The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Mass Shootings

There have been two mass shooting with 29 people dead and many more injured in the past 48 hours. Mass shootings can occur only if an unstable and alienated murderer has gained access to guns and ammunition that allow carnage to occur in a matter of seconds. There must be serious and effective controls on these weapons and serious and effective controls that limit the ability of mentally unbalanced people from gaining access to any firearm.

Mass shooting are almost always perpetrated by a mentally unstable male who is driven by hatred and/or anger. The shooter is often (but not always) a subscriber to either an alt-Right or alt-Left ideology. Some mechanism to desensitize the shooter to the act of killing large numbers of people indiscriminately is often present. In almost every case, the shooter telegraphs his intent (albeit cryptically) and in most cases, family members or acquaintances recognize signs that the shooter is becoming increasingly unhinged. All of this creates a multi-parametric problem—one that cannot be solved by the usual mantras posed by either the Right or the Left.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal comment:
The problem is identifying those with mental illness who are a threat, and then allowing society to intervene to prevent violence. Overwhelming evidence suggests that the de-institutionalization of the seriously mentally ill has had tragic results. Libertarians and mental-health advocates who resist such intervention need to do some soul-searching.

The same goes for those in the gun lobby who claim that denying access to guns from those with a history of mental illness violates individual rights. So-called red-flag laws that let police or family members petition a court to remove firearms from someone who may be a threat might not have stopped the El Paso killer. But the evidence in the states is that the laws have prevented suicides and may prevent other mass shootings. Gun rights need to be protected, but the Second Amendment is not a suicide pact.
On a pragmatic level, we need to get more serious about limiting access to firearms among those who have mental health problems. The problem, of course, is identifying those individuals in real time so that a firearm purchase can be stopped. The technology to accomplish this does exist, but it is opposed, as the editors of WSJ note, by privacy advocates, gun rights advocates, and advocates for the mentally ill. As with all things, it takes political will to overcome these objections and craft an approach that has some possibility of addressing this horrific problem effectively.

We need a national data base that will help identify mentally unstable people, we need universal background checks for all gun purchases tied directly into the national database, we need red flag laws in every state, we need to close gun show loop holes, we need even better surveillance of alt-Right and alt-Left websites and dark web locations, so that their denizens are identified and tracked, we need to take a hard look at first person video games (surely a mechanism that desensitizes at least some of these murders), and we do need to tone down the divisive rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum.

Sadly, I suspect none of that will happen. And even if some or all of this does happen, I'm under no illusions that these ideas would be easy to implement or that there would not be unintended side effects. I'm also fully aware that privacy rights would suffer, but our increasingly digital, interconnected world, privacy is going the way of the Dodo bird. Finally, none of this would stop the underground sale of guns to criminals by criminals.

Given the current toxic political atmosphere, each party will do what they do best—play politics, rather than attempt to solve real-world problems.


Many younger readers may not know the derivation of the phrase, "going postal." It refers to a number of incidents at the USPS in the 1990s in which postal workers killed or maimed their co-workers in fits of anger. As a consequence of that violence, a bi-partisan, blue-ribbon commission proposed solutions in The Califano Report. Laurence Jarvik discusses the report and what it means to today's mass violence:
The US Postal Service set up an "Employee Assistance Program" after publication of the report, to deal with disturbed and possibly dangerous postal workers before they snapped, which proved quite successful.

By treating postal violence as a mental health problem, the USPS successfully controlled it.

The Califano Report is a good example of Washington actually working in a bipartisan manner to solve a serious problem with practical solutions.

A similar bipartisan and objectively scientific approach to mass shootings would probably work today, if permitted to realistically address the causes of massacres.

That no such study has been commissioned indicates that some politicians sadly seek to exploit violent tragedies for political advantage, rather than solve the problem ...

Psychiatrists realize that many [mentally-ill] patients simply cannot respond voluntarily to medication or psychotherapy. For them, there is no alternative but coerced treatment or institutionalization in order to protect them from themselves and society from their propensity towards violence.

In addition, extreme political causes have historically attracted the mentally disturbed. Doestoevsky described the phenomenon of nihilist "mad bombers" in his novel, The Possessed (also known as The Devils).

It is truly madness to pretend such massacres are not obviously acts of the mentally ill.

Who really believes a sane person could target innocent schoolchildren, churchgoers, nightclubbers, or Wal-Mart shoppers for mass-murder?

Not me.
Or me.