Something shifted in the gun control debate two weeks ago. Two mass shootings occurred in 24 hours, killing 31 and wounding 53 in Dayton and El Paso.
News media jumped on the issue as liberal politicians tried to pin the blame on President Trump’s divisive rhetoric. Anti-gun protesters once again called on the politicians to, “Do something.” Mathematics and history suggest the chances remain high that the politicians will do something at best ineffectual and at worst wrong.
For the past two years, the Secret Service’s Threat Assessment Center has been profiling mass murderers, issuing annual reports telling us who the perpetrators were and their motivations to kill or injure three or more people in a public setting.
The one sure conclusion that can be drawn is this: Identifying a mass murderer before the attack is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
The Secret Service found that 55 such events occurred in 2017-18. In 2017, 147 people died and 700 were injured. In 2018, 91 people died with 107 injured. The totals would be fairly even for both years except for one incident: the 2017 shooting at a Las Vegas music concert which killed 58 and wounded 546.
Meanwhile, 19,510 homicides occurred in the U.S. last year, 75 percent by firearms. While the media and the politicians were focused on Dayton and El Paso, in just six days from Aug. 4-10, Chicago and Baltimore each had seven homicides and dozens wounded. The response to that carnage appeared to be that was just gang wars. No political advantage to be gained.
Mass murder in public gets the most attention, but total only a half percent of all homicides. But then, the national media has always tended toward sensationalism.
Of the 55 incidents, 33 occurred at businesses, 13 occurred in open spaces such as on a sidewalk or at a large public event, seven occurred in schools, three happened in houses of worship and three involved transportation (running over people with vehicles). Four involved two different types of crime scenes.
The assailants’ average age is 37, and range from 15 to 65 years.
Most of these perpetrators display aggressive narcissism. What sets mass murderers apart is that their prior acts may include behaviors such as sexual assault, harassment or harming animals.
Thirty-three of the 55 had criminal records beyond traffic violations. Thirty-eight percent had substance abuse issues.
All but four had what the Secret Service calls “significant stressors” in the last five years. Of the 55, 31 had financial instability. A stressor may be anything from a divorce to a romantic rejection to the loss of a job, being bullied on the job or at school, a wage garnishment, eviction, being homeless, etc.
Many mental health advocates have been saying that most people with mental illness do not commit mass murder. They are correct. However, two-thirds of the 55 mass murderers had mental health issues, including psychoses such as paranoia, delusions and hallucinations, as well as depression and suicidal thoughts. About a fourth committed suicide during the act or shortly afterward.
Because the El Paso shooter had published an anti-immigrant manifesto, many commentators take this as proof that white supremacy thoughts and groups are growing. One incident does not make a movement. Most mass killers don’t bring a political ideology with them. The 2017 Secret Service report identified seven with a political motivation: two believed in white supremacy, two believed in radical black nationalism, two were self-radicalized followers of ISIS and one believed in government conspiracies. In 2018, two acted on their political beliefs: one was anti-Semitic and one was anti-abortion. There’s no “There!” there.
The question remains: What should be done?
Many advocate universal background checks and red flag laws. Minnesota already has a procedure for conceal and carry permits that seems to work well. Elected sheriffs make the decision. Red flag would take that one step further, allowing the sheriff or a judge to take guns away from someone deemed to be a threat to himself or others.
It’s questionable how much that would reduce public mass shootings. A 2017 study by the Annals of Internal Medicine determined that 78 percent of all gun purchases already involve background checks. Using different criteria than the Secret Service, Mother Jones, looking at 119 mass killers going back to 1982, found 84 bought their guns legally, eight took guns from family members, four purchased guns illegally, three used stolen guns, one used a straw buyer, one built his own gun and one failed to turn in a gun after losing his gun license.
Of the Secret Service’s 55 assailants, 83 percent made concerning communications. Nobody knows how many people were prevented from acting because of concerns raised by others. All we know is 46 of the 55 committed their crimes in spite of others voicing concerns about them.
Some want to ban semi-automatic weapons. The chances of the government confiscating 10 million semi-automatics is about the same as its chances of rounding up 10 million illegal immigrants. Get real.
We would be far better off trying to determine the reasons for the psychoses and neuroses that are causing a very small number of our fellow citizens to disproportionately fray our nerves with public shootings.
Reach Tom West at email@example.com.