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School shootings: An issue of responsibility

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

The Railroad on Facebook

A school shooting, again. How can this be happening so often when, even twenty years ago, it was unthinkable? Something has changed drastically.

If trends are significant we can expect a school shooting every year or two. At Newtown, there was an effort made to find out why the shooting occurred, as though that might help us prevent another. I remember wondering what “conclusion” they would come to as to the cause of the tragedy, something that would be demanded by parents and the public. As I remember, there was a lot of speculation but nothing even close to definite.
We shouldn’t be surprised. These incidents are random and statistically rare, though horrific and newsworthy. What a psychotic does is not necessarily based on any kind of meaning that you or I can fathom. The reason that this teenage boy killed one person and injured at least four others was very clear to him but may never be to us. So what is the cause?

When the Newtown shooting occurred there was no end to “experts”, giving their spin on the reality of what paranoid schizophrenics do or don’t do. I remember that most of these experts gave similar opinions, usually veering into arguments about gun control and the effects of its absence.
Yet there was one expert who didn’t seem to belong. He was an intellectual, a doctor and a wise man. He spoke, not with the certainty of true believer, but with the pain of someone who understood the complexity of the human mind, and sees no easy solution. He was psychologist who had the nerve or bravery to state that the cause of these incidents was not the absence of effective gun control but the unexplainable and uncontrollable scourge of mental illness. It was almost painful to watch; this man seemed to know that he was a voice in the wilderness and no one would hear him.

His contention was that the only effective way of preventing these incidents was a more intense application of psychological evaluation of perspective offenders. To understand this we have to examine the profile of these perpetrators. Each of them is male, each shows signs of mental instability and most are less than 30. Though guns may be the easiest and most flamboyant way of committing mass murder, the true common element here is mental illness. Ferreting out this type of mental illness is the best and most consistent way of finding people with the potential for being a school shooter.

And that was the last time I heard this issue of mental illness mentioned in a way that was definite and causal. While I’ve heard it mentioned again, it’s never been discussed as part of a possible solution. There are reasons for that. Firstly, there is the disturbing scenario of what would amount to “reporting” people who show signs of mental instability and a possible tendency toward violence and anger. Like any other legal measure to limit someone’s freedom, detaining someone reported as having a potential for violent behavior creates the real possibility that anyone we find strange or distasteful could be arrested and held in custody. In essence anyone who has any type of obvious mental illness could be victimized and lose his freedom, even if they have no propensity for violence. This is a real danger and not something that most people would want to support.

The second reason is more of an opinion than anything else; my opinion. But this is a blog so here goes: As I see it, we have become dependent in our government to handle issues that we should become involved in. Unfortuntely,It is simpler for our government to satisfy the public by doing nothing and allowing people to focus on popular causes such as gun control. And it easier for us to leave it to the government to solve our problems. The result is that the issue gets thrown back and forth in a barrage of arguments, legal gambits, and debates, and never gets solved. This can be seen in the fact that the gun control movement has fizzled and is no longer repetitively presented on the news, as it was just after the Newtown incident. I would like to see statistics on gun crime to see if any of the measures taken right after Newtown to control guns made any difference. Oddly this is not a subject that is discussed in the press.

If that wise psychologist is right then our duty is to study the possibility of examining people who have shown a demonstrable tendency toward hostile and violent behavior. And if our psychologist is right then you can be sure our government knows this.

So let’s get back to the dangers. How can we institute a system where people who are reported as being potentially dangerous without having that system becoming corrupt and abusive. I have another opinion and since you are reading this you’ll get to hear it as well. The answer is: we start. There are hundreds, thousands of critical challenging issues that plague us. Child abuse, domestic abuse, unemployment, etc. We all know about unemployment. But do you know that four women die a day in our country at the hands of abusers who are known to them and often known to law enforcement.

The main difficulty in preventing many of these crimes is that it involves the government; a known risk-averse entity: detaining or maintaining surveillance on a known domestic abuser is illegal except when a crime is explicitly committed. This is often true when there is a clear pattern of violence and threat, The fact is that the laws aren’t there to protect women from being killed. Legislators are just beginning to open their eyes to the problem; a few are creating laws that defend women and their children.
And so, as horrible as it sounds, the death of women is an acceptable bit of collateral damage that is built into our justice system. That is how bad it is in the U.S. But let’s return to school shootings. Let’s say we develop a system where people are allowed to report behavior that suggest possible violence. Of course there will be a lot of false reporting based on motivations that will range from insanity on the part of the reporter to out and out lying. This IS a danger. The government and law enforcement will be no more interested in putting their hands in that legal light socket than they are interested in creating a system of preventative surveillance that will protect domestic abuse victims.

How do we face this? It will involve developing a pilot program that attempts to mitigate the inevitable dangers found in preventing random violent behavior. Here, again, is my opinion:
1. Once a “suspect” is established to be potentially violent, we appoint an experienced lawyer, on the municipal dime, to defend this person. In this case, the person reported would have someone actively trying to prove that there is no danger and that no action needs to be taken.

2. In this plan, there would also be an investigator who would be responsible for interviewing possible witnesses and finding corroborating reports of the suspect’s disturbing behavior. Of course they may find out that there is no real indication that the suspect has shown any violent behavior which would add a level of protection to a suspect. If there is enough indication that there is imminent danger, a full psychological examination would be the next step. Finally I suggest a hearing where the evidence from both sides is examined; a judge would preside over this hearing. It would be the judge’s responsibility to decide if the suspect requires surveillance, including an ankle bracelet, periodic searches of his or her home and regular psychological evaluations for an indefinite period.

Outrageous? Certainly. We don’t do things like that. It costs far too much and we don’t spend that kind of money even if it’s proven that hundreds of people die a year, as with domestic abuse. This type of process is a gray area and would take years to set up. And we don’t know if it would work. So we don’t do anything.
This is not an excellent plan; I am not in law enforcement and I’m sure there are major flaws with this idea. However, I feel that it is our, the citizens, responsibility to push for major changes in the way we handle possible offenders and leaving to the solution to the polarizing debate over gun control is not the answer.
Let’s be honest: someone can get a gun online or through a private sale. If someone can’t get a gun they will resort to explosives, poison, knives or one of many other numerous weapons. The point for a perpetrator is not use guns, but to kill. Someone bent on killing will find a way.

Of course I can go on forever. The point is we need to take responsibility and persuade our legislators to pass laws that have a chance of stopping this. Otherwise it will go on and the victims will be the price of our waiting.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

The Railroad on Facebook

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