Want mass shootings to stop? Let’s talk cause, not motivation

Want mass shootings to stop? Let’s talk cause, not motivation
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Once again in this weary year, Americans go to dance, or go to worship, or just to school, and they’re gunned down. From our oldest citizens to our youngest, no one is safe, it seems, and the question keeps getting asked: Can anything be done to stop this?

The short answer is “yes,” there is quite a bit that could be done, but many sensibilities would be ruffled if certain paths were headed down. So, in the meantime, the exploiters move in to control the conversation and regular Americans continue to die doing regular things.

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Indignation and outrage is huffed by well-landscaped media smoothies. One went so far, after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, to declare that white men are the "biggest terror threat" in this country and that “something” must be done about "them." Are those World War II Japanese-American internment camps still available? Such deep thinkers with, sadly, such big microphones.

After each horrific shooting, our predictable politicos begin elbowing each other under the basket on gun control. It’s an easy photo op that lets them look serious without having to do anything to actually help end all these senseless shootings. Our little ones are being slaughtered in their classrooms. Let’s argue tougher background checks and magazine capacities. That should fix it. Logical ideas such as hardening our schools are met with hand-wringing.

In the meantime, a wounded nation (yes, we all feel this) is sliding into a dark place wondering if any space is safe … and if we’re next … and if we should arm ourselves … and if it’s even worth going to that — fill in the blank — concert, church service, restaurant, movie, workplace.  

Americans look to law enforcement for more than it can deliver. “Please, officer, figure out who might become a shooter and stop them ahead of time.” That normally can’t be done, either practically or constitutionally. It is not illogical to presume that some law enforcement encounters with disturbed individuals may have dissuaded a pending violent act but, as we saw with the Borderline Bar shooter this past week, prior police contact is not necessarily enough to derail evil.

Law enforcement professionals are deeply affected by these crazed shootings as well. You can hear it in the now-familiar parking lot press conferences with statements such as “worst crime scene I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many” delivered with cracking voices belonging to the toughest of men. The media mouths and politicians don’t seem truly interested in what law enforcement sees in front of them; instead, they’re off peddling their own agendas which have to do with ratings and votes, not stopping these shootings.

If we want a chance at ending this shooting madness, this is what law enforcement professionals would point out:  

Notoriety. Shooters shoot because of internal anger over self-perceived deficiencies. But we tend to get distracted by the forced focus on motivations such as racism and jihadism, anti-this and phobia of that — so valued for their political usefulness. But those are just manifestations of the weak, the way they act out and grasp at self-importance; they are not the cause. The self-perceived weakling, consistently the profile of a mass shooter, ultimately wants what he believes he’s been cheated out of his whole life: attention. (The Borderline Bar shooter reportedly posted to Instagram — while murdering in the bar.)

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And mass shootings do get a lot of attention; they are, frankly, cable-ratings gold. Many of us now know from memory the names of the Sandy Hook and Parkland and Las Vegas shooters. And that’s the point. Weakling, wannabe shooters want to be part of that perverse notoriety. That’s their primary motivator. If news coverage was ratcheted way back and the shooter’s name and image were never published, mass shootings would greatly diminish, if not end. But that’s a hard path to tread.

Illness. While nearly all mass shooters are weak personalities, not all weak personalities act out violently. The difference normally is an infection of severe emotional or mental illness. Law enforcement professionals with long careers will attest to a sense that the body of disturbed individuals is increasing, year over year, in this country. Academics will have their chin-rubbing theories as to why, but cops see what they see every day: growing substance abuse, porn saturation, abused children and women, foolish decisions, the hopelessness and despair all of that generates.

We seem paralyzed to deal with mental illness the way the mentally ill need us to do. Out of a sort of fashionable false-compassion advanced in the late 1970s, we default to a risky hands-off attitude; just ask the excrement-paved cities of San Francisco and Seattle — some compassion, that. As mental illness grows, law enforcement and mental health professionals intersect more, and it’s often bumpy. Truly compassionate steps could be taken to better protect the mentally ill from societal neglect, and to protect us. But that, too, is a difficult path.  

Family. Law enforcement professionals know well that the bulk of the clientele of our penitentiaries do not come from healthy two-parent families. Absent or abusive fathers create most of our criminals. Today, 40 percent of children in America are born out of wedlock — in the ’70s, it was around 10 percent ... tick, tick, tick. Are we willing to re-stigmatize these behaviors for the safety of our society? Doesn’t seem so, but this is a major cause of violent behaviors. Again, a difficult pathway.

Those down in the policing trenches have tactile familiarity with the causes of massive violence. The pathway to begin to actually combat these causes is fairly well illuminated, but narrow and difficult. Shall we start down it together? Oh, wait, this other path over here is wider and easier — on it, we can ban some bump stocks and have blaming contests and harrumph along with the media shouters and politicians during wall-to-wall coverage of yet another dispiriting shooting; everyone can shelter in their self-righteous place along the way.

That path, however, will have more and more bodies on it.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.