Five ways to reduce mass shootings in the US

It's not impossible to reduce mass shootings like the one in San Bernardino, experts say. The US has been able to eliminate or dramatically reduce other forms of violence.

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Chaplain Chuck Bender, right, prays with Michael Davila at a makeshift memorial honoring the victims of Wednesday's shooting rampage, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in San Bernardino, Calif. The FBI said Friday it is officially investigating the mass shooting in California as an act of terrorism, while a U.S. law enforcement official said the woman who carried out the attack with her husband had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and its leader on Facebook.

Afraid. Helpless. Numb.

According to news reports, those are some feelings shared by Americans after a wave of disturbing mass shootings, including the one Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., where 14 people were killed and 21 others wounded in a hail of bullets.

By unofficial counts the 355th mass shooting in 2015, the mayhem in Southern California was preceded hours earlier by a mass shooting in Savannah, Ga. Before that, the list goes on: Roseburg, Colorado City, Isla Vista, Chattanooga, Charleston, Phoenix, Aurora, Newtown.

This is how the news makes Tampa, Fla., resident Wendy Malloy feel: “It is a constant, grinding anxiety. And it gets louder every day,” she told The New York Times.

The US is dealing with what appears to some experts to be an increasingly greater willingness by disturbed or ideologically motivated individuals to lash out at perceived injustices by meting out maximum damage to strangers.

In the past four years, the pace of such attacks has accelerated, by some measures. According to a Harvard University study based on a database compiled by Mother Jones magazine, what used to be an average of 200 days between mass shooting deaths in the US has dropped to just over 60 since 2011.

To address the roots of this trend in a substantive way, experts say, will require shifts in attitude and political thought.

While it often is left out of political rhetoric, America has seen dramatic successes in quelling violent crime in the past century – from the elimination of lynchings to decreases in domestic violence and child abuse, from declines in cop shootings and gun homicides, which have dropped 49 percent since a peak in 1993, according to Pew. Considering progress made in reducing other forms of violence, Americans and their institutions aren’t quite as powerless as it may sometimes seem to, if not eliminate, dramatically curb what’s become a numbing kind of new normal.

At the same time, it’s clear that any broad-based attempt to address mass shootings as a societal ill will have to involve several factors. Chief among them is compromise among political partisans and a greater willingness to accept advances in science, forensics, mental health screening, and gun safety features.

“The choice between the blood-soaked status quo and the politically impossible is a false one,” Evan DeFilippis and Devin Huges, the founders of Armed With Reason, wrote recently in The Washington Post.

Experts see five areas in which progress could be made in reducing mass shootings:

1)  Threat assessment

In a nondescript FBI building near Washington, D.C., sits Behavioral Unit No. 2, a federal threat assessment laboratory that disseminates its strategies to pinpoint potential havoc-makers to local police departments. Its mission to spot potential domestic mass shooters was added onto the FBI's profiling wing in 2010, as an outgrowth of counter-terror activities going back to 9/11. Many of its interventions don't involve arrest, but rather helping someone get help to address mental health issues.

It is not a perfect system. Santa Barbara police supposedly versed in threat assessment visited Elliot Rodger on a so-called welfare, or check-up, call from his mother. Everything seemed fine to the officers, but they failed to ascertain whether he had recently purchased a gun, a standard question that threat assessment professionals say can be crucial in stopping a shooter in the planning stages. A few days later, Mr. Rodger killed six people during a campus rampage in Isla Vista.

But despite such failures, the American government, as well as states, already has investigators combing leads for any common thread of danger. It’s a strategy in its infancy, but proponents say the tactics, which when used correctly don’t violate individual constitutional rights, can be further shifted from terrorism to mass shootings.

Unit No. 2 has been involved in at least 500 interventions that might have ended in mass shootings. “Threat assessment has been America's best and perhaps only response to the accelerating epidemic of active shooters and mass shootings,” Tom Junod reported for Esquire last year.

2)  Common sense gun controls

No, the science is not settled on whether stronger gun control laws actually quell mass gun violence. In the case of San Bernardino, the weapons were bought legally. Also, California already has some of the strongest gun control laws in the country.

But “there’s such a clear middle ground” in the gun control debate “because you can stem gun violence without taking away guns,” says Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society, at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn.

Experts would like to see more of that middle ground employed.

The 2009 Heller decision by the US Supreme Court did guarantee the right of Americans to have access to firearms for personal protection, but left municipalities and states with room to regulate weaponry among the citizenry. And some of those legal checks on gun ownership have proven effective in saving lives.

