Opinion | Criminal Justice

Like previous mass shootings, El Paso and Dayton policy momentum is fading

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

It's been more than two weeks since the horrific mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, and unfortunately the familiar post-shooting pattern is already emerging. As the memorial flowers wither, the initial policy momentum is slowing appreciably and the national conversation, so focused on action immediately after the attacks, is already moving on to other themes. 

I am familiar with this pattern because I saw it emerge after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, one of the largest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11. As the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, I led the team that responded to the shooting, investigated and prosecuted those who conspired with the perpetrators, and worked with the victims' families and the survivors in the aftermath of the attack. 

There is no other law enforcement experience that compares to working cases involving the mass assassination of innocent people. It's a traumatic experience that sears in a memory of the events and the people involved. 

Those killed and wounded were young, old, male, female, gay and straight. They were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. They came from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Some were immigrants to the area and others had lived in San Bernardino all of their lives. They represented America; they represented us all. 

For a time, it looked like their sacrifice might inspire proactive policy change that could help prevent similar mass shootings. But this promise of progress did not last. The status quo reasserted itself and nothing was done. Since the San Bernardino attack, we have witnessed the same thing happen again and again after Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Parkland, Santa Fe, Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks, Gilroy and apparently now after El Paso and Dayton. 

This now-dominant pattern is doubly tragic. First, we are repeatedly failing to honor the sacrifice of the victims by learning from these tragedies and taking meaningful steps to prevent them from ever happening again.

Secondly, because public and policy attention shifts so quickly, we fail to address the long-term negative impacts of these events. 

As I learned first hand in San Bernardino, mass shootings - horrific in the short-term - also have horrific and lasting effects in the long-term. Few people realize what deep scars such attacks leave behind. 

Those who survive face days, months and years of grief made all the harder to bear because there is no ready model to help them heal from losing a loved-one in such a sudden and violent way. As survivors, they must also endure the life-long burden of survivors' guilt. 

What many of us don't appreciate is that every time there is another mass shooting, these survivors face reliving a piece of their pain all over again. They know that another family has experienced the same horror they endured. They are reminded again how common these shootings are and confronted with the dreadful possibility that they will continue to relive their pain again and again. 

The first responders, investigators and victim support teams must also deal with the long-term effects of working these cases. Again, it is hard for most of us to imagine what they have gone through. They have not only witnessed death on an unprecedented scale, but they must also process the fact that many victims spend their last moments in terror. 

No human being should see this type of crime scene even once in his or her lifetime - yet, some responders work on multiple mass casualty cases. During the response to the San Bernardino attack, I learned that some of the federal responders on our team previously worked on the response to the Boston Marathon bombing. A few short months after the San Bernardino attack, many of those same responders were deployed to Orlando to respond to the nightclub shooting.

I know how hard these investigators work. They work hard to harness what they must confront and channel it into their commitment to honor the victims and investigate these cases with great diligence and care. Nonetheless, as I myself can attest, the pain of what they have seen and heard lingers for years. 

Such long-term effects are a mostly hidden cost of mass shootings. We owe it to the victims and to our first responders to bring it into the light and fully tally it.

The awful effects of mass shootings last years after the news cameras have been switched off and the hashtags have faded into social media's archives. Families, communities, victim support teams and law enforcement personnel suffer lasting harm. It's time to recognize this fact as another compelling reason to break the country's depressing post-shooting pattern of inaction.

Eileen M. Decker is the former United States attorney for the Central District of California. She is also the former deputy mayor for Homeland Security & Public Safety for the City of Los Angeles. She currently teaches Cybersecurity and Homeland Security at USC and UCLA Law Schools.

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