by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
[The following post was re-edited on 2/24/18, mostly to shorten and improve readability]
There have been at least seven school shootings during school hours so far this year where children have been killed or injured. This includes 17 students recently killed in Parkland, Florida. We can't normalize this. Mass casualty shootings are a public health crisis.
We don't really know much about what triggers a young person to start shooting his peers. Part of the reason we don't know is that the shooters don't always live to tell their story. But there are also "don't ask, don't tell" government policies surrounding gun violence. The NRA has gotten the US Congress to block the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) from collecting data on gun violence or from studying the problem.
What we know is that these mostly young male assailants are not terrorists in a formal sense. Terrorists are motivated by politics and oppression. They commit horrible acts against soft targets to draw attention to their views. Sometimes terrorists do act out of vengeance while hiding behind politics or religion.
Tentative Profile of the Shooters
School shooters like Nikolas Cruz in Parkland seem to be motivated by internal fantasies that stem from a social pathology. They have troubled histories with symptoms of odd behaviors and emotional disturbances that are not clearly tied to a specific underlying mental illness. For example, they have no brain-chemical imbalance, no obvious thought disorders or don't hear voices telling them to do these things. As a result, they often aren't diagnosed as "mentally ill" in a strict clinical sense. This diagnostic ambiguity complicates their interactions with mental health systems and the law, and parents find it difficult to get effective help.
Instead, these loners become increasing self-isolating. They have weak social relationship and poor social skills. They may have a history of been shunned or bullied by peers, perhaps because they act so differently. They can appear passive or unpredictably aggressive. They excessively engage in solitary activities such as video games or social media. Some come to feel powerless and insecure on many levels and may then develop an active inner fantasy life to help them cope with their short comings.
A percentage of these socially troubled youth may become fascinated with military style assault weapons for several reasons. These weapons look "cool" and powerful, like the military hardware they see on TV and in their video games. They develop a strong desire to own these weapons. and owning them makes them feel powerful, more in control and perhaps more manly. By contrast, their actual cross-gender relationships are often either absent or very dysfunctional. Once they own these weapons their inner fantasies begin to evolve around the weapon and how they might use them.
This probably describes a large group of cohorts of youth. Most don't become a mass murderers. Why a few flip is anyone's guess. Was Cruz' expulsion from school a triggering event for him? We shall see.
In all cases, young people who exhibits these sort of histories and behaviors are seriously in need of help. Current mental health screening protocols, treatment methods, treatment accessibility and mental health laws are not adequate to identify and help this population. The efforts needed to identify and treat potential mass shooters will take time. If we started today to study, identify and treat these kids it might take a years to bring the present crisis under control.
Guns and Gun Culture Factors
A much faster, direct way to curb the violence would be take these murderous military style weapons out of the hands of civilians, and young people in particular. A key concept here is "style", as in fashion. It isn't the technical capability of an AR-15 that attracts these kids, but it's looks.
Gun enthusiasts will tell you the AR-15 is semi-automatic and therefore it isn't an assault weapon. This definition is a distinction without a difference. The design is such that a large magazine clip and a bump stock is all it takes to turn them into fully automatic assault weapons. Moreover, they have three times the muzzle speed of a handgun which gives their small bore bullets more kinetic energy and much greater killing power.
More importantly, the perception of the AR-15 as a military style assault style weapon is very powerful. It impacts the attitudes and behaviors of everyone who owns them and this has an especially powerful impact on socially vulnerable youth. And as we know, what is real in its perception is real in its consequence.
Below is a picture of two rifles with almost identical capabilities. In both models, a bump stock and a large capacity magazine would turn either into an assault weapon.
It is obvious from the captions that this comparison is used by gun rights advocates, but just consider the visual impact. The Ruger Mini looks like a regular hunting rifle. The AR-15 stands out. It looks the military grade hardware depicted in Hollywood movies and just about every video game kids play. What child would prefer the Ruger Mini to an AR-15?