When Connecticut enacted a law in 1995 that required that people purchase a permit before purchasing a gun, studies found a 40 percent reduction in the state’s homicide rate.

When Missouri in 2007 repealed a similar permit-to-purchase law, the state saw a 16 percent increase in suicides with a gun.

3) Citizen defenders

In terms of compromise, if gun owners cede new checks on gun ownership, then gun control proponents may have to concede points of their own, specifically that lawful gun-carry by responsible Americans can have a role in deterring, or in certain cases, stopping mass killers once an attack has begun.

One of the victims in the San Bernardino attack told CNN on Thursday that he wished he had been armed as he hunkered in a bathroom with bullets whizzing through the wall.

It is, without question, a controversial proposition. Sheriffs in Arizona and New York have called for concealed carry permit holders and retired police officers to carry their weapons with them to rebuff any attack. But other law enforcement officers have said they oppose having untrained bystanders step in to active shooter situations, possibly resulting in more loss of innocent life.

While rare, there have been cases, often involving off-duty police officers, where someone has been able to successfully intervene.

  • In 2007, an off-duty police officer having an early Valentine’s Day dinner with his wife shot and killed an 18-year-old gunman at an Ogden, Utah, mall, stopping a rampage where five people died. “There is no question that his quick actions saved the lives of numerous other people,” then-police chief Chris Burbank said at the time. 
  • In 2010, another off-duty police officer drew his personal weapon and fired when a man attacked an AT&T store in New York Mills, N.Y. The attacker was killed before he could carry out a plan to murder several employees at the store.
  • And in 2012, a young shooter killed two people and wounded three others during a rampage at Clackamas Town Center before a man carrying a lawful personal weapon drew it and pointed it at the man. At that point, the assailant retreated, and then killed himself in a stairway.

Many Americans don’t like how widespread gun-carry has become in recent years. 

But it’s already a fact of life, and one that, some law enforcement experts believe can be corralled into a potential bulwark the next time someone decides to go on a shooting spree.

4) The science of violence

Why is America, one of the bastions of scientific breakthroughs on the globe, so hesitant to better understand the fundamental dynamics of how guns, if at all, promote violence?

Partisan politics is the obvious answer to why Congress has for 20 years blocked the Centers for Disease Control from using public funds to study gun violence, worried that the data will be used for gun control advocacy. But even deeper is a long-running distrust between the NRA and gun control advocates about each other’s true intentions.

One symptom of the lack of systematic study is that there is currently no common standard for tracking mass shootings. Most news reports this week, including this one, have cited crowdsourced data from two online tracking sites that rely on news reports, in conjunction with studies such as the Harvard one and an FBI report on “active shooter” situation

The NRA rebuffs even the most minor check on guns on the idea that it’s part of a disarmament end game rather than an effort to save lives. The other side reflexively paints the gun lobby as a puppet for culpable weapons manufacturers, indeed as co-conspirators to violence, rather than as a politically active firearms safety organization.

That means any movement on research funding will require both sides to ease up their rhetoric and open their eyes to the emerging facts.

For example, one key question is whether laws that make it easier to carry guns reduce crime or increase it. Studies have found trends, but causation has remained elusive.

"Fundamental questions of whether you are safer carrying a gun around with you or not have not been answered adequately,” Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, told the Post recently.

After all, applying scientific research to other societal dangers has had dramatic impacts on human safety.

As highway death tolls rose in the US decades ago, studies of car crashes showed that younger people were particularly prone to serious accidents. In response, states raised standards for younger adults, improved car safety, and saved thousands, if not millions, of lives.

“We learned that you could design cars to be safe … [and] we could do the same with guns and save some lives,” said Mr. Webster at Johns Hopkins. Having deeper knowledge “opens you up to having fuller understanding of the problem and what you can do to solve it.”

5) Celebrate victims, shun shooters

A free, vigorous press is enshrined in the Constitution as one of the highlights of American democracy. Yet studies have shown that current coverage of mass shootings likely fuel what experts call a “contagion effect,” given that many modern mass shooters emulate their “heroes” and yearned for their own infamy.

There are strategies that responsible media enterprises can employ without abandoning their fact-finding missions, says Ron Astor, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California.

“I’m like everybody else, I want to know who the person is, who his wife was, why they did it – that’s human nature,” he says. “But focusing intently on victims and what was lost here in a meaningless and random way … sends a really clear message that the sanctity of human life is so high that it’s unacceptable to shoot somebody as a way to send a message. Yes, it’s a news story that needs to include important information, but talking about the lives that were destroyed, what good they did, why that was taken away from us for no reason, that’s important, and will change how we think and how we feel.”

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