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Tipsheet

Commentary: On Mass Shootings, Cycles of Blame, and 'Solutions'

One of the most disheartening spectacles in the aftermath of mass shootings in the US -- which are sickening and demoralizing unto themselves, of course -- is the utterly predictable cycle that follows.  It's as if everyone in politics and media have pre-written scripts at the ready, fully memorized.  People rush to their usual battle stations and start reciting their lines, posting memes, and sharing viral content from people on their 'side.'  As any given attack unfolds, Americans watch in horror as innocents are gunned down, and almost immediately, partisans seize on emerging details in order to assail political adversaries they spend much of their time loathing already.  We hear impassioned calls for gun control, followed by objections (including correct and important ones), followed by 'blood on hands' slanders, not necessarily in that order.  We hear 'thoughts and prayers' wishes from some political actors, which, in turn, enrage opponents as empty words -- unacceptable substitutes for meaningful action.  Some lash out, attacking and ridiculing prayer, thus alienating and offending many good-hearted people.  Sound familiar? It should.

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By the time calls (both genuine and cynical) for serious "conversations" and "common sense" compromise start to emerge, many of the people who've just been told they're corrupt and complicit in the slaughter of innocents -- and whose sentiments of condolence and reflection have been angrily denigrated -- aren't exactly overwhelmed by a conciliatory spirit.  Especially when "working together" seems to only entail doing what they accusatory slanderers demand.  So we get familiar counter-proposals and talking points that almost seem designed to guarantee that people keep talking past each other.  We get vague comments about "mental health" (a very real and relevant problem, no doubt).  We get unrealistic, unworkable, unconstitutional and substantively unresponsive gun control fantasies on one side, and a flurry of counter-points -- then alternative, non-gun-related ideas, which in turn draw criticisms.  Motives are impugned.  Little or nothing changes, then we gradually move on to other issues.  We wait for the next time, because there always is a next time.  And then the ugliness starts all over again.

The disproportionately American problem of mass shootings is, on some level, unfathomable and unimaginable.  Except it can be fathomed, and it doesn't need to be imagined.  We experience it far too often.  It should be intolerable, but it's not.  We tolerate it.  Not because anyone supports mass shootings, or is unmoved by horrors like we've seen in Buffalo and Uvalde over the last few weeks alone.  That acknowledgement -- of each other's basic humanity and empathy, across the ideological spectrum -- might be a good starting point for any constructive discussion about solutions.  Depressingly, it's not really a feature of our current, stuck national "debate" on these matters.  As another writer observed this week, "this country is not only incapable of solving its problems but incapable of even seriously attempting to do so anymore."  There's an uncomfortable amount of truth in that assessment.  It's also true that mass shootings, at schools in particular, present an especially thorny problem.  We live in a society that values life, that values liberty, and in which the right to own guns is etched in our founding document.  

If there were relatively easy fixes at hand that were practical, constitutional, and effective, while balancing competing liberties in an acceptable manner, we'd have implemented them already.  The trouble seems to be that we can't even agree on what constitutes practicality, constitutionality, and efficacy.  The perennial difficulty of the problem, however, should not discourage us from trying to mitigate it, even in marginal ways.  Do-somethingism is an understandable emotional impulse after a room full of precious children are murdered in cold blood.  But it is not necessarily an impulse that brings about sound public policy.  Do-nothingism, explicit or de facto, is also wholly unsatisfactory, especially in the midst of the raw and horrific pain of yet another atrocity.  What to do?  The short answer is, I don't know, which is a sentiment that people in my line of work usually avoid expressing out loud.  Furthermore, I won't pretend to have any special expertise or insights on these questions.  I absolutely do not.

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But I will lay my cards on the table as a pro-Second Amendment conservative who is admittedly (a) not as doctrinaire or quasi-absolutist on this issue as others, and (b) someone who has never owned or even fired a gun, though I've recently considered making a change for reasons of self-defense.  Those are my 'priors.'  As one of the aforementioned people who goes on television and radio to intone about "conversations" and "compromise," I feel an obligation to at least signal a few things I'd be open to discussing.  These are not perfect or flawless, as such solutions do not exist.  I could be convinced that any or all of them are, on balance, bad ideas to be avoided.  But they're at least sensible-seeming enough, in my eyes, to warrant serious discussion:

(1) Carefully-crafted 'red flag' laws. What is especially maddening about so many of these heinous events is that the perpetrators often, not always, fit a similar profile: Angry, radicalized, lonely, broken young men, many of whom suffer from some form of mental illness.  Rarely are these assailants entirely unknown to law enforcement.  Rarely does their involvement shock everyone who knows them.  There are warning signs, major and minor, presaging the explosion.  I'm aware that there are civil liberties issues at play here, and that badly-written laws without due process protections would present an unfair and un-American "solution."  But properly-drafted state-level laws, perhaps encouraged or funded by the feds, could make a difference:

