Grappling with gun violence: an unclear prescription for a painful diagnosis

A man with a history of unchecked mental instability, an unassuming facade, hyperbolized aggression toward an unjust world and, of course, a gun, walks into a crowd and kills 13 people.

This narrative is so common today that it might be hard to discern who is being described. In fact, I am describing Howard Unruh, sometimes credited as the first mass murderer in American history. This man was a veteran with an unusual morbid curiosity who kept detailed notes on his killings during World War II, and came home only to find a place where he felt he did not belong. His isolation fostered the growth of his increasingly disconnected paranoia, and eventually his decision to pull the trigger.

Echoes of Unruh are easily seen in one of this country’s latest mass shootings, perpetrated by Ian David Long. At this point not much is known about Long, the man who killed those at the Borderline Grill in Thousand Oaks on Nov. 7, but we do know that he was a veteran living at home with his mother, in a purportedly contentious environment.

Anger, paranoia and isolation defined this man, much like other notable mass shooters in recent history such as Cho, Holmes, Lanza, Craig, Cruz and now Long. When reviewing the psychological conditions of mass shooters in recent history, it becomes clear that there were, and are, always warning signs. But there is no line between some relatively normal, quiet ‘weirdo’ having a bad day and some other relatively normal, quiet ‘weirdo’ plotting to murder as many people as he can. Since virtually everyone not only experiences sadness, anger and resentment to some degree in their lives but also expresses those feelings in different ways and to varying degrees, prevention through awareness cannot feasibly separate potential shooters from those experiencing a bad day. This fact renders this approach to gun violence prevention unrealistic, if not obsolete.

I cannot deny the complexity of the human mind, and therefore neither can I deny the nuance and intricacy of every mass murderer’s intent. The similarities between so many of these mass shooters are so striking that mere coincidence exceeds reasonable doubt, but each case is different. If we can rule out identifying psychological warning signs as the best course of action in terms of policy, then another solution must be found.

In Unruh’s case, it took approximately 50 bewildered police officers surrounding his apartment complex and an intense shootout to finally down the assailant and haul him in. At this time in history, there was no protocol for a mass shooting. Since then, in the wake of cases like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and Sandy Hook active shooter drills are the norm. Riverside Public Safety Agencies held one session recently for the community. So it stands to reason, and many would argue, that preparedness might be the key to solving the mass shooter issue.

If that is truly the case, then the most well-trained, well-armed individuals or groups should always overcome their poorly-trained, poorly-armed enemies. Yet an armed guard who was a deputy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an armed guard who was a police officer at the Pulse nightclub, an armed sheriff at Borderline and even dozens of policemen in Unruh’s case did not, and frankly could not, prevent the deaths. Even special forces operatives die in combat, and in those cases they are anticipating gunfire. The spontaneity of these mass shootings combined with adrenaline and natural human fear in chaotic situations creates a problem that cannot effectively be anticipated, only reacted to.

In my view, no amount of preparedness can prevent a violent gunman all of the time, let alone a satisfactory percent of the time, whatever that may be to people. The argument that if more people were trained and armed then more people would be able to respond to these situations by shooting back makes little sense, as empirical evidence suggests armed response has been ineffective in most of the mass shooting cases of the last few decades. Moreover, it is hard to rationalize that having bigger shootouts with more people, more guns and more bullets flying around is a truly effective solution.

Adopting the ‘red flag’ approach, which could potentially catalyze beneficial mental health policy, more often serves to further stigmatize mental illness, and in the Thousand Oaks case, veterans as well. Long was not even diagnosed with PTSD, yet his veteran status and mental health are some of the first things discussed in the media.

There are many common anti-gun statistics I could bring up, such as the gun death rate in America compared to all other industrialized countries or the dramatic effect that banning guns had in Australia. But I would rather ask, if one were unable to find a gun at any store in the country, would that not at least reduce the rate of mass shootings or even gun violence as a whole? The common argument against this is that laws do not prevent criminals from committing crimes, and that these people would obtain firearms some other way. But how? Black markets are a common answer, but those are hard to access and weapons sold there are more expensive by orders of magnitude than over-the-counter guns.


Data from Vox

Moreover, black markets generally do not have a broad circle of trust, and it is incredibly hard to see a college student like Holmes, an American Marine Corps veteran like Long, or a socially alienated and troubled teen like Klebold browsing the black market and spending a few thousand bucks on a rifle to shoot up a high school or a movie theater. The same logic applies to connecting to black markets through the ‘dark web,’ where it is equally as difficult to see Nicholas Cruz contacting terrorists about how killing a few teens in Parkland, Fl. will really drive their point home while also being a constructive outlet for Cruz’s anger at his perceived injustices.

Guns are meant to be dangerous. Military grade assault weaponry is designed specifically to kill and to do so efficiently. I am not in favor of banning all guns; I recognize hunting as a legitimate profession and sport, as well as target shooting and gun-collecting. But restricting access to certain types of guns like assault rifles should at least be tried before being ruled out.

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