Perceptions matter. Perceptions alter behavior and cultural. The advertizing impact of these weapons in games and movies is a powerful force in a developing mind. It's a marketers paradise.
Along with there, there is an overall militarization of our culture in recent times. Police training is being turned over to companies that also train our solders. A government program sells excess military equipment (initially set up in the 1990's by Dick Cheney) to local police departments who are trained in their use. This alters the culture of our domestic police forces and creates an "us vs. them" militia mindset. And a growing fervency in patriotic adulation for our soldiers and police officers, (as opposed to the due respect and appreciation they deserve) has an impact on our children's cultural development and values. We are all blurring the lines between military culture and a more peaceful minded civil society.
A General Framework for Action
There are at least two main, interdependent parts to the mass school shooting problem. One is the increased proneness of certain children towards gun violence, and the other is the ready availability of highly lethal assault weapons that play into their fantasies. The first part is complex and difficult to change quickly. The second part can change quickly but for strong political and cultural opposition. The parts are interdependent steps take in each can have an effects on the other. For example, changes in the prevalence of assault weapons can impact the gun culture and how guns are perceived by children. Conversely, detection and interventions for socially at risk children in eliminate violence incidents and improve the overall milieu and learning environment, in schools. A healthy child in a healthy environment is a more responsible gun owner, if they choose to own a gun.
What can politicians do to end these mass casualty episodes?. What can parents do to help their children who get caught in a web of social failure?
A Public Health Emergency
The most immediate actions we can take on the mental health side is to untie the hands of the NIH and the CDC. Let them do their job. For too long Congress has tied our hands so that the gun industry won't be encumbered by inconvenient truths. The NRA has blocked gun violence research for over 20 years. Congress won't even let the CDC collect data on gun violence. This is not acceptable.
Let our public health institutions treat gun violence and gun deaths is a public health crisis. Give them the funding they need bring science to bear on the issues. Make mass shootings at our children's schools a national emergency. Set up task forces to study the issue. Let them identify better screening protocols and intervention strategies that can be introduced at the local level so parents have the help they seek. Provide community based strategies to help communities prevent these children from falling between the cracks. We need healthier social environments in our schools and our communities. For that we need stronger national leadership. We have a significant public health crisis and the champions in the best position to help us with it have been sidelined.
Gun Control and Changing Gun Culture
The quickest way to curb mass shooting episodes by socially dysfunctional students is to simply make ownership or possession of military style weapons illegal. These weapons are the objects of their murderous fantasies. Take them away.
High velocity, rapid fire weapons with large magazines are not appropriate for hunting game. They are killing machines of war. Banning them is also a step towards reestablishing a cultural separation between weapons of war and a more wholesome respect for guns in a peaceful society.
Current marketing forces are at work to make military hardware sexy and desirable to boost profits, but this campaign has negative impacts on children who are culturally developing. The proliferation of ultra lethal weapons, even among local law enforcement and criminal, foster a more aggressive militancy. Nobody wants this. The Ruger Mini 14 (above) has all the same capacity and a higher muzzle velocity than the AR-15 but it doesn't convey the same messaging. Perceptions matter especially for the young. Maintaining a distinction in weapons of war and peace doesn't violate a person's right to bear arms. It sets reasonable limits on that right, as is true with every other constitutional right. It sends a cultural message.
Making all weapons less lethal should be part of the strategy to curb mass gun violence. Bump stocks and trigger cranks easily turn any semi-automatic weapon into a fully automatic killing machine. Banning them should be the message our cultural heritage conveys. And we should limit the size of a magazines capacity for semi-automatic weapons. Comprehensive background checks, ending gun show loopholes and all the rest of the other standard fixes that are offered after horrendous shooting incidents are all worthy considerations as well. They convey the message that gun ownership is a serious business and is not every member of society can be trusted to own a gun.