Another School Shooting, Another Week in America
There are no words to express the depth of frustration, agony, and heartbreak I feel when I see in the news that there has been yet another school shooting in America. Seventeen dead. Seventeen lives ended before they could graduate high school, find love, go to college or learn a trade, and start a family.
As humans, our inclination is to turn to the perpetrator of this crime and ask, “Why?” But as Americans, we need to stop asking this question and offering empty “thoughts and prayers.” Instead, we need to start looking for solutions to this epidemic of mass shootings in our country, consistently perpetrated by homegrown terrorists.
This is uniquely an American epidemic. This is uniquely an American problem.
You don’t read about many school shootings elsewhere in the world, because they simply don’t happen in other countries. You don’t read about people wringing their hands over a failed mental health system in other countries, because they actually have a pretty decent mental health care system.
It’s easy to dismiss each school shooting as it happens as, “Oh, that person was just crazy.” We should’ve known better. Someone should’ve acted on the signs.
But in the case of Nikolas Cruz, we can clearly see how broken our American mental health system is today. And how the “signs” (which change to fit whichever person we’re talking about) are unknowable until after the act. It also shows that no mental health system is up to the task of preventing gun violence in schools, because that’s not the primary job or mission of mental health professionals.
Politico makes the case:
Yet despite the fact that he was well known to local police, school and mental health officials, he legally purchased the AR-15 that he used to gun down his former classmates. Cruz slipped through the gaps in a dysfunctional mental health system and a gun background check setup not designed to stop mentally ill people who haven’t been incarcerated or court-ordered into treatment.
What are we supposed to do, lock people up before they commit an actual crime (e.g., “pre-crime”)? Lock up every teenager who expresses dark thoughts? That would be a good half of all teens today. Lock up anyone who is a bully or “doesn’t fit in?” That would be the other half of all teens today.
Cruz, 19, was apparently in counseling for a time, but quit going last fall. It is unclear how long he had been in therapy, and what he was seeing a therapist for. But therapist’s aren’t fortune tellers, and they have a pretty lousy track record in being able to accurately predict future violence. The best predictor of future violence is past violent acts. And while Cruz had a history of some physical violence, it was primarily directed at inanimate objects and animals — not people.1
Can We Catch People Like Cruz in Background Checks? No
The article later implies that reforming the background check system would’ve caught Cruz and made it impossible for him to purchase the gun that he used to kill 17 people:
Policy experts and lawmakers have tried reforming the background check system to include more people, but Trump’s reversal of an Obama-era regulation did the opposite. The rule required the Social Security Administration to report people on disability insurance who had severe mental illness and required someone else to file for them, to the FBI’s background check system to prohibit them from purchasing a gun.
However, the article leaves out an important point — it isn’t clear that Cruz was even on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or had a “severe mental illness.” As a 19 year old, it would’ve been unlikely he was, as benefits generally stop when a child turns 18. He was expelled from high school and living at home with his mother in 2016, when he was 17, so he no longer was a student and didn’t appear to suffer from any type of serious disability — he held down a job and was working on getting his GED — that would’ve qualified him for SSDI.
All of which just means that even if that particular regulation was in place, it likely would’ve had no effect on Cruz’s ability to legally obtain a firearm. Getting outpatient mental health treatment alone is not — nor should it ever be — a barrier to exercising one’s 2nd Amendment rights.
His mother died in November 2017 — just three months ago. That’s likely a key event that contributed to him taking a course of action that ended in the current tragedy. Oddly, however, after moving in with a friend’s family, he showed absolutely no signs of trouble:
He was respectful, followed the rules and seemed grateful to have a home. Up until the shooting, there was no sign of trouble. Just the day before, he had ridden with his friend’s father to the alternative school where he was working on his GED, then went to his job at the dollar store.
This is a person you’d still be concerned about? Nope, not most people. Not even a therapist, if he had been seeing one.
It is super easy to look back at a person’s behavior in hindsight and see everything that points to a clear indication that he was dangerous. That it was inevitable that he would’ve committed this or a similar crime. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “hindsight bias.”
But we have to remember — most people with similar symptoms don’t commit these kinds of heinous crimes. We shouldn’t indict everyone who acts a little strangely or has behavioral problems based on a small minority of people who then go on to commit a crime. We have to remember, there is no significant correlation between mental illness and an increased risk of violence.
Cuts to Mental Health Care in America
Of course, none of this helps when the President calls for the mental health system to pick up the slack, and then calls for deep cuts in the same system:
But just this week, for the second year in a row, his budget proposed deep cuts to the nation’s mental health programs and programs meant to help prevent crime in schools and assist them in recovery from tragedies.
Only in America can we ask a broken, fragmented system to do more with less, and expect results. The reality is, things are going to continue to decline and there will be even more tragic school shootings in the months and years to come.
And yes, it would be silly to talk about all of these mass shootings without addressing the tool that allows so many deaths to take place in such a short period of time — certain types of guns with high-capacity magazines. What is the point of such magazines or guns? Very few hunters use them. They are simply ridiculous for self-protection purposes. So other than, “Because I like them,” there seems to be little point in them.
Finally, it’s clear that if enough people communicated more clearly and consistently about a person of concern, there still doesn’t mean a lot can always be done in most communities. It seems everyone in this particular community knew about Cruz — the school, teachers, the police, and even his own mom. He was in therapy, he was getting treatment. But still nobody could help him. And in the end, nobody could stop him. That should be cause for concern for us all.
Enough is enough. We can’t address the problem of school shootings without a complex, multi-faceted response. It’s not just one thing — it’s a combination of factors that need to come together to fix this problem.
Nothing ever changes if nothing changes. Let’s be the change needed to end this problem and keep our children alive to see adulthood.
For further information
Grohol, J. (2018). Another School Shooting, Another Week in America. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 28, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/another-school-shooting-another-week-in-america/