The nation’s convulsion of conscience after each modern mass shooting has become eerily predictable. Thoughts and prayers. Flowers on the sidewalk. Teary memorial services.
And cries – sometimes very loud, large ones, as followed the recent Florida school shooting – to do something about firearms. All this to ignite a national conversation.
Because Americans do not listen to each other anymore, it becomes instead a pointless national argument, stoked by those benefiting from public strife, including media.
And as much as proponents on all sides may genuinely believe their case, history reveals very little of substance ever results from such convulsions, even in election years, as passions and pains subside. Where are all those changes Sandy Hook would provoke?
But something serious can be done – must be done -- to prevent or reduce these deadly outbursts. We don’t need new laws. We need a serious social, legal and education confrontation with the issue of mental health.
That’s uncomfortable for sure, the ugly elephant in society’s living room. No one talks about a shooter’s dangerous mental health until it’s too late. Using the cover of political correctness, we recoil from terms like crazy and bananas and avoid the topic entirely. Because having a gun is dangerous. But having a mental illness engenders sympathy that cloaks the danger.
Whatever the words, mentally ill is what they are. In Florida, for example, several someones saw Nikolas Cruz’ condition. And if anyone had the courage to say so, those 17 kids might not be dead. As well as many other victims before and those yet to come because vocal Americans with opinions on anything suddenly turn afraid to talk mental health.
We need to treat them humanely, of course, but differently. Because too many innocent people have paid the ultimate price for our reluctance to face the mental health stigma. That’s crazy.
The Secret Service, which has a keen professional interest in shooters, has studied mass shootings. A major theme: Mental illness. Do ya think? No sane person walks into a school or church intent on killing as many as possible.
What’s surprising is that as a society we haven’t seriously picked up on that after all these lethal incidents and established a real system to spot and deal with them before.
Think of the intricate security and profiling system in place to screen and search hundreds of thousands of air passengers daily, almost all of them as innocent as the underwear that gets scanned.
The most recent Secret Service update of 28 shootings with 150 victims found that three-quarters of the shooters had displayed unusual behavior or writings that raised suspicions among others, who said or did nothing before it was too late.
Many shooters, especially younger ones, can’t help whispering plans to someone. If that’s an unconscious plea to be stopped, all the more reason to detect them.
Two-thirds of shooters had previous signs of mental illness such as paranoia and delusions. And fully a quarter of them had actually been hospitalized or treated with psychiatric drugs.
That’s no crime. But if those patients are also targeting neighborhood pets for practice. Posting dreams of homicide. Beating up a girlfriend. That’s suspicious.
Devin Kelley had been in trouble for sexual assault, stalking ex-girlfriends, abusing an ex-wife and escaping from a mental ward where he’d been placed for fracturing his infant son’s skull.
Yet none of that disqualifying information made it into the database to prevent him from legally acquiring the firearms he used to kill 26 people in a Texas church last November. That doesn’t require a law. That requires training.
Parkland school administrators knew of Cruz’s behavioral issues so well they expelled him. Local police knew about him from frequent calls. Social workers knew of his troubled life. Mental health counselors too. School friends joked he was a shooter.
Yet he could still pull it off. And police responded by waiting outside the school.
Yes, mental health remains a touchy subject. Better to face it up front don’t you think as possible prevention rather than later as a useless explanation for mass murder.
We can argue for empty years over adjusting age limits and other legislation to close gun purchase loopholes or whatever. Fine, go ahead.
But right now we can establish a standardized system for schools, doctors, law enforcement and counselors to safely file confidential reports—and someone to comb the combined data for common patterns that should trip alarms. Remember, this is how the 9/11 hijackers evaded detection--no one saw that all the little pieces actually formed a suspicious pattern.
Potential shooters still have rights, of course. However, so too do school kids, concertgoers, mall shoppers and others going about their lives with a right not to be a target.
These days when we’re dumping a successful shooter into a body bag, it’s way too late to discover signs of mental illness. And way too late too for all innocent victims in the other body bags.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.