Can We Prevent Mass Shootings?

If you’d like to take a deep dive into the question of whether or not we can prevent mass shootings, you’ll find no better discussion than the one written by Mark Follman back in 2015. But fair warning: you’re not going to find any easy answers there. Much of the discussion we’ve been having lately focuses on the role of guns. On one side are those who say that the best answer to mass shootings is to arm everyone. Beyond being a ridiculous notion on its face, it assumes that the best we can do is intervene AFTER the shooting has started.

The other side of the gun debate has actual evidence on its side. As Follman notes:

After a disturbed young man killed 35 people and wounded 18 others in 1996, [Australia] invested heavily in gun buybacks and enacted stricter gun laws. Suicides and murders with guns declined dramatically, and Australia has had only one public mass shooting in the two decades since.

The thing that kept circulating in my mind yesterday is the fact that — without access to a gun — Omar Mateen could have still hurt people using some other weapon. But he surely couldn’t have killed 50 and wounded another 50. That kind of carnage is only possible with guns.

But aside from gun safety reforms, is there anything we can do? Follman devotes his efforts into exploring a phenomenon that has mostly developed following the shooting at Columbine. In some areas of the country law enforcement officers and psychologists are coming together to do threat assessments.

Threat assessment is essentially a three-part process: identifying, evaluating, and then intervening. A case usually begins with a gut feeling that something is off. A teacher hears a student’s dark comments and alerts the principal, or someone gets freaked out by a coworker’s erratic behavior and tells a supervisor. If the tip makes its way to a local threat assessment team, the group quickly analyzes the subject’s background and circumstances. They may talk with family, friends, or coworkers to get insight into his intentions, ability to handle stress, and, most importantly, potential plans to strike. “One of the first things you focus on with this process is access to weapons,” Meloy notes. Like the group that handled Ayala’s case, the team draws on mental health and security expertise. Possible responses range from helping the subject blow off steam and refocus on school or work to providing longer-term counseling. If violence seems imminent, involuntary hospitalization or arrest may be the safest approach.

Perhaps like me, you have an initial response to something like this that focuses on its disruption of our right to privacy. That is a valid concern. In a perfect world, these things might be noticed and handled by someone’s friends/family. It is a testament to our isolation as human beings that we rely more and more on professionals to notice and intervene.

Given that, one professional compared threat assessments to fighting cardiovascular disease.

Doctors can’t predict whether someone will have a heart attack, but they can do a lot to decrease the risk. “You try to lower the probability.”

That resonated with me because for over 20 years I ran a nonprofit agency whose mission was to prevent juvenile crime. What is being described here is something we zeroed in on — secondary prevention. Whereas primary prevention focuses on the entire population (exercise and healthy diet prevent cardiovascular disease or limiting access to guns prevents gun violence), secondary prevention identifies risk factors (high blood pressure or verbal threats combined with a gun purchase) to identify those in need of more significant intervention.

Based on my own experience, Follman is right to point out that this represents a significant shift in the role of law enforcement. The degree to which officers understand that and are prepared to play a different role will be the determining factor in whether or not this kind of intervention is a success. I have seen some who do that very competently, and others who either don’t understand the point of it all or carry their power-trips into places they shouldn’t go.

The most chilling part of Follman’s reporting is the extent to which these mass shootings have increased due to the “copy cat” factor. For example:

Sixteen years later, the Columbine legacy keeps reappearing in violent plots, driven in part by online subcultures that obsess over the duo’s words and images. “It’s a cult following unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” says one longtime security specialist.

To gauge just how deep the problem goes, Mother Jones examined scores of news reports and public documents and interviewed multiple law enforcement officials. We analyzed 74 plots and attacks across 30 states whose suspects and perpetrators claimed to have been inspired by the Columbine massacre. Law enforcement stopped 53 of these plots before anyone was harmed. Twenty-one plots evolved into attacks, with a total of 89 victims killed, 126 injured, and 9 perpetrators committing suicide…

When I asked threat assessment experts what might explain the recent rise in gun rampages, I heard the same two words over and over: social media. Although there is no definitive research yet, widespread anecdotal evidence suggests that the speed at which social media bombards us with memes and images exacerbates the copycat effect. As Meloy and his colleagues noted earlier this year in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, “Cultural scripts are now spread globally…within seconds.”

We all play a role in that one. To the extent that we obsess over the shooter in anger or in curiosity, we contribute to their notoriety.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.