Selected Thoughts On Mass Shootings

Mandalay Bay
This is the Mandalay Bay Resort And Casino, as seen from Las Vegas Blvd in early 2009
(Copyright © 2009 by Wil C. Fry.)

Like you, I’m tired of talking about it. “Mass shootings”. “Lone Wolf”. “Gun Control”. All of it. More accurately, I’m tired of hearing the same old lines. From everyone. Especially the same old lines that have long been debunked.

My friend Richard Barron raised a good point yesterday:

“We can’t just write off these guys as ‘pure evil’ without figuring them out.”

Labeling mass shooters or killers of other types as “evil” (as our president did) is just a safe way to say “not like us” — and that’s where we keep getting it wrong. We look for things in the shooter’s past to show how different he was from me, because no effing way I would ever shoot up a crowd. I’m not evil. We look for reports of domestic violence, torturing animals, or other documented behavior to separate him from “normal people”. And we usually find it. Or at least we find some grievance that caused them to snap. And we pat ourselves on the back, knowing that he’s “not like us”.

Every one of us with a finger capable of pulling a trigger has the potential to go that route.

The continuum from evil to good isn’t as lengthy as most people imagine.

Deny it if you want if it helps you sleep at night. But I think we’d be better served as a society if we quit dismissing these men as so abnormal that we can’t understand the underlying causes.

• We Don’t Actually Know The Causes

If we actually knew the causes-and-effect of how people become murderers, I like to think we would apply that knowledge to reduce future incidents. But we don’t know. We have no idea what “broke” inside Hitler or Stalin that led to millions of deaths during their reigns. We don’t know why Charles Whitman climbed that clock tower in the 1960s and shot dozens of people. And it’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever know why Stephen Paddock killed nearly 60 people in Las Vegas on Sunday evening.

For Whitman, many suspect a brain tumor. Some have already suggested the same cause for Paddock. It is known that brain injuries can cause profound changes in behavior. Brain tumors do the same. While these discoveries are orders of magnitude beyond what we knew about human behavior just a few centuries ago — when we often attributed sudden behavior changes to demonic possession — they are still just scratching the surface.

An automatic, kneejerk response of “he’s just evil” hinders the thinking that might someday solve it.

• Gun Control Regulations

My position hasn’t changed since 2012, when I listed several measures I would support, but I also still stand by my 2012 statement that changing the Second Amendment is next-to-impossible — and it is that amendment that makes any kind of serious gun control impossible.

On the other hand, which proposed new laws would have prevented the Las Vegas shooting?

Some congresspersons are already toying with the idea of banning bump-stocks, which apparently enabled Paddock to shoot at a higher rate. But how much difference would it have made if he hadn’t had bump-stocks installed on his firearms? He still had a clear vantage point overlooking a huge crowd. He still had piles of ammunition and scads of guns. His primary weapons were semi-automatic even without the bump-stocks, which means you can fire as quickly as you can pull the trigger. For most of us, that’s still pretty quickly (I’ve fired 30 rounds in 10 seconds from a 9mm pistol). Maybe without bump-stocks, the death toll would have been 25 or 45 instead of 58? That’s still horrible.

Limiting magazine capacity would mean only that Paddock would have bought more magazines; it requires less than a second to switch out a magazine.

Stiffer background checks wouldn’t have helped in this case. The shooter had no criminal record. He would still have an easier time buying guns than I do (that’s another story). Background checks were established as a way to prevent guns from falling into the hands of people with a pattern of violent and criminal behavior; Paddock didn’t have such a pattern.

Higher age limits (which I’ve proposed) wouldn’t have helped. That’s intended to keep guns out of the hands of younger people whose brains aren’t fully formed.

Requiring a safety class wouldn’t have helped. That’s intended to prevent needless accidental deaths or injury.

As far as we know, Paddock hadn’t been diagnosed with any mental illness, so barring the mentally ill from getting guns wouldn’t have helped.

So far, the only proposed change I’ve seen that might have helped is the suggestion that hotels “screen everybody coming in and search their luggage”, but even that story admits that a TSA-style line in hotel lobbies would be a “logistical nightmare” (just like it is in airports, where it’s known to not actually work).

Can anyone suggest an actual law that might mitigate these mass shootings? (And I mean one that would stand up to a 2nd Amendment court challenge.)

• ‘Criminals Don’t Obey Laws’

From the right, I keep hearing “but criminals don’t obey laws!” Their logic says passing strict gun-control laws would only hurt law-abiding gun owners. Criminals would get around any such laws by not obeying the laws — because they’re already criminals. (Perhaps hypocritically, these same people use an entirely different set of logic rules when the topic is banning particular drugs or forcing a woman to be pregnant against her will.)

They’re right, of course. Criminals — by definition — don’t obey laws.

But they’re also very, very wrong. And here’s why:

No one is a criminal until he commits a crime. No act is criminal until it is outlawed.

If we actually could think of a law that would (1) survive court challenges and (2) prevent mass shootings, we should pass it. Anyone breaking that law would be, by definition, a criminal.

“Law-abiding gun owners” would only have to obey the new law to refute their own argument.

• Yes, Mental Health Is Important

Increasingly called behavioral health, the mental health field has come a long way. But I think those in the field recognize how far we still have to go.

