Can We Prevent the Next School Shooting?

Creative Commons photo.

Can we specifically stop public mass shootings, whether at a local grocery store, like Tops in Buffalo, New York (10 killed), or the most recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas (19 children killed, two teachers killed)? Maybe. Even asking that question in that way (“can”), and answering it with a “maybe,” will frustrate people because they think the answer is a resounding “yes,” and we merely lack the political, cultural and moral will to do it.

Mark Follman, a journalist with Mother Jones magazine, and author of the new book out this year, Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America, makes the case in an excerpt from the book for the magazine that stopping the next school shooting is possible through a collaboration between mental health experts and law enforcements officials known as “behavioral threat assessment.”

This “emerging” prevention method aims at intervening with people who are planning violence, Follman explains.

These shooters often engage in a deluge of digital “leakage,” wherein they show signs of planning and violent intent through digital media leading up to the attack. After all, these shooters are often looking to start a race war, or gain infamy, or whatever the claimed case, so it wouldn’t be surprising that they are boastful and transparent about what they are planning to do before they do it.

“I examined various cases inside threat assessment programs in which constructive interventions and close monitoring for deeply troubled individuals led to positive outcomes over the long term,” Follman says.

He cites a Salem, Oregon case where this sort of behavioral threat assessment team was able to intervene with an individual threatening to commit suicide with a gun in front of his ex-girlfriend and peers, and they were able to remove him from that situation, and later, he finished high school, returned to the community, and started a family.

Now, I would like to read more about that case, because was this just a suicidal person? Someone depressed and suicidal sometimes threatens to do commit suicide in front of others. But that’s still a far step from wanting to take others down with you in the process, i.e., inflicting violence upon others.

Of course, as Follman notes, the other side of this coin is Ethan Crumbley’s parents. Crumbley was the one who shot up Oxford High School in Michigan last year, killing four and injuring seven. You can’t even say his parents allegedly ignored his red flags, but actively encouraged them. Hence, they have been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Follman also thinks the Oxford Community Schools District failed in its assessment of Crumbley ahead of the shooting, too. What the behavioral threat assessment team would have done in that case, Follman says, is probe Crumbley’s answers to the District further, kept him under “tight supervision,” and gathered more information about him, including his digital footprints.

I would certainly like to read Follman’s book to see his full argument fleshed out, particularly digging deeper into the case studies. I’m not entirely convinced, though, that these behavioral threat assessment teams can successfully intervene, even if every school district in America put them into place. This prevention model makes a lot of intuitive and case study sense to me when applied to the problem of suicide, but violence toward others seems more tenuous.

I need to and will do more research on this sort of intervention.

And of course, we have to talk about trade-offs — yes, I know, hearing “trade-offs” when one side of the ledger is dead children is an offensive idea to people, but we have to discuss them — wherein we are introducing more outside forces to school children, particularly the police. In the more than 20 years after Columbine, with zero-tolerance policies in full force, a lot of children and teens have been caught up in that dragnet, and usually, poor minority children. I worry a great deal about that. It’s not just that these kids end up in the criminal justice system, but they endure violence at the hands of these SROs. Case in point here.

These school shootings are always horrific, and the latest one in Uvalde brings anyone of good moral character to tears reading the details, and especially seeing the photos of the anguished, already-grieving parents. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to wait at a civic center, hoping that your kid is the one who survived. Nobody of good moral character wants to think that when they send their kid to school, it could be the last time they see them.

“Solutions” that come from the ostensibly pro-Second Amendment crowd (and I hedge with “ostensibly” because that crowd (the NRA sort of crowd) tends to go quiet when they could be coming to the defense of a black person exercising his or her right to the Second Amendment) regarding arming teachers (the same teachers they’ve spent the last few months (years?) demeaning whether that was COVID-related, or curriculum-related), or putting euphemistic “school resource officers” in the schools are not solutions at all. The latter only goes back to my dragnet concern, which doesn’t address this specific problem of public mass shootings in schools. And the former is too nonsensical to entertain.

Red flag laws are perhaps the place where there is the most common ground, if there is any, to be found among pro-Second Amendment types and those favoring gun control. I’ve already previously written about these laws, and how they aren’t exactly the panacea people make them out to be, either.

I do wish people would stop posturing about how easy of a solution the specific problem of public mass shootings is, and that those not enacting that solution (or set of solutions) have blood on their hands. I do think there are a lot of bad faith actors out there (as I already alluded to), and I do think we could go down a rabbit hole discussing how absurdly grotesque the fetish is around guns in America among a certain subset of gun owners, but none of that changes that the specific problem of public mass shootings does not have an easy solution. That’s the reality we need to reckon with if we are serious, and I do think people are earnestly serious, about preventing school shootings.

Even Follman’s behavioral threat assessment solution would not be easy to implement across the United States. That’s a long-term project that would take a considerable amount of effort, collaboration, and buy-in. The point of highlighting that isn’t to say that it is not doable, or too arduous and therefore we shouldn’t do it, only to suggest that we need to reckon with reality: It would be difficult!

Likewise, solutions that amount to “simply” getting rid of guns, or banning a certain type of gun, or something along those lines, is magnitudes more difficult than Follman’s solution to implement, and have considerably, correspondingly bigger trade-offs that also need to be reckoned with. For example, we are not Australia. The United States has orders of magnitude more guns in circulation, and more gun owners, which makes prohibiting guns a mighty task, a long-term “solution”, and something that runs up against other goals (scaling back mass incarceration, and reforming police departments, to name two major ones).

I’ve previously written about some other ideas I think might be helpful to combating this specific problem, such as those proposed by Everytown for Gun Safety, the nonprofit organization founded in 2013 to advocate for gun control and against gun violence.

One of the ideas I liked was student-based, peer-to-peer efforts. As Follman mentions, that is and would be a huge element to ensuring the success of any sort of behavioral threat assessment program, and potentially preventing a would-be mass shooter.

Cory Massimino on Twitter zeroed in on why I think this problem is so particularly hard to solve, and why perhaps people’s solutions are missing the mark, “Locating the problem in culture (alienation, toxic masculinity, violence-fetishism), but locating the solution in law (prohibition, incarceration, police-power) is deeply counter-productive wish fulfillment.”

I’ve spent years writing about toxic masculinity, for example, but that, alienation, and violence-fetishism are hard to solve precisely because they don’t have any easy, ready-made policy component, or at least, ones I would be supportive of without having much worse trade-offs occur.

I wish people would reckon with exactly that dynamic Massimino is talking about, and I wish to read the article (and maybe it’s out there! I can’t see everything!) that explains specifically the policy solution for addressing the specific problem of public mass shootings. There are things we could do, which I still might disagree with, that addresses the problems of accidental shootings (specifically among children), gun-related suicides (the majority of gun-related deaths), and general interpersonal gun violence (the next largest chunk of gun violence), but would do nothing to specifically address public mass shootings. Nobody wants to hear the statistics in the face of such tragedy, so I’m not going to go deep on them, but because of how relatively rare this kind of shooting is, that’s why the potential solutions are more difficult than they are made out to be.

Anyhow, please share those solutions, if you have them available. I keep writing about this because it deeply vexes me to say, “I don’t know,” what the solution is, but that’s generally where I’ve been at.

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