How to stop mass shootings

Mark Follman, national affairs editor for Mother Jones, has written an article, titled, “Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter,” in which he explores the life of one killer and discusses efforts to identify and assess threats in advance.

Mother Jones may seem to be an odd place to go for a rational and factual discussion of guns, but Follman demonstrates a commitment to the truth, as he demonstrated in an op-ed for The New York Times that criticized The Washington Post‘s claim that there have been 355 mass shootings this year.  By the count of Follman and his team, there have been at least seventy-three mass shootings in the past three decades. This follows the FBI’s definition that a mass shooting is a single incident in which four or more are killed, not including the shooter.

One problem that Follman discusses is the phenomenon of copycats, typically disaffected young men who see the attention that crazed killers get by the news media and then attempt to bring meaning into their lives by acting out in the same way.

This illustrates the manner in which mass shootings affect more rights than just gun rights.  Freedom of the press is as important and sacred a right as is our ability to own and carry firearms.  If we leap to the conclusion that news agencies should be barred from splashing the front pages and first five minutes of the broadcast with all the details of the particular wacko’s life, we’re calling for a solution that is modeled on the demands of gun control advocates.  And Follman recognizes this risk to a right he values.  In an interview about his article with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, he says that with freedom of the press, we cannot ban reporting—similar to the way we cannot ban guns, let’s note—and calls for a voluntary agreement to refuse to publish manifestos of killers.  What we as readers or viewers can do is let the news media know that we do not want to see crazed killers celebrated.

But the key point of Follman’s article is the search to identify potential killers before they act, and this is where things get really hard.  He acknowledges that while gun control is the frequent answer, the number of guns in this country and the political opposition to curtailment of gun rights makes that solution unlikely.  With this in mind, he discusses the efforts of law enforcement and others to assess threats they’ve identified.

This works along the lines of “see something, say something.”  Teachers, neighbors, friends, and family members who notice something disturbing are advised to pass the information along to mental health professionals and law enforcement officers, a threat assessment team, who will then conduct a “knock and talk” interview with the person about whom the suspicions have been raised.  If the suspicions are valid, the team will implement a variety of interventions.

This sounds like the right idea, but consider how complex such an approach would be in the details.  As a teacher, for example, I see a lot of essays and hear a lot of personal stories.  Where is the line between an honest discussion of ideas and of tough lives on the one side and a sign of rage building to an explosion on the other?  That may sound easy if you haven’t been immersed in the process.  The actual work is far from easy.

What concerns me is that we risk singling out people for investigation who don’t act or think like everyone else.  It’s all too common for majorities to decide that their interests and prejudices are normal or definitive.  But remember that any one of us is in the majority only for a brief period.  Demographics and political power shift over time.  And what sounds suspicious to the majority is often what challenges their status.

There is no simple solution to mass shootings—not in gun control, not in allowing good people to carry firearms, and not in law enforcement strategies, though the latter two could help.  In our yearning to save lives, we can be too ready to seize bad answers that will do more harm than good.  In the words of the British jurist, William Blackstone, “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”  That’s the risk and principle of a free society.  And whatever we do to reduce risks has to be consistent with rights and liberties.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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