Preventing Mass Shootings: Examining Solutions

Background checks that include mental health might be more harmful than helpful.

Posted Feb 23, 2018

The Florida shooting was one of the deadliest school shooting in modern American history. Nikolas Cruz, 19, who arrived in an Uber at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida shot indiscriminately. He is currently facing 17 counts of premeditated murder. He used the weapon of choice for many mass murderers, an AR-15. His public defender claimed that “He is fully aware of what is going on, and he’s just a broken human being.”

This is the 18th mass shooting this year! But, why do young people commit such heinous crimes? There has been a plethora of reasons offered by surviving victims, politicians, NRA, NRA supporters and others. Some of the reasons are politically motivated, economically lucrative or reactionary. Can we prevent future mass shootings? Would background checks that include mental health reduce the number of mass shootings? Would harsher punishments for such evil crimes make the person think twice before shooting? Would arming teachers make them more prepared for what has become inevitable? Would raising the age to buy a gun do the trick?

Let’s examine some of the solutions that have frequented media discussions. I have intentionally left gun control out of the discussion, as it has been dealt with in detail in many other writings. All the following is in addition to much tighter gun control; that is a given!

1. Arm teachers.

This has been heavily advocated by the president; he might even offer teachers who get gun training bonuses. First, I could not agree more that we do need more funding for training teachers. However, I vehemently disagree with what the money should be used for. Teachers who are underpaid, wear multiple hats, have to fulfill administrative work, deal with a narcissistic generation, and might themselves be struggling with mental illnesses do not need additional duties. But, Mr. Trump, if you are offering education funding, here are other ideas—more training on cultural sensitivity, on recognition of early mental illness signs, more power to rescue children from troubled homes, and teacher self-care. Also, where will these guns be stored? On school campuses? This might make guns more accessible to even younger kids. And what if a teacher in a moment of despair decides to abuse this access? Even if all goes well, the time it takes the teacher to access the gun to protect her class might defeat the purpose. We all have basic needs, and one of these is to be in control of our decisions. If we force teachers to be armed (or stigmatize those who refuse), we leave them without agency.

2. Stricter background checks that include mental health.

This is one of the demands of the surviving victims and of course of many others. On the surface, this solution looks attractive. But this solution is loaded with assumptions that might in sum be more harmful. First, relating heinous crimes to mental illness solidifies the stigma about mental disease. The assumption is that the mentally ill are capable of evil actions, and that horrible crimes cannot be committed by "sane" individuals. How could a "sane" person choose to indiscriminately kill so many people? Also, there are millions of people who suffer from psychological disorders such as depression or anxiety. In fact, one every five Americans suffers from a mental disorder. Many of them are successful parents, partners, workers and citizens. If they decide to kill, they purposefully terminate their lives and rarely ever take innocent people with them. People who are so desperate to be loved don’t do crimes of hate.

Stop politicizing the mental-health card. We are sick of it.

3. More punishment.

The Florida shooter went to eat right after, he was not trying to hide. Usually, they are expecting to die or end up shooting themselves at the scene. They want to go as "heroes". They see such death as a worthy way to leave the world. They enjoy risk, so they are not contemplating punishment. So, harsher punishment won’t necessarily work.

4. Raising the age to purchase a gun.

Many of these shootings are reckless, impulsive, immature, with complete disregard for risk. This type of processing is characteristic of a younger immature brain. The executive frontal cortex responsible to inhibiting socially unacceptable actions, delaying gratification, inserting time between stimulus and response does not complete developing till early twenties (some even claim later than that!). The brain before the frontal cortex matures relies on the more primitive emotional limbic system, which completely matures way before the frontal cortex. This explains why teens do what they do. Impulsivity increases linearly as we move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. There is definitely evidence to support this solution.

5. More control of the video gaming industry.

Video games have gotten so sophisticated that the player’s brain believes it is real. These games have gotten much more aggressive and vengeful. They alter the player’s sense of reality and make winners feel invincible. Of course, only losers die in these games. We need much tighter control on this billion-dollar industry. They have to stop making a toy out of the player’s mind.

6. Invest in mental health & detection of early signs of at-risk children.

More research on reliable prevention and treatments that work is crucial. Also, providing a safety net for children at risk might prevent one from becoming a psychopath. Some criteria that require immediate attention are: troubled childhoods, losing a parent, bullies, aggression, and lack of compassion for others’ losses. Perhaps the worst combination is a child who has a troubled childhood, aggressive tendencies, impulsive and enjoys risk. If this child also has access to a gun, it is the cherry on top.

We have to find the funding and the resources to teach love if we wish to stop compassion-less crimes.  

Indeed, thoughts and prayers are with victims everywhere, but not action-less thoughts and insincere prayers.