Mass Murder: Blame and Responses

With three mass murders in the past few weeks, the predictable froth is getting whipped up in the media and the court of public opinion about who’s to blame and what should be done about it. Predictably, some quarters are calling for renewed restrictions on firearms and associated components, despite decades of evidence that there is at best a net zero correlation between gun control laws and violent crime rate.

In a superficial sort of way this response makes sense. This murderer used a Scary Black Rifle with a beta mag, so let’s ban SBRs and beta mags. That murderer used ammo he bought online, so let’s ban ammo purchases online. This murderer used a pistol he bought at a gun show, so let’s ban sales of pistols at gun shows.

But it comes back to the divide between feeling safe and being safe: Taking a potentially dangerous item out of the hands of law-abiding citizens (who, by definition, won’t abuse that item to cause harm to others) won’t keep criminals (who, by definition, won’t abide by the laws and rules of society) from behaving like criminals. It might make us feel safer, but we won’t actually be any safer. In fact, since we’ll make it harder for people to use those tools in defense of themselves and their neighbors, we’ll actually make them less safe, even as they feel more safe.

So, who is to blame for these acts of mass violence, and what can we do about it?

The answer to the first question is easy: The blame for a mass murder rests squarely, 100%, on the shoulders of the mass murderer. Period. The gun/knife/bomb/whatever didn’t make him do it. He made a choice to murder innocent people. It might have been a choice borne out of mental illness, ideological fervor, or he might just be a process predator (to use Rory Miller’s term; I’ll write a post about kinds of predators soon) who enjoys hurting people. But whatever the case, the responsibility starts and ends with the murderer.

If banning guns won’t make us safer, is there anything that will make us safer? Here are a few things I think our society should be looking at as a good place to start:

  • Vastly improved access to mental health care. The vast majority of mass murderers (including several of the recent cases) have had prior serious mental health issues. Access to quality mental health care – especially hospitalization – has been dramatically on the decline in America since at least the 1980s, and too often there’s no way for seriously mentally ill people to get inpatient (or any) treatment until after a tragedy. This is a Bad Thing. I have a child with mental health issues, so I’m not slamming or blaming mentally ill folks here, but the sad truth is far too many of them need help that society isn’t giving them.
  • Much stronger links between the mental health system and law enforcement. The reports I’ve read suggest that the Aurora killer’s psychologist (or psychiatrist; I’m not sure which) reported to both campus authorities and police that she was concerned he might be dangerous. The report was dropped without any action. I’ve read of several cases recently where women reported domestic violence to police, but the necessary steps to remove the abuser’s access to weapons never happened, with tragic results. When someone pops up on “the system’s” radar as a potential danger, that’s the time we should be intervening. We should not wait until tragedy strikes.
  • Changing the media’s response to mass murder incidents. Many mass murderers appear to be isolated, loners, outcasts in one way or another. One of the things they crave is attention, and they’ve learned from experience that their actions are sure to ignite a firestorm in the media. I can’t count the number of mass murderers whose names are now household words. Just look at the images and memories that the mere mention of “Columbine” or “9/11” triggers for people. I was a broadcasting/journalism major in college, and I don’t know that there’s a solution to this problem, but I do know that the media – by blitzing the airwaves with every little detail of a mass murderer’s life and crimes – is too often giving him what he wants.
  • Streamlining (or eliminating) the firearms instant background check process. At present, there seems to be virtually no reliable mechanism whereby a mental health provider who has a legitimate suspicion that someone is mentally unstable enough to pose a threat can easily and quickly cause that individual to be flagged in NICS. Now, let me be clear: I recognize that the background check system could be abused, and I think that any such flag should be limited in time scope (say, 3 days or something) and should automatically trigger an investigation into whether a real threat exists. If no threat is found, the flag should be cleared and, after a time, expunged from the database. Likewise, there needs to be a due process procedure whereby someone who’s listed as prohibited from buying guns in NICS can challenge that listing, if this doesn’t exist already. But a background check database is of no use if relevant data isn’t making it in there. If we’re not willing to make NICS actually work, we should just scrap it.
  • Increasing the cadre of citizens trained to intervene in violent incidents. I am not a fan of mandating huge amounts of training before a citizen can be issued a CCW permit; I think these mandates are usually designed to act as a barrier to entry, and I disagree with them on principle. But, I think every armed citizen would benefit from training, and society would benefit if there were incentives for citizens to get trained. Maybe CCW permits could have extended renewal periods if the holder can document attending an advanced training class like MAG-40 or Close-Range Gunfighting. Perhaps our law enforcement agencies should create citizen volunteer squads with training to assist law enforcement in responding to acts of violence, just as many areas allow citizens to become trained and credentialed to assist first responders in the event of natural disasters. But any way you slice it, our lawfully armed, lawfully trained, law-abiding citizens should be treated like an asset, not a liability.

At the end of the day, though, I think it’s important to remember one additional fact: No law will serve to control the behavior of an offender who has already made the decision to break the law. If an offender cannot buy a gun legally, he’ll steal it, or buy it on the black market, or use a knife or bomb instead. If he’s already decided to commit murder, the fact that he’s doing it with an illegal gun isn’t going to slow him down much. It’s not like a would-be spree killer will say “oh, my god, I can’t own a high capacity magazine – guess I’ll forget about my murderous plans and go volunteer at a homeless shelter instead.” There’s a difference between optimism and naiveté, and at the end of the day reality generally wins.

The rate of traffic deaths in the United States is many times higher than the rate of gun-related homicide, but there’s no group out there lobbying to ban cars. It’s time to stop blaming the tool, and to look at real, effective responses to the problems of mental illness and violence in our society. Talismanic fixation on guns won’t save us.

Oh, and one more stray thought: We’ve spent a lot more time, money and effort on the “war on drugs” – which, by the way, do not enjoy Constitutional protections – to essentially zero effect. Why would anyone think a “war on guns” would be any more effective?


  1. Tammy, I’m intrigued by your statement about availability of mental healthcare, and how access has been declining since the 80’s. Do you have any links or books that I could take a look at? I have had friends and family members with such health issues as well, and I’d like to know more about how the system is working.

    You also said, “When someone pops up on “the system’s” radar as a potential danger, that’s the time we should be intervening. We should not wait until tragedy strikes.” I agree. I think the hard part is figuring out what kind of intervention is needed, and whether or not our legal system (or social services) has the ability to do it.

    • Hi, Jeff,

      I don’t have any books or links close at hand, but I know from conversations with friends and colleagues “in the system” that the passage of Reagan’s 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which effectively ended most federal funding of community treatment for the mentally ill, left many mentally ill folks who don’t have supportive social and financial resources with little place to turn to. As state budgets have become more and more strained, inpatient treatment in particular is getting more and more scarce in many places.

      And yes, you’re of course right that figuring out how and when to intervene is a huge challenge. I don’t profess to know how to solve that problem – though I think that once a referral is made to the authorities (as happened with the Aurora shooter) there should be some mandatory follow-up process. My understanding is that the referral in Aurora went to university officials and the campus police, who decided that since Mr. H. was withdrawing from the school anyway, no further followup was necessary. I view this as akin to dumping a ticking bomb in the next door neighbor’s dumpster and pretending that, since it won’t be YOUR house that blows up, you’ve acted appropriately.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Couldn’t agree more – now to get the politicians and everyone else to buy in!

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