There has been a lot of talk about the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado but the focus should be more on prevention. We need to stop blaming and start developing solutions for how to deal with potentially violent people before they kill.
One could legitimately wonder what else there is to say about the Aurora, Colorado shootings. Reporters, columnists, pundits and bloggers have covered the basic facts and the editorials while the politicians have maintained a cautious silence on everything except sympathy for the victims (brave of them). People have exhaustively gone over potential answers to the two big questions that everyone asks at a time like this: what happened and why. I think the what has been done to death, but it’s the why that has everyone spooked — because there are no easy answers.
In thinking about what to say about this latest mass killing, I reread a former column I wrote about the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona where six people were killed and 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were wounded. It had been a while since I’d written it, so I was both surprised and haunted by the similarities between the tragic events. Both gunmen (the usual young, white male) chose crowded events in which people were enjoying themselves. Both killed many people, including two young girls. Nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green was killed in Tucson, while six-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan was killed in Aurora. People in the crowds in both places demonstrated heroism and some gave their lives in order to protect others. The first responders in both situations were caring and dedicated. And while information about the shooter in Colorado is still coming, I think it’s pretty safe to say that both gunmen were mentally ill.
Although there are a lot of factors at work in the prevalence of mass murders (things like easy access to assault weapons and the glorification of violence in our culture that I mentioned in another column on the school shooting in Ohio: “Shots Heard Round the World; Let’s Look at the Bigger Picture”), my column about Tucson talked mostly about the mental health system in the United States. Our mental health system is not nearly as accessible as it needs to be; it was not able to help the Tucson shooter before he started killing. However, the situation with the Aurora shooter is different. From the accounts I’ve read, he was under psychiatric care and may have even sent information about his intentions to his psychiatrist prior to the attack. Given that Colorado has a non-discretionary Tarasoff law (which means that mental health professionals have a duty to warn others against whom a patient has made a threat), and she didn’t call the police, I’m pretty sure she didn’t see the information previously. But here is where it gets tricky. What if she had?
In situations in which people can clearly see that someone is a figurative bomb waiting to go off, what can you do? There have been cases in which the friends and loved ones of someone who is deeply mentally ill have contacted police and medical professionals imploring them to do something to prevent the explosion of violence of which they know their loved one is capable. Sometimes the police even do pick up that person, make them undergo a psychiatric examination and then, upon determining that the person has not displayed sufficient threat to hold them further, let them return to society. The person then proceeds to explode and innocent people die. When that happens, people often want to blame the police or the mental health system for failing society, but the truth is that they had no choice. They had to let the person go.
It is like the circumstances in the movie Minority Report. In the dystopian society that the movie depicts, there are people known as Precogs who can predict the future. The Precogs report that a crime is going to happen, then the police arrest and convict the accused perpetrators before they ever had the chance to do anything illegal. This was initially thought to be an effective tool of justice, but they eventually start to realize that the system is unfair to people who had not actually done anything wrong. What if circumstances arise in which they are prevented from doing the crime or what if they actually change their mind? Thus, you cannot arrest or indefinitely detain people who have yet to commit a crime. But isn’t there anything we can do when we see that someone is headed for trouble?
I certainly do not have all the answers but I think there must be at least a few solutions to this problem. Surely, somewhere amid the cacophony of the discussion on the Aurora shootings, we can find the wherewithal to actually brainstorm ways to prevent people from becoming violent. For example, locking potential criminals in mental institutions is not a good solution, but what if there was a way we could enhance the community around them? After an eruption of violence, people often say that the shooter was a loner and kept to himself, so why not take away the isolation and provide specially trained caretakers who could both evaluate the person’s mental status and protect the public? Depending on the level of risk, the person could enter a program specifically designed to de-escalate violent thoughts and behavior and treat mental illness. The program could be thought of as a rehab for violent individuals and be modeled after addiction treatment centers. There could even be outreach programs and community support groups.
And that’s just one potential solution. There could be many others, but we have to start having the conversation in order to find them. We also have to change our mindset about problem-solving. We must accept that the current state of affairs is not working and that radical change must be enacted if we are to feel safe again. And, of course, we must actually do something before society can be irrevocably altered.
Yes, prevention is tricky and can be expensive. But before anyone starts complaining about the cost of such an intervention, I think we should look at the price we already pay. Gun violence is quite high in the United States and costs us a lot in terms of lives, healthcare, property damage, and the strain placed on the criminal justice system. Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” With respect to gun violence, we’ve been doing the same things (or, to be totally honest, nothing at all) while expecting that mass shootings will stop. Until we start doing something different, they won’t. The people of Aurora, Colorado are the latest ones to learn that lesson but, unfortunately, they probably won’t be the last.