Polarized shouting matches won’t solve the school shooter problem

Yesterday, a friend of mine began a discussion of the school shooter problem with a measured status update that, rather than looking for simplistic solutions, clearly invited people to look at the culture and the nature of our society that are behind what might be called an epidemic.

While most of those commenting seriously tried to talk about why people with access to guns today are becoming school shooters when young people have, for years in this country, had access to guns (hunting, trap and skeet shouting, informal target practice) and–until recently–didn’t kill their classmates in mass shootings.

Other commenters didn’t like this approach for various reasons centering on beliefs that (a) so-called profiles of school shooters also described a lot of other people who “suffered the same problems” but didn’t become shooters, (b) the solutions–such as get the guns, arm teachers, put metal detectors at school entrances–were clear and, if approved, could be implemented before efforts at understanding today’s youth would get off the ground, (c) psychology is a “soft discipline” that most insurance plans don’t even cover, so how could it possibly be expected to solve what people believe is a law enforcement issue.

Some people said they thought the media–both news and social–helped fuel the problem by inciting copy cat killings, contributing to the so-called easy fix approach  through non-stop panels of experts, and by providing a fame of sorts to the shooters. Others speculated that non-stop texting and social media use made today’s youth more isolated while giving them the impression they were tied into a larger whole.

In his “Psychology Today” article “‘Profiling’ School Shooters,” George S. Everly states that  While the debate rages on gun control and is not likely to be resolved in the near future, renewed interest in “profiling” those who are at highest risk for committing violence has emerged. However, we must proceed cautiously as no predictive paradigm in behavioral science is perfect, especially “profiling.”

The emphasis here is not, I think, to come up with a formula that predicts who, amongst people suffering similar problems, will be the next shooter. To me, what’s important is considering conditions which appear to have impacted shooters to date and using them not as predictions but as issues to address in schools, families, and perhaps society itself.

Every’s list of primary factors, includes:

  • Males who were students or former students at the school–that is, they were part of the target school’s population.
  • Anger and revenge from people who had been bullied or felt they had been treated unfairly.
  • Individuals who were socially awkward and had few friends.
  • Media contagion as a motivator to frustrated and angry individuals.
  • Dysfunctional family situations.
  • Individuals who expressed frustration/anger through social media posts or some form of “art.”

My list oversimplifies the article, so I encourage you to read it. Whether or not such indicators are within the purview of school counselors is not for me to say. I suspect they are already overworked with a career-choice focus. Parents and parent associations might discuss these in relation to their own children, though we don’t expect a dysfunctional family to have a family meeting and vote to become functional.

Those who think rooms full of youths who are all texting others who aren’t there rather than interacting with those they’re sitting next to certainly have an issue to study. Why do kids do this? Does it isolate them and/or cripple their social skills of dealing with people more directly?

The legality of looking too closely at these indicators might pose problems, such as muzzling a free press, stifling free speech, or the school’s intrusion into emotional issues that parents think belong within the family’s discretion.

As a former journalism teacher, I think there is much the press can do to act with greater caution and restraint in its reporting. “Sitting on a story” for hours and hours during periods when no new information is available not only gives rise to inaccurate reporting and reliance on the opinions/speculations of experts, but ignores other news around the world. For shooters who are looking for their 15 minutes of fame, this endless coverage gives them more fame than they ever dreamt of.

Santa Fe school system photo

We saw how the Ferguson, Missouri violence was fueled in part by the lies told–and perpetuated by the media–about the Michael Brown shooting by people who claimed to be witnesses who weren’t even there. A lot of violence occurred based on those lies, and even after they were proven false, many people continued to believe them. A network I won’t name was taking phone calls after the Santa Fe, Texas shooting from people that did not appear to have been vetted who claimed to have been there. Were they really there? The network took their comments as gospel, something no good reporter would ever do. In this approach, the network wasn’t a news organization but another cog in the social media spreading viral information that could only incite more incorrect views on causes, and perhaps our next shooting.

Addressing these so-called indicators isn’t a quick fix. Personally, I am more interested in knowing what in society has changed that has allowed/facilitated this epidemic.  Some people think “getting the guns” is a quick fix, yet they seem to have no idea that much of the prospective legislation bandied about so far wouldn’t have stopped many of the shooters and/or would be unconstitutional. Trying to repeal or alter the Second Amendment is a process that–even if Congress starts the procedure–would take years and would probably fail. Not a quick fix. Others suggest metal detectors at school doors  which, of course, would have to be manned. So far, the costs appear to be higher than school system budgets. Not an easy thing to do even though it seems so obvious.

I don’t have the answer. And, it might be possible that even if we knew exactly what had changed in our society to create this problem, it might include a slough of so many things it would be hard to address. However, what doesn’t help, is intruding into a civilized Facebook post that’s looking for reasoned discussion with a single-quick-fix solution and then slamming those who don’t agree with it.

