SURPRISED BY THE FACTS Reflections on Mass Shootings

This blog began as a reflection on the idea that each of these murderers was a failed male. I was going to talk about our need to call and mentor young men into healthy masculinity. I still believe they were failed males, but there are millions of those that never commit mass murder. The facts pushed me in a different direction.

Where to begin?

With compassion for the citizens of Sutherland Springs, Texas? Yes, of course. Their suffering staggers us. Like the open casket at one’s first funeral we shudder to approach it. But for me it’s more about Pastor Frank Pomeroy.

Every pastor shares the soul-shredding grief of sudden death in his congregation and wonders, “How will I comfort them?” But who will comfort Pastor Frank and strengthen him to serve what remains of his congregation as he mourns his daughter and comforts his wife? I pray for him, that Jesus Christ the brutally crucified death conqueror will meet him in power and in his congregation as each one comforts the other.

What about gun control? Violence as entertainment? Hardening soft targets? The inescapable reality of evil? The biblical case for the use of force? Please click the links for my thoughts on those things. Writing on these topics has helped me, and I hope you, process these events from the biblical worldview perspective.

What about outrage at the Air Force bureaucracy that failed to post the shooter’s criminal record, the one that might have prevented purchase of the weapons?  I did not give this much thought at first. As we have known since 9-11, terrorists and murderers only have to succeed once. Law enforcement systems must be 100% perfect to prevent crimes, an impossible standard. Someone will always find a loophole in the law, or bypass it altogether.

At least that was my thinking when I began writing.

This blog started out as a reflection on the idea that each of these murderers was a failed male. I was going to talk about our need to call and mentor young men into healthy masculinity. I still believe they were failed males, but there are millions of those that never commit mass murder. The facts pushed me in a different direction.

Under reporting of mental illness and or criminal backgrounds is a major factor in five of the six mass shootings in the last decade (the jury is still out on the Las Vegas shooter).[1] Each murderer was enabled either by laws meant to protect the mentally ill, or by lack of communication between bureaucracies, or by over protective, enabling family members, or some combination thereof to obtain the weapons, plan, and carry out the massacres. The Virginia Tech shooter, the Charleston shooter, the Sandy Hook shooter, the Roseburg shooter, and the Sutherland Springs shooter never should have been able to purchase the weapons they used.

I suspect that there will be some restrictions on gun sales and production that come out of these recent tragedies, particularly of semi-automatic rifles with large magazines initially designed for the military. And that is probably not a bad thing. But it will not solve the problem if we fail to address our inadequate mental health system and criminal background reporting requirements.

[1] Jihadists terror attacks not included as their motives are different.

STOP THE SHOOTINGS

Trauma. Pain. Innocent and young lives lost, those left behind forever wounded, all because a psychopath with a gun decided he wanted to make a name for himself. Who among us does not feel the clawing grief? Who among us doesn’t want to end it? Other nations have managed it, or at least slowed it down. Why can’t we?

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Charleston, the Navy Yard, and now Roseburg—the list is too long. I wrote a theology of resisting evil in 2013 attempting to address the problem. Find it here: http://www.fccsobo.org/rwt-blog-39101. I stand by that theology, but it’s not enough. The mass shootings keep happening, showing no signs of slowing down. We need to stop them. Perhaps we need to reconsider? I decided to do that. I hope you find the results helpful.

Two Controlling Considerations
Because there’s a lot of noise about this, we need to boil it down to the essentials with two considerations.

First, we need to compare apples to apples. These are mass shootings of four or more defenseless people, often children, in a confined space with few exits like a school room, a church, or a movie theater, often in so-called “gun-free” zones. Conservatives like to point out that Chicago has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, yet suffers one of the highest gun related murder rates (59 murders and 362 gunshot victims in September alone). I don’t disagree. But we’re not talking about armed robberies and drug deals gone bad, crimes of passion and the like. We’re talking about the unprovoked massacre of undefended innocents, “soft targets” in military jargon.

Second, we live in America, not Australia, not Canada, not the UK or any other place. We are the first nation on earth where the right to bear arms is specifically written into our founding document. America was born with a gun in its hand for good reason. We tasted tyranny early on and spat it out with the conviction that we would never knuckle under again. The Founders believed, and many of us still agree, that an armed citizenry is the first defense against violent oppression on a personal as well as civic level. Conservatives will point out that there are more violent crimes prevented by law-abiding gun owners each year than are ever reported in the press, and none of them receive the media attention given to mass shootings on soft targets. True enough, but were we candid we would also admit that this isn’t 1776. It isn’t even 1940. This is 2015 and if we think a few modern minute-men with AR 15’s and homemade mortars are going to stop a determined government with M-1 Abrams Tanks, F/A 18 Hornets, smart bombs and Reaper Drones, we aren’t just mistaken, we’re deluded.

