence will surely accomplish what political gridlock cannot. If we put our heads and hearts together for the sake of change we can and will save lives. This is, after all, what progress requires — a journey of a thousand steps.


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