If this Facebook thread mirrors society as a whole, we’ll never stop the shootings. Meanwhile, as one survivor of the Santa Fe, Texas, shooting said in an interview, “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always felt it would eventually happen here too.”

Let’s hope public policy doesn’t become fatalism.

–Malcolm

A friend of mine has continued some helpful resources:

The School Shooter: A Quick Reference Guide
HOW WE TALK ABOUT BULLYING AFTER SCHOOL SHOOTINGS CAN BE DANGEROUS: EXPERTS
Are mass shootings a white man’s problem?

Our kids are dying to tell us we need to fix the shooter problem

“If people can’t purchase marijuana or alcohol at the age of 18, why should they be given access to guns? I have had this conversation with my friends too many times. We shouldn’t have to talk about this. This country needs stricter laws to help prevent other kids, like me and my classmates, from ever having to experience this. Words mean nothing. Actions do.”  

— Lyliah Skinner, junior, in These young survivors of the Parkland shooting give voice to a nation’s outrage

“These social pathologies are something like strange and gruesome new strains of disease infecting the body social. America has always been a pioneer — only today, it is host not just to problems not just rarely seen in healthy societies — it is pioneering novel social pathologies have never been seen in the modern world outside present-day America, period.”

— Umair Haque in Why We’re Underestimating American Collapse

After every school shooting, we hear about the nation’s outrage. Yet, as the most cynical remind is, after each school shooting, there are no substantive changes. The grim satire in “The Onion” three years ago focuses on where we are in solving this problem: “At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as ‘helpless.'”

March on Washington for Gun Control in January 2013 – Wikipedia

People have argued for years that the environment in which they are raised is a contributory factor to the actions of criminals and the actions of mentally ill people. Umair Haque’s article suggests that much of the negative stuff we see going on in society today arises out of what might be called a pathological mental health plague. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say. It’s well worth looking into even though the results of “fixing it” will take years and most Americans want quicker solutions.

As I write this, I know that even a “perfect guns and mental health fix” doesn’t address the pattern of shootings, as John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota sees them. Any “fix” is little more than a Band-Ade.

According to Finnegan, as quoted in The Christian Science Monitor, “The response that these young men choose is heavily influenced by our culture. That means we have to focus on creating a culture of abundance and not one of scarcity, where we are trying to keep people away, trying to be exclusive and bully and harass people. It is in that kind of culture where people who do have these mental health challenges may very well find a way, using firearms, to feel that they have some kind of agency in this world.”

As a disclaimer here, I must tell you that I am a pacifist and military conscientious objector and believe that the armed populace that has arisen out of the United States’ culture is a mistake. I do not agree with the prevailing legal interpretation of the Second Amendment. Yet, that is what we have. So I think we must find ways to responsibly limit guns without those limitations causing gun owners to think we are en route to repudiating the Second Amendment.

And, we must stop de-funding other measures that some say will reduce the number of shootings:

  • Why is school security funding always on the chopping block? Would the Parkland shooter have gotten in the school if there were one access door with a TSA-style security system?
  • Why is community mental health always on the chopping block? Yes, the shooter in this case had access to care, but he stopped going. Shouldn’t this have raised a red flag? Shouldn’t this have put him into a “can’t buy” gun database?

In the wake of the Parkland shooting in Florida, some have pointed out that if every rule in popularly proposed gun control legislation had been in place, it would not have stopped this shooting. That’s a sobering idea.

Gun control scares all of the legal gun owners in the country because many of them think that every control will chip away at their Constitutional rights until–in time–those rights will disappear. I wish those who advocate gun control (in one form or another) would “reach out” to legal gun owners and to the NRA and say that we must work together to fix this problem. If we don’t, you will ultimately lose all of your rights. Much better to participate in a sane solution.

Gun control comes down to many technical matters, including semi-automatic vs. automatic, velocity of the round, magazine size, stopping power of the round, rate of fire and other issues. The first step seems to be coming to an agreement about which, if any, of these: (a) increase the efficiency of a shooter, and (b) do not substantially impact the legal use of the weapon.

We must agree on terminology. The AR-15 is not an assault rifle even though its design and ammunition have similar technology to the updated versions of the military’s M16. Sure, it looks like the kind of weapon the bad guys are carrying in the latest military thriller movie, but it isn’t used by the military. Perhaps we should talk less about getting rid of the AR-15 and more about reducing magazine capacity and the velocity of the round.

And, perhaps we should talk more about what one must do to purchase such a weapon, including those available at gun shows where standards seem to make them easier to purchase than from a dealer at his store.

I don’t have the answers for this, but I think it’s going to take a coalition of law makers, law enforcement, mental health agencies, and the NRA to arrive at a solution we can live with. What are we waiting for? Polarized debates are not fixing the problem. Sure, we need to look at prospective environmental factors and so-called psychological factors over the long term. Short term, we shouldn’t need another Parkland to start working together instead of making this a liberal vs. conservative debate that leads, once again, to nothing happening.

–Malcolm