James Alan Fox: What the right and left get wrong about mass shootings

navyyarddigViolent crime, including homicide, is on a fairly steady decline nationwide, yet many Americans believe mass shootings, like the one at the Washington Navy Yard, have become more frequent. Why is this?

Over the past three decades, there has been an average of 20 mass shootings a year in the United States, each with at least four victims killed by gunfire. Occasionally, and mostly by sheer coincidence, several episodes have been clustered closely in time, fostering a false sense of epidemic. Overall, however, there has not been an upward trajectory.

To the contrary, the real growth has been in the style and pervasiveness of news-media coverage, thanks in large part to technological advances in reporting. In an earlier era, mass shootings were covered with brief news bulletins and “film at 11.” Today we have several cable news stations that feature wall-to-wall, on-the-scene coverage of mass shootings when they occur, bringing the images and the horror right into everyone’s living room.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that of the 20 largest mass shootings in America, each with double-digit death tolls, six have occurred over the past five years.

With what we know today, was there a better way to protect ourselves from a gunman like Aaron Alexis?

In the aftermath of a mass shooting like the D.C. Navy Yard massacre, we invariably learn about warning signs that reportedly were undetected or ignored. In Alexis’ case, there were indications of disorientation and distorted thinking that perhaps help us make sense of his seemingly senseless attack.

But hindsight is 20-20. It is virtually impossible to predict and identify mass murderers before they strike. If anything, there is a host of yellow flags that only turn red once the blood has spilled. Before their deadly deeds, mass killers are typically seen by friends, family and co-workers as extraordinarily ordinary – anything but a ticking time bomb. After the fact, we tend to reinterpret their behavior in light of the violent outcome.

So in Alexis’ case, could or should the Navy, his employer or police in several states have done anything differently?

Sure, if you’re a Monday morning quarterback, you can take issue with the lack of communication regarding Alexis’ recent behavior or possible flaws in his background checks prior to granting him a security clearance. And the need to point fingers at various people who may have some responsibility or negligence is greater when the real culprit is dead and therefore not around for the venting of our collective sense of frustration and outrage. But I’m not going to play that game. Although mistakes may have been made, no one could have anticipated the dire consequences.

You define mass shooting slightly differently than others do. Could you explain the difference and whether it affects your view of these crimes?

The panic and sense of urgency surrounding mass shooting has been fueled by reports that these incidents are indeed trending. For example, the Mother Jones news organization, having assembled a database of public mass shootings from 1982 through 2012, reported a recent surge in incidents and fatalities, including a spike and record number of casualties in 2012.

Mother Jones did not include all mass shootings but attempted to delineate those that were senseless, random or at least public in nature. By virtue of their selection rules, mass shootings involving family members were excluded, even though they, too, can involve large body counts. Other massive shootings were ignored because of their relation to gang activity or some criminal enterprise.

Not only is Mother Jones’ decision to disqualify cases based on certain criteria hard to defend, the criteria themselves were not necessarily applied consistently. Obviously, public shootings are worthy of examination, but so are mass killings in families or those that are designed to further some criminal enterprise. Widening the net by including mass shootings in all forms can only add to our understanding of extreme killing. For that reason, I include in my analysis all mass shootings that involve four or more victims killed, no matter where or why they occur.

Each new mass shooting seems to bring renewed calls to “do something.” In Congress, the effort generally means attempts to write stricter gun laws, which typically fail to gain support. Why is this and is this our most effective response?

High-profile mass shootings typically spark arguments from both sides of the gun control divide. Monday’s massacre will likely be seen as one more example of why more or less gun control is the answer … and both sides will be wrong.

Tighter restrictions on gun purchasing may help reduce America’s gun violence problem generally, but mass murder is unlike most other forms of violent conflict. Most mass murderers do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization. They would not be disqualified from purchasing their weapons legally. Certainly, people cannot be denied their Second Amendment rights just because they look strange or act oddly. Besides, mass killers could always find an alternative way of securing the needed weaponry, even if they had to steal from family members or friends.

Mass shootings have been exploited just as effectively by pro-gun groups to promote legislation allowing ordinary citizens to carry concealed weapons in public places. Concealed-carry proponents suggest that an armed citizenry would deter criminals or at least reduce the death toll. Of course, mass murderers often anticipate suicide as part of their plan and are not discouraged by the prospect of armed resistance. Even though gun-free zones may have their vulnerabilities, mass murders occur in all types of venues, gun-free or not.

You’ve studied this subject as much as anyone. What level of new or tougher local or federal gun control would you support?

A number of politicians and pundits have called for a restoration of the federal assault weapons ban. While that may generally have some benefits, including symbolic, the majority of mass murderers use firearms that would not be restricted by such a ban. Semiautomatic handguns are far more prevalent.

That said, there is a clear advantage to limiting the size of ammunition clips, as Colorado and Connecticut have done in response to recent massacres. That at least would force a gunman to pause to reload or switch weapons, potentially reducing the extent of carnage.

The last few events, particularly the Navy Yard shooting, have increased our focus on mental illness as a cause and area for improvement. Do you see a way to write law or policy that addresses this complex issue?

In the aftermath of high-profile mass shootings, political leaders often rally to address the needs of the mentally ill and expand access to treatment. While this would benefit countless troubled Americans, it may not reach the few at the fringe who, rightly or wrongly, see themselves as victims of injustice. They want fair treatment, not psychological treatment.

In addition, the timing of these proposals tends to stigmatize the vast majority of people who suffer with mental illness, as if they too are mass murderers in waiting. The sudden initiative to aid the psychologically impaired is the right thing to do, but for the wrong reason.

For example, during an April 8, 2013, speech in Hartford, Conn., delivered months after the Sandy Hook school shooting, President Barack Obama urged Congress to respond: “We need to help people struggling with mental health problems get the treatment they need before it is too late” [emphasis added].  We should endeavor to help the mentally ill out of concern for their well-being, not just because we are worried about the well-being of those they might kill.

It sounds as if you believe policy makers and commentators aren’t asking the right questions in response to mass shootings. What questions should they ask?

Mass murders are typically precipitated by some type of loss – of a relationship or of a job, for example – which is seen by the perpetrator as catastrophic. We might ask therefore, what government can do to assist unemployed or displaced workers so as to reduce their sense of hopelessness and despair. We might also ask what businesses can do to foster a respectful and supportive work environment. We might ask as well what communities can do to support those who are isolated and struggling. Enhancing the safety net may not avert the next mass murder, but it will enhance the well-being of millions of Americans in the process.

Eliminating the risk of mass murder entirely would involve extreme steps that we are unable or unwilling to take – abolishing the Second Amendment, achieving full employment, restoring our sense of community and rounding up anyone who looks or acts at all suspicious. Mass murder just may be a price we must pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued.

This Q&A was conducted and condensed by Dallas Morning News editorial writer Mike Hashimoto. His email address is mhashimoto@dallasnews.com. James Alan Fox’s email address is j.fox@neu.edu.

MyNEUFind Faculty & StaffFind A-ZEmergency InformationSearch

360 Huntington Ave., Boston, Massachusetts 02115 • 617.373.2000 • TTY 617.373.3768
© 2013 Northeastern University