Two Questions
That leaves us with two questions, one short-term and one long.

First, taking seriously the biblical worldview that we are fallen creatures prone to personal evil and political tyranny, what is the fastest way to stop the shootings, the most expedient method to halt the mass murder of soft targets without cashing in our constitutional rights?

Second, what long-term, systemic changes can we make that reasonable people on both sides of the debate would agree on?

Two answers are offered, one by the radical left, the other by the radical right. One calls for a total gun ban, the other for almost no changes at all. Neither is adequate for the short or the long term. Neither is politically realistic. We need to find something in the middle that will address the short-term reality as well as the long-term need that everyone can agree on.

Three Factors
Workable solutions must address the combination of three contributing factors that have emerged in the analyses of multiple mass shootings. (I’m leaving Islamic jihadists out of this discussion because their motivations are different, but some of the solutions will apply to them anyway).

First, these places are soft targets. They may have had defensive strategies in place: instant notification systems, lock-downs, gun-free zones and the like. But as we’ve repeatedly witnessed, these systems are inadequate.

Second, the shooters are almost always fatherless, mentally unstable, emotionally wretched, narcissistic, cowardly, suicidal-yet-vengeful young men. Some (all? we don’t know) of them have been on and off of psychiatric medicines that have known violent side effects, especially when discontinued cold-turkey. They have easy access to weapons, are almost always fascinated by the instant fame of previous shooters, commit their crimes at the end of a slow, bitter burn of self-justifying resentment, and often broadcast their intentions ahead of time on social media.

Third, America has a woefully inadequate mental health care system for such people coupled with equally deficient involuntary committal laws for those with serious mental illnesses. Many of us voted this state of affairs into existence when we voted for Ronald Reagan, who led the charge in the dismantling of state mental health hospital systems in the 1980’s.* We did it for humane reasons, as many of the things that happened in those institutions make the VA look like Mayo Clinic. Further, any law that makes it possible to commit people against their will is vulnerable to abuse. But the law of unintended consequences prevails and we are paying a steep price. Would that these young villains could have been institutionalized before they imploded.

Short and Long-Term Solutions
Boiling it down to the essentials makes the following solutions seem pretty obvious:

Short-term: Harden the targets. These shooters are cowards. The ones that haven’t killed themselves almost always run when confronted by armed defenders. Hire ex-military men or women who are trained in close quarter combat with civilians present. We have thousands of them available at this point, after the Iraq war. And take down the ineffective gun-free zones—they are like red flags to raging bulls. If we aren’t going to hire armed resource officers, we at least need to let the teachers who are willing to take the responsibility, be trained and armed. This is a solution that has a proven track record.**

Also, let’s take it on ourselves, and ask the media to cooperate, never to publish the name or face of one of these shooters. It only encourages copy-cats.***

Long-term: It’s time to raise the responsibility level for gun buying. The smartest thing yet among ideas from other countries is that anyone who purchases a gun needs to have a reference from at least one other responsible adult, preferably two, who has known the buyer for at least five years. Yes, the Newtown and Roseburg shooter’s mother’s helped them obtain weapons. But more family and community involvement is better than more government involvement. We do this with driver’s licenses. In Virginia, a family member can request that the state reclaim the license of a minor. An instructor has to sign off before a new driver can take the state driver’s test. A family member, doctor, EMT, or peace officer can also recommend reexamination for a driver’s license for anyone of any age. In many cases, family members know more than any background check can uncover. Those of us who demand our rights need to up our responsibility levels. This is the least we can do.

Also, we need to change involuntary committal laws and improve our state-run mental health systems. We need better laws and systems that family members can access in a mental health emergency. This will take time and money, but it needs to be done.

It’s time to stop mass shootings of innocents in soft targets now. We may find that if we take the short-term steps, we won’t feel the need for the long ones. But we should take them anyway. We owe it to the victims and to our country.

Notes:

1*. http://sociology.org/content/vol003.004/thomas_d.html
2**. William M. Landes, University of Chicago Law School, November 1, 1996, Latest Revision October 19, 2000.
3***. Guns, Mental Illness and Newtown, By DAVID KOPEL, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 17, 2012.