In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, I’m sure most are in disbelief, wondering why mass shootings are still an issue. As a professional in this field, I’m reminded of the first recorded mass shooting, which took place on September 5, 1949. Army veteran, Howard Unruh, gunned down 13 people while walking around his neighborhood, killing at random for perceived slights. After his arrest and court hearing, he was declared criminally insane and committed to an asylum. A somewhat forgotten man (outside threat assessment pros), Unruh was the first chapter in the tragic, all-too-familiar, American story of an angry man with a gun, inflicting carnage. Others who committed the same egregious acts had their “reasons” for taking their anger out on society. We hear of the out-of-work parent, the disgruntled employee, the bullied student, the conflicted lover, who also killed for “sport.” I question why some who are in the same situation don’t react with violence, and why some do. My question is: Why are we still facing these tragedies?
This mass shooting in Florida has hit our country hard, and I’m sitting here scratching my head and searching for the answer to the why. Is there a way to eliminate these tragedies altogether? I don’t think so; however, at the very least, I believe we can reduce the frequency significantly. The answer is to start. Start somewhere. Do I agree with abolishing the Second Amendment? No. Will it help if owning a firearm became illegal? No. Will abolishment of firearms eliminate unnecessary loss of life to mass shootings? No.
Here’s my reasoning and stay with me for a minute. Let’s look at the drug issue. Heroin is illegal, but people still buy it, sell it, and die from it. Whether people die from overdoses or from acts surrounding the buying and selling of illegal drugs, the death toll related to use/sale/purchasing illegal drugs in 2016 rose to roughly 64,000; a 19% rise from 2015. That is a lot of unnecessary deaths from something that is supposed to be illegal.
On this divisive topic of gun control, I believe we should review the state and federal law on the purchasing, possessing, and carrying of various types of weapons. The Second Amendment, as upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, is not going to change. My advice is to let that argument go and focus on what can be controlled.
As a retired police officer, I carry a weapon everywhere I go. I don’t necessarily believe every average citizen should have the same privilege to carry a concealed weapon. First, let’s be honest here. I’m sure we can all agree we each know someone that shouldn’t handle a toy gun, let alone a real gun. Currently, there is no way to thoroughly vet everyone who purchases a weapon; “bad” people fall through cracks; paperwork gets lost; humans make errors in processes.
My next reason why care in considering the average citizen should not be easily granted the ability to carry a concealed weapon is around training, whether it’s our Second Amendment right or not. If police officers make mistakes, men and women who are required to attend countless hours of training, who’s to say the average person will be conscientious and disciplined and seek continuous training workshops. I say they won’t.
Then there is the issue of mental health. I regularly attend the annual conference of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP), and was pleased to see progress in law enforcement, mental health professionals, and the private sector working together. They partner through continuous education, training, and networking. The training has come a long way since my 1983 police academy and field training days of dealing with mental health subjects, what were known to us as emotionally disturbed persons (EDP).
To me, the emotional/mental component is the most important part to consider when answering my questions. Here’s what I believe is inherent to the nature of human beings: Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants to be needed. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to matter to someone else. Mentally fit or unfit, it is human nature to want validation. It is the mentally unstable with whom we’re dealing with and only progress will be made if mental health professionals, law enforcement, and the private sector work in conjunction toward a solution.
Emotional validation is the process of learning about, understanding, and expressing acceptance of another person’s emotional experience. Emotional validation is distinguished from emotional invalidation, in which another person’s emotional experiences are rejected, ignored, or judged.
In my experience, one key in learning how to validate others’ emotions is to realize that validating an emotion doesn’t mean you agree with the other person, or that you think their emotional response is warranted. Rather, you communicate to them you understand what they are feeling, without trying to talk them out of the feeling or shame them for the feeling.
Taking these learnings, let’s look at the shooting suspect in Florida, Nikolas Cruz. He, obviously, was a troubled soul. Cruz was screaming for help outside the walls of his house, especially when we learn he made disturbing social media posts, there were documented calls for service by the local police department to his residence, as well as actions and comments Cruz had made at school or in the presence of others. The signs were clearly there long before this latest tragedy, and the citizens of our country were impacted once again by a crazed gunman, leading to a horrific and tragic outcome.
I look at this whole incident in outrage. Not only were red flags raised all over the place, but the victims, and the shooter himself, were failed. By whom? By our government agencies, by the local police department, by mental health professionals. The same red flags that were ignored when it came to Nikolas Cruz were present and ignored when it came to Elliott Rodger who killed six people and injured 14 in Santa Barbara in 2014; and in 2007 when the Virginia Tech student, Seung-Hui Cho, went on a rampage; and in the 2012 Aurora Theater shooting by 24-year-old James Holmes. Sadly, I could go on and on.
Having worked closely with Dr. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist in San Diego, who consults on threat assessments for schools and corporations; I am privileged to get a closer look at the psyche of a crazed gunman. Dr. Meloy has written numerous articles on mass murder trending and explained there was a way to reduce the epidemic of mass shootings. His three-pronged approach was as follows:
- Invest in gun safety, education, and training
- Initiate threat assessment expert panels and/or teams working with the government
- Launch programs around mental health awareness
Let me break down my view on the this three-pronged approach. Since I believe the Second Amendment will not be abolished, let’s look at gun reform. There needs to be a universal gun registry where purchaser has demonstrated competency before purchase, and during possession of any firearm. Couple this requirement with a criminal and civil background check. Anyone with a violent criminal history or conviction, history of domestic violence, or clear evidence of mental illness should not be allowed to purchase or possess a firearm. Along with these stated requirements, each purchaser must complete a mandatory gun safety and training class, after the background check has cleared.
