Now that details of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida have emerged, we can begin to explore causes and potential cures (unlike members of the gun control industry who didn’t hesitate a moment before proffering legislation of dubious efficacy). In this article we review:
- The high-level notes about the event
- Mental health and its recurrence in such incidents
- Legal intervention failures – Parkland and Virginia Tech (VