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As someone who is not a firearms owner, target shooter, or member of the NRA, I must admit that my knee-jerk reaction to the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn., was to sign several petitions having to do with the need for discussions and legislation on firearms control and regulation. There were also many others I didn’t have time to read or sign. While I’m sure all of these petitions have good intentions, I don’t think they’ll solve the problem of extreme and often-times random violence taking place with numbing frequency in this country.
There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the FBI estimates there are over 200 million privately-owned firearms in the United States right now. Do you really believe we can identify the people who shouldn’t have these firearms and confiscate them? Also, most of these firearms have been properly registered, including the ones that Adam Lanza used to commit last Friday’s terrible atrocity. And, most people who have guns, rifles, and the like don’t use them to hurt people intentionally. No, what we need to do to address this immense problem is to learn why people who commit unimaginable violent crimes do so, the signals they give before their attacks, and how can we prevent them from acting on their thoughts and intentions.
So it is that, upon further reflection, I realized that only one of the petitions that I glanced at-- admittedly I didn’t stop to read all of them-- will come even close to addressing the root of this problem and reducing it. And it is this: Address the shortcomings of the current mental health system to prevent at-risk people from becoming violent offenders. Yet, at 1:15 p.m. this Monday afternoon when I signed that petition, there were only a paltry 290 signatures on it versus thousands and thousands of signatures on the gun-and-assault-weapon-related petitions.
While I do not have the time, the print space, or knowledge to address all of the problems with our mental health system in this letter, I definitely believe that addressing this barebones and woefully inadequate system is critical to easing the problem with violent crime and mass murders in this country. I say, easing, because I am realistic enough to know that we won’t ever be able to prevent every violent crime in America… or elsewhere for that matter. For one thing, in a country with 315 million people and a world with over seven billion, even an infinitesimally small number of people who are by dint of nature and/or environment prone to engage in violent behavior act out on that tendency, we are still talking about a huge number of individuals capable of wreaking inhumane havoc upon society... either directly, like Adam Lanza, or indirectly by such evil “humans” as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. That being said, it is still paramount that we put every ounce of our energy into trying to prevent acts of violence, especially those of unspeakable horror.
The problem with fixing our dreadfully lame mental health system is that, while it is indispensible to preventing and reducing the number of mass murders and violent crimes, it will take a long, long time to fully accomplish this. Long time though it may take, it IS still mandatory for us to engage in that effort. As we pursue this long and difficult journey, however, I think there are at least two steps that should be among our first taken. The first is we’ve got to identify those who are the greatest at risk of committing mass murders, and then do everything we can to stop them in their tracks. How do we do this? Several years ago, a U.S. Secret Service study of 37 school shooters found that they all engage in what are called “pathways to violence” before they go on their rampages. My guess is that there have been studies involving other mass murderers that have discovered the same or similar pathways.
The pathways are things potential mass murderers say, or do, or write, that indicate that something verywrong is going on with their lives and in their minds. Interestingly, according to one of the authors of the Secret Service study, in almost all cases, the attacker communicates his intent to commit the attack in advance of its occurrence. All of us in society need to be educated about this as well as what the other telltale signs a potential mass murderer gives-- just as we are educated about, say, the signs of what could be a heart attack or stroke.
The second and more important step I believe is that we all need to know what to do, how to respond, when these “pathways-to-violence” signs manifest themselves. The persons most likely to see those signs first would be the potential offender’s family, friends, neighbors, teachers, fellow classmates or employees, and care practitioners. This was the case with Adam Lanza, as both his mother and some of her friends knew that she was struggling terribly with trying to deal with him. Others who came into contact with him may have likewise observed “symptomatic” behaviors in him including those he is said to have confronted at the school the day before the killings took place.
Thus, what I see is a two-pronged approach: education about the signs or clues given off by a potential mass murderer and, doing whatever we can, through a variety of techniques and resources, to stop such a maniacal act before it occurs. I think the education part is doable-- and fairly quickly so-- if, as a society, we commit ourselves to developing a comprehensive, yet simple and effective public health campaign and widely and repeatedly disseminating it. We have done this before with health issues like recognizing the signs of a heart attack or stroke, the need for protecting the skin from too much sun exposure, and the enormous risks of smoking.
The larger challenge I believe will be in figuring out what steps individuals, health and social service practitioners, and if legal and necessary, law enforcement officials can take to prevent the would-be killers from “acting out”. To do this will involve the long-term commitment of enormous time and resources-- human and capital-- but it can be done if we make it a societal priority. Obviously, no prevention program is 100 percent effective. However, I believe even if we can avert most or, better yet, virtually all of these mass shootings and killings, the effort is well worth it, as we could save countless lives (perhaps including the life of the potential murderer), prevent incalculable short-and-long-term physical and psychological disabilities, and save millions upon millions of dollars that could be used for other societal needs. At the same time, the program may likely have a major spin-off effect of helping us to reduce other murders and crimes.
There are many other things that can and should be done to tackle this monstrous problem: research on brain dysfunctions and how to identify and treat them; putting more resources into mental illness research, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment; teaching human relations skills, such as effective communication and conflict resolution, beginning at the earliest age possible, mass market dissemination of information about easy-to-apply good parenting skills, etc. These can be initiated concurrently or sequentially. Regardless, educating our society on how to recognize and respond to potential mass murder situations is one of the best places to start.
Another thing that won’tsolve this problem is giving administrators, teachers, and individual citizens more access to carrying guns as has, in my opinion, been misguidedly proposed by some of our country’s legislators and other public persona. For one thing, you can’t stop a madman who hasn’t been identified and “held at bay” before he commits his crime(s) from killing people in every space where children and adults gather-- buses, trains, airports, malls, arenas, theaters, baseball games, restaurants, etc., etc. For another, a lot of unpremeditated damage has been or can be caused by firearms when someone has access to one (for example, if a person loses his senses for a moment and kills himself or another) or fires it accidentally. Therefore, giving people more access to guns in more public places only has the potential to create even more injuries and deaths, even if unintended.
I say let’s get going and start tackling the problem of gun violence in this country by trying to nip it in the bud: identifying would-be killers, preventing them from acting out their plans, and doing anything else we can to improve our mental health system AND human relations skills to drastically reduce the ever-growing scope of violence in our country.
Jeff Ostroff lives in Kennett Square.