The second component to this process would be utilization of professional resources. There are many qualified threat assessment expert panels consisting of threat assessment professionals, forensic psychologists, and mental health experts that could be on an approved government vendor list. These panels would consult with government agencies as well as work with the Department of Education and businesses to do training and educate in a common-sense approach. The goal would be to teach how to recognize the red flags and become proactive in addressing any issues seen and then seeking proper assistance and invoke follow up.
My belief is EVERY school and university should have a school resource officer (SRO) on campus. If budget constraints are an issue, then a government-funded grant should be provided to allow the development of this position. A well-trained SRO would recognize potential threats within a school system and address any dangers directed at our children. I speak with authority and experience, and assure you that based on training and education, since the inception of placing SRO’s in some schools, they have prevented violence and/or active shooter tragedies. This funding I speak of, the policies surrounding this, and the SRO position, should have been put in place long ago, especially since the Columbine High School shooting back in April of 1999. It’s mind-boggling and a travesty that almost 20 years later the politicians have not been shocked into an awakening.
Historically, SRO’s have been in existence since 1953, when the city of Flint provided the first documented SRO to their community.The topic was not broadly discussed until 1968, when in California the Fresno Police Department looked to the SRO program as a tool to “revitalize its image in the eyes of its youth.” This early adaptation of the program involved placing plain-clothed officers in middle schools and elementary schools to foster the relationship between the department and the youth. This continues to be a goal of this long-standing program.
Since the 1970s, the role of SROs has moved from mentors/educators to crime prevention and law enforcement. In the 1980s and ’90s, SROs were facilitators in crime prevention programs, such as in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (DARE) and the Gang Resistance Education and Training program (GREAT). From the mid-1970s to 2008, the number of schools with police stationed on campus rose from approximately 1 to 40 percent. In many states, SRO’s are the main enforcers and interpreters of the school disturbance laws.
Here’s my point: The wheel has already been invented and it has been rolling. Why are we not making SROs a mandatory position for all schools and universities?
As mentioned earlier, mental health awareness was the third prong in a well-thought-out approach to addressing these issues. All three prongs are equal in importance and need to work in sync when moving forward. During my early years as a police officer, we had a much different approach in dealing with EDPs. We did not show compassion to them. We were told to just give them tickets, which turned into warrants, which turned into arrests. These numbers then turned into statistics for productivity and were subsequently reflected in our performance evaluations. And round and round we went. This is the perfect example of running on a hamster wheel; all energy and speed but going nowhere.
As I reflect on this past training, I recognize this approach was not the only attribute to the problem. Reflecting on the city citizens I represented, served and protected, these same people would step over a sleeping homeless person when walking on the beach, or walk to the opposite side of the street when approached by an EDP. As I’ve aged and embraced life experiences, I understand there are many reasons why someone may be suffering from mental illness. Our responsibility is to educate ourselves on the causes of mental illness, instead of ignoring the issue or looking upon it as a stigma. It is a health issue. We need to address it the same way we do heart disease or any other physical health issue. These EDPs are still human beings and deserve respect. I wonder how people have more compassion for animals than they do human beings.
As stated previously, I don’t have the ONE ANSWER that would resolve this epidemic of active shooters. Although it may sound ridiculously cliché, I believe we have failed as a society to act humanely. Instead, we stand on our soapbox and point the finger, casting blame onto others and shouting, “It’s not working.” We look at everyone else, instead of reflecting inward and searching for what we can do for our own family, for our own community.
I realize I’m asking more questions than providing answers, but here’s another one: Why does it take a catastrophic event to act with love and compassion towards our own?
We all remember 9-11. Who can forget what happened in Las Vegas and the Route 91 Harvest. Tragedy is not a discriminator of race, religion, education, political beliefs, or gender. We become equals, experiencing the same fear and horror. After each event, there were moments of peace, love and compassion demonstrated towards each other, regardless of affiliation. People lined up in front of churches after 9-11. There was an awareness that faith and religion were important. We heard of men giving up their seats on the subway for women. The tenor of New York City changed dramatically, and we noticed anger was replaced with understanding and empathy. However, as quickly as the national tragedy affected our society, things reverted to what it was like before.
I’ll give you some insight into my thinking. I wonder if a politician or if his family were directly affected by an active shooter, would they care if any of this was part of the Democratic or Republican agenda. Or… and this is my hope, would they move for change no matter their political affiliation or if they were up for re-election.
But wait, this already happened on January 8, 2011, when U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot by a paranoid schizophrenic man. She was permanently injured, and six people died. Following the shooting, American and international politicians expressed grief and condemnations, and gun-control advocates pushed for increased restrictions on the sale of firearms and ammunition. There were those who blamed the political right wing for the shooting. This wasn’t a right or left issue. This was a mental health issue and it was well-known the shooter hated all politicians.
I have conservative views. I believe in the promises of the Second Amendment. I, too, have been directly affected by a shooting incident. My youngest daughter attended the Route 91 Harvest and survived the shooting. We were the lucky ones. We were blessed our daughter returned home. As a parent, I try to wrap my brain around the thought that Stephen Paddock shot at my daughter, my baby. She and her siblings are the ones I’m supposed to protect.
Here’s the bottom line, the very children we’re entrusted to protect are the ones who are our hope to make change. Let’s keep them alive so they can do their jobs. Let’s start a mental health awareness revolution. WE HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE. Let’s take the common-sense, three-pronged approach I outlined earlier, without agendas and without special interests; but, and this is a big but, let us keep our Second Amendment rights.
I was called into service to preserve life, no matter whose life it was. There can no longer be blame or finger pointing. All of us need to take ownership, take off the blinders, get involved, and follow through. Let’s give meaning to the clichéd responses of “Vegas Strong” and “Never Forget.”