A well-drafted red flag law should contain abundant procedural safeguards, including imposing a burden of proof on the petitioner, hearing requirements, and a default expiration date unless the order is renewed through a clear showing of continued need. But its potential effectiveness is crystal clear...Note that in every one of the deadliest school shootings, the shooter exhibited behavior before the shooting that could have triggered a well-drafted red flag law.  But it’s not enough just to pass a red flag law. We have to educate citizens and police about their existence and scope. Laws don’t enforce themselves. Tragically, it appears that New York’s red flag law could have stopped the Buffalo mass shooting...Currently 19 states and Washington, D.C., have some form of red flag law on the books. Florida [and Indiana are] the only red state[s]. That needs to change.  I know the objections. I know that red flag laws implicate a core constitutional right. I also know that poorly drafted laws are subject to abuse. But our constitutional structure permits emergency and temporary deprivations of even core liberty interests upon sufficient showing of need, with sufficient due process. Restraining orders and other forms of domestic violence prevention orders can often block parents and spouses even from their own families upon a showing of imminent threat. 

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Like everything else on my, or anyone else's list, this is not foolproof, as the Buffalo massacre proves.  But if we are interested in keeping high-powered guns out of the hands of demented, criminally violent people -- without punishing law-abiding gun owners -- something like this seems like a good place to start.  I'd point out that this is likely best achieved and processed at the state level for various reasons, perhaps with assistance and streamlining from the federal government, which is often challenged at streamlining much of anything.

(2) Strengthen defenses at schools.  Schools cannot and should not be fortresses.  But added security measures and resources can help deter, complicate, or thwart rare attacks.  I'm not impressed with the line of argument that just because a "good guy with a gun" sometimes fails to prevent a massacre (which was apparently not the case in Uvalde, despite what we were told for days) that 'proves' armed security doesn't work.  Wrong.  We've covered multiple instances of armed officers preventing or quickly ending school shootings that very well could have become terrible mass-casualty events.  Here's one from Illinois a few years ago:

An Illinois school resource officer stopped an armed teenager at a high school Wednesday morning, according to the local police chief, who applauded the officer for saving "countless" lives. When the 19-year-old suspect fired several shots near a gym at Dixon High School, the school resource officer reported the incident to authorities and then confronted the gunman, Dixon police chief Steven Howell said at a news conference. When confronted, the suspect -- a former student at Dixon High School -- started running away, and the officer pursued him, Howell said. The suspect shot several rounds at the officer, and the officer then returned fire, hitting the gunman, the chief added...The suspect was taken into custody with what are believed to be non-life-threatening injuries, police said...No students or staff were injured.

And another out of Maryland:

The student entered Great Mills High School in Great Mills at the beginning of the school day and shot a female student in a hallway, Sheriff Tim Cameron told News4. A male student also was hit by a bullet...The shooter exchanged fire with a school resource officer, who is a trained, armed deputy sheriff, Cameron said. The shooter was wounded; the officer was not...Cameron told News4 that his department prepares for emergencies. But despite the fast reponse of the school resource officer, or SRO, two students were still shot. "You train to respond to this and you hope that you never ever have to," he said. "This is the realization of your worst nightmare — that, in a school, that our children could be attacked. And so as quickly … as that SRO responded and engaged..."

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Both incidents above occurred in states with strict gun laws.  Here are more examples.  "Good guys with a gun" do not and cannot prevent all evil.  They'll sometimes fail, shirk their duties (there are some eerie, Parkland-style flashbacks surrounding law enforcement's actions, or lack thereof, in Uvalde), or even make things worse.  But would we rather have a scenario in which school children are entirely defenseless against an armed intruder?  I believe the presence of one or more armed and trained officers at least provides some layer of protection, which is preferable to the alternative.  It certainly seems as though the children at Robb Elementary could have used a trained, armed officer protecting them as the gunman spent 12 minutes shooting at the school before entering, per yesterday's disastrous press conference.  For what it's worth, I have trouble taking seriously the proposals and ideas of people who, for other political reasons, have agitated to guarantee that schools are police-free zones.  Meanwhile, other policies like establishing, to the greatest extent possible, single or limited public entry points for visitors at schools are worth looking at.  Some critics of such ideas are being willfully ridiculous, as if they don't understand how doors, locks, ingress and egress work:


Others question the universal practicality of these measures, given different campus layouts.  Still others also point out that such an arrangement didn't stop the Sandy Hook killer, who shot his way into the building.  These are fair points about shortcomings and limitations, but all potential solutions have shortcomings and limitations.  