Just 30 years ago — when I was in my teens — there was a heavy stigma attached to any appointments with a mental health professional. Characters in movies made fun of it. Adults in my life made fun of it. Peers made fun of it. Almost no one took it seriously. People’s careers would be ruined instantly if they admitted they’d been seeing a psychiatrist. Today, almost all of us know someone who’s been in therapy of one kind or another, and most of us probably know someone we think ought seek therapy.

Mental Health Awareness Month has been May for the past 68 years; but I only heard of it a few years ago. Mental Illness Awareness Week has been around for 27 years, and World Mental Health Day almost as long. (That last one is Oct. 10, just four days from now. The week is the first full week in October — so right now.)

Awareness is important, because it can help remove the stigma of people seeking help, but it’s not the only thing we need. We also need funding. Bigly funding. Mental health professionals don’t come cheap (I know; I’m married to one), and a great number of people who actually need that kind of treatment (or need to know whether they need that treatment) cannot afford it. Not only do we need funding for people seeking treatment, but we need funding for research.

• Conclusion

There is no conclusion. There will be another mass shooting tomorrow or the next day, somewhere. You probably won’t even hear about it unless it’s in your city; they’re far too common nationwide to report on the national news. And before the year is out, there will be another one big enough to make the national news. Next year, there will be another huge one.

What can we do?

* If you don’t own a firearm or have access to one, then congratulations: you’re almost certainly not our next mass shooter.

* If you do own a firearm, please exercise basic safety precautions and treat the weapon with the respect due its lethal power. Also, try not to shoot people.

* All of us can advocate for better mental health treatment in this country, and we can vote for those who would fund it.

* All of us can advocate for more research, and we can vote for those who would fund it. (Not only research into mental health, but into causes of violence, neurology, and other related fields.)

* We can advocate for “common sense” gun laws — which probably wouldn’t have stopped the Vegas shooting, but might very well avoid other needless deaths or injury. And we can vote for the people who will write and pass those bills.

In the meantime, keep your head on a swivel, pay attention to your surroundings, be aware of potential threats and ways to get to safety.

  1. Dana says:

    Assuming this is a problem attributed primarily to people with mental illness is as glib as suggesting it’s the fault of individual evil.

    I represent many mentally ill clients. Many commit violent acts. Few (okay, none) commit mass murders.

    In this country – fault lies squarely with the 2nd Amendment. I agree it will not be repealed in my lifetime (or perhaps ever) but until it is, there will be mass shootings in this country.

    There are dozens of studies that mass shootings occur far (far, far, far) less frequently in countries with strict gun control laws than in the U.S.

    The media (and American society) keep asking why this (most recent mass shooting) happened. The reality is, we will never know the motive. The shooter killed himself. There is no answer to why this happened other than bad things happen. Even if Paddock was captured alive, we may have never learned the “why” behind his actions.

    • Dana says:

      Yikes – I missed a serious typo

      “Most (okay, none) commit mass murders” should read, “Most (okay, none) do NOT commit mass murders.”

      • Dana says:

        No, that’s still not correct. Just revise that sentence to say that mentally ill clients on the whole do not commit mass murders.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      I changed it to “few (okay none)”, which seemed easiest. I hope that’s okay.

      Will respond more fully when I get my PC debugged. (Something is wrong with it.)

      • Dana says:

        Thanks, your phrasing was what I was very inelegantly trying to get across.

  2. Wil C. Fry says:

    * “I represent many mentally ill clients.”

    Thank you. Seriously, thank you.

    * “Even if Paddock was captured alive, we may have never learned the “why” behind his actions.”

    Yes, exactly.

    I think what I’m getting at above is that we might someday know if we keep studying and researching. I’d like to the sciences dealing with the human mind someday develop to the point of the sciences that deal with the rest of the body.

    * “Assuming this is a problem attributed primarily to people with mental illness is as glib as suggesting it’s the fault of individual evil.”

    Definitely. In fact, it’s just a different way of saying “not like us”, which is exactly the same as when people use “evil”. “Unlike ME, that guy’s mind was messed up.” It’s the “not like us” part that I want to get rid of.

    Unfortunately, many Americans (some of them mentally ill themselves) think mentally ill people are intrinsically violent (source). It’s a convenient scapegoat. But, as I said above, Paddock wasn’t (to my knowledge) diagnosed with any mental illness. And I haven’t read anything about his past behavior that automatically marks him as mentally ill.

    [I also couldn’t find where he had a substance abuse problem (which often IS the determining factor for violent behavior).]

    I wish more people knew that “Most patients with stable mental illness do not present an increased risk of violence” (source).

    HOWEVER, coming from the other side, “Numerous studies have shown significant rates of mental illness in criminal populations” (Ibid).

    So, a fast car is usually not a Lambroghini, but a Lambroghini is significantly likely to be a fast car.

    But I brought up mental health in the first place because that’s where so many people’s minds go. It’s one of the “tired lines” that I keep seeing (“we gotta stop letting mentally ill people get guns!”) I guess my point is that — because the one in four Americans who have a diagnosable mental illness are overwhelmingly nonviolent — we need to know more about how the mind works before we can use that as a wedge.

    More information is better. More knowledge helps everything.


    (I’m certain we’re on the same page about this; but I also know I’m not using the right words — my wife gets frustrated with me when discussing mental illness because my viewpoint is SO laypersonish.)

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