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Trump plan to head off mass killings is wishful thinking
despite latest success
James Alan Fox, Opinion contributor
Published 3:15 a.m. ET Aug. 19, 2019
Let the lasting legacy of the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton be
something positive through improved mental health services and more sensible
Following months of investigation, federal
authorities have arrested Justin Olsen, 18, in connection to online threats
against law enforcement and Planned Parenthood. A subsequent search of his
parent's home uncovered hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
never know fortunately whether Olsen would actually have put his plans into
action, or whether it was more a reflection of adolescent bravado. But it
does reflect the kind of leakage identified much too late in relation to
certain mass shootings of the past.
Olsen's arrest is the type of
success that President Donald Trump likely had in mind when he announced
following the massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, "I am directing
the Department of Justice to work in partnership with local, state and
federal agencies, as well as social media companies, to develop tools that
can detect mass shooters before they strike."Needle in a
Notwithstanding the latest victory over evil, this
is largely wishful thinking. We are a population of 330 million people. From
that, there are, on average, only about two dozen individuals each year who
fatally shoot four or more victims, according to the
USA TODAY/Associated Press/Northeastern University mass killings database
These figures present rather long odds for detection.
events be it a plane crash, a tsunami or a mass shooting with any degree of
reliability is not possible. Whatever the indications of dangerousness,
there are just too many false positives: Individuals who fit the profile but
will not commit mass murder.
It is a needles-and-haystack dilemma.
There is a large haystack of people who are angry, depressed, socially
isolated, blame others for their miserable existence, write hateful words on
social media sites, play violent video games and own a gun or two. But there
is a small number of needles who will turn their angst into action.
These characteristics are yellow flags, easily identifiable with 20/20
hindsight. They become red flags only after the blood has spilled. For
example, the Dayton shooter's ex-girlfriend now says she saw warning signs,
but she could not have anticipated the disastrous outcome.
we were to adopt some checklist of seemingly telltale warning signs to guide
us? What would we do about the throngs of people who scare us? Should we
force them into treatment or take away their guns based on a hunch?
Mass killers externalize blame for their misfortunes and see themselves as
victims of injustice or corruption. They want fair treatment, not the
psychological kind. Furthermore, truly dangerous individuals would resent
the suggestion of mental impairment and any aggressive efforts to coerce
counseling, even if with the best of intentions. That could actually spark
the very murderous act we wish to prevent.
What about those folks
with guns at their side? The "you'll have to pry it from my cold dead hands"
crowd won't give up so easily. In fact, an attempt to deprive them of their
Second Amendment rights could backfire quite literally.A
reason for action
This is not to suggest that we should do
nothing. Mass shootings can serve as a powerful catalyst for change.
Expanding mental health services and tightening the nation's gun control
laws are the right things to do, but the rare although devastating mass
shooting is not necessarily the best reason. Increasing access to mental
health services might not prevent a bloodbath, but it would enhance the
well-being of millions of Americans who are suffering but not dangerous.
Let's also not increase the stigma associated with mental illness by
conflating it with mass murder. Most mass killers are not mentally impaired,
and most mentally ill Americans aren't a threat to public safety.
Enacting tighter gun control laws (such as universal background checks and
limits on the size of large-capacity magazines) might not have prevented the
31 fatalities that took place in El Paso and Dayton over one weekend, but
they could impact the 40 gun homicides that, on average, occur daily in
Let the lasting legacy of the tragedies in El Paso and
Dayton be something positive through improved mental health services and
more sensible gun laws. They might not appreciably reduce the threat of mass
shootings, but they will be a significant boost to the quality of life in
this country. James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University,
a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and co-author of "Extreme
Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder." Follow him on Twitter