(3) Stop the drills.  In the spirit of cross-ideological cooperation and good will, let me say that I agree with this observation from MSNBC's Chris Hayes:  


'Active shooter drills' are traumatizing, anxiety-fueling exercises that actually teach would-be attackers about planned responses, and may even plant some dangerous seeds in certain minds.  School shootings are far too common in the United States, which is an uniquely grim element of our usually-wonderful national exceptionalism.  They are still exceedingly rare.  

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Accentuating and fueling fears about a very uncommon threat does more harm than good.  This is profoundly bad analysis, which isn't surprising, considering the source:


(4) Don't 'glorify' perpetrators.  I avoid using their names on air.  I avoid sharing images of their faces.  There's a journalistic need to report basic things about these shooters, but I believe the media should contain themselves to the bare minimum on this front.  There's some evidence that copycats are inspired by wall-to-wall coverage focusing on assailants.  I'm not arguing for governmental intervention here, but people who run newsrooms should strongly consider policy changes:

It has become increasingly clear in recent years that the value of public knowledge regarding specific names and photographs of mass shooters is significantly outweighed by the possibility of encouraging more mass shootings. Studies suggest that media coverage of mass shootings can have a significant impact on the psyches of potential mass shooters — that such potential mass shooters have a cognitive craving for attention, which they know they will receive for committing atrocities. As Professor Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy of Western New Mexico University found in a paper presented to the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in 2016, “media contagion” can help make mass shootings more common. “Unfortunately,” said Johnston, “we find that a cross-cutting trait among many profiles of mass shooters is desire for fame.” The rise of such a trait in mass shooters, she claimed, rose “in correspondence to the emergence of widespread 24-hours news coverage on cable news programs, and the rise of the internet during the same period.” Johnston recommended a media pact to “no longer share, reproduce, or retweet the names, faces, detailed histories or long-winded statements of killers, we could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in one to two years.” While other studies do not make such a dramatic statistic prediction, they do support similar conclusions.

(5) Raise the age?  Some people have wondered why Texas law permits 18 year-olds to buy rifles, including powerful weapons like AR-15's, whereas handguns are only sold (with few exceptions) to those 21 and older (matching the legal drinking age).  It is believed that early signs of psychosis often start to present in one's late teens and early 20's.  Could limiting more gun sales among 18-20 year-olds make something of a difference, allowing for more time for serious warning signs to manifest and potentially be flagged?  Maybe.  Asking these questions doesn't seem unreasonable to me, though there are counter-arguments and possible constitutional issues that may complicate the idea.  I'm willing to listen to the arguments.

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(6) Expanded background checks?  Most discussions of background checks after mass shootings feel like red herrings, as the responsible parties very rarely, if ever, acquire their guns through background check-free 'loopholes.'  (Incidentally, when was the last mass killer a member of the reviled NRA, which features so prominently in post-massacre blame fests?)  Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) teamed up on a background checks bill in 2013.  It failed in the Senate, falling six votes shy of invoking cloture.  Though it went down, its general outline does not seem unreasonable to me:

It was a more limited proposal than a larger Senate bill on guns, which would have mandated criminal background checks on all sales between private parties with limited exceptions. Current law requires checks on purchases only from federally licensed gun dealers. So the Manchin-Toomey amendment attempted to find middle ground by expanding the checks to gun shows and Internet sales, but not requiring them of family members and friends giving or selling guns to each other.

Could a version of this be revived?  Reportedly, it might.  Could it reach 60 Senate votes?  That's unclear, but I'd guess it's unlikely at this point.  I'll note that the gun show "loophole" is largely a myth to begin with, but tightening the rules up a bit does not prima facie offend me.  One quick cautionary note in discussing the popularity of background check reforms, since proponents often tout polls showing 80-90 percent support for such measures.  When actual proposals are studied and considered by voters, with an accompanying public debate, things shake out a bit differently:


Again, I'm not endorsing any specific bill at this time.  But this general topic should not be out of bounds, and proposals should be weighed on their respective merits -- even if focusing on background checks is almost always irrelevant to the particulars of mass shootings.  I'll leave you with two thoughts.  First, evil cannot be legislated away because we live in a fallen world.  Nearly all of these killers have been products of broken, dysfunctional homes.  The government cannot change some of these things.  People need support systems, they need each other, they need people who care enough to speak up, they need nurturing parents, and they need God.  None of that means that politics and policy are irrelevant. Those tools for change are important.  But it's both humbling and obvious that some things truly are out of our control. Secondly and lastly, this is a crucial and fundamental point that should undergird all of these discussions:

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Repealing the Second Amendment would be a steep uphill battle, but it would at least be an honest argument.

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