Civil defense is key to tackling America's mass shootings

Civil defense is key to tackling America's mass shootings
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Last weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton have resulted in the distressingly familiar post-massacre ritual: the cable TV news roving crisis bubble migrating to the new sites; the riveting stories of heartbreak and heroism; the news, reported each time as though it's a revelation, that the initial first responders were civilians, who don’t really consider themselves heroes but who did their best.

Also unchanged, unfortunately, have been the partisan prescriptions for how to address the problem. The Democrats, as usual, are calling for passage of gun control measures such as enhanced background checks and extended waiting periods. The GOP is urging greater attention to mental illness and the effects of violent video games, arguing that perpetrators of mass shootings are, as President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE said, “mentally ill monsters.” He, too, suggests stronger background checks. 

Here’s an additional tragedy: None of this matters. Neither approach will work. Congress could package both parties’ proposals in omnibus legislation and the results, while perhaps politically palliating, would be minimal.



Gun control measures ignore the reality that there are nearly 400 million guns already in private hands. Ceasing sales of guns completely tomorrow would be unavailing as a remedy for mass shootings, because the American public is armed to its teeth. 

On the other hand, the tendency to label mass killers as mentally ill video game fanatics ignores the awkward demographic fact that, as FBI behavioral scientists recently concluded, 25 percent of mass shootings have been perpetrated by people previously identified as mentally ill.  One can hardly solve the problem of mass shootings by addressing a population that accounts for only one-fourth of the incidents. 

Furthermore, there is no reliable profile of the impending assailant. As anyone involved in law enforcement can attest, there is no shortage of aggrieved and angered people of every conceivable age and background. Predicting which one of thousands, if not millions, of potentially unhinged individuals is having a cosmically bad day and will be the one to open fire is likely to remain inscrutable. Psychology may be a science, but it ain’t rocket science, even if this context sometimes involves explosives.

So here is where we stand: The gun control option comes too late; the mental health approach covers too little. What other options exist?


Let’s start with what else won’t work. The suggestion, featured prominently in the New York Times, that somehow federal law enforcement has been left structurally unprepared to deal with “domestic terrorism” and that this can be cured by empowering a federal agency to designate certain entities as “domestic terrorists” is, quite simply, pretextual nonsense. 

Federal law enforcement has been acutely aware of and tracking so-called “domestic terrorists” since the Oklahoma City and Olympic Park bombings of the mid-1990s. Any distinction, moreover, in the age of the social media, between “domestic” and “foreign” terrorism is entirely fatuous; the El Paso shooter evidently was inspired by the Christchurch shooter. Terrorism is transnational now. A bureaucratic adjustment, therefore, is not the solution, because the problem is larger than law enforcement — however configured — is capable of addressing.

Years of studying mass casualty events, ranging from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen, have reinforced for me an obvious lesson: We must respond to the threat of such events not according to some top-down generalized categories or guidance but based on how experience teaches us such events actually occur. 

We have known since 9/11 that civilians will become first responders, and that those who are trained perform much better in a crisis. So why is there little organized training of the general public to act as first responders in such emergencies? Why isn’t such training a prerequisite to graduating from high school or college? To insurance coverage for businesses? To accreditation for professional associations?

We also know from the experience of multiple mass casualty attacks, from Nice to New Zealand to El Paso, that law enforcement is simply not capable of tracking every potentially unhinged personality who might be tempted to open fire. Such people must be identified by people in their lives who note changed behavior and report them to the appropriate authorities, who must be ready to receive such intelligence.  

A prime example of this is the recent case of a grandmother who, disturbed by the behavior of her grandson, reported him to law enforcement, which was able to stop her grandson before he opened fire with automatic weapons in his possession. Her intervention may have saved hundreds of lives.    

All of this begs the question: Given the importance of civilians to the evolving counter-terror mission, why is there no national civil defense program to train the police and the general public to assume this critical responsibility?

A well-funded and -executed civil defense program — more than extended background checks on future gun sales or mental health assessments — is what our moment demands.  

So-called “red flag” legislation, empowering the government to limit access to firearms to dangerous people in crisis, will be effective only if it allows for the general public to report aberrant behavior, and provides funding for training the public in how to spot aberrant behavior and for training law enforcement in how to respond when it receives such a report.

We must, in sum, play the hand we have been dealt: leadership whose political instincts sow  division and invite discord; more than 390 million guns owned by Americans; a toxic social media environment that niche markets all of us to the endpoints of our biases; a political culture in which any notion of restraint in the name of a greater good has been lost.  

In the face of these realities, our only hope is us. Civil defense is the bet we place on ourselves.

John Farmer Jr. is University Professor at Rutgers Law School and a faculty associate of the Eagleton Institute of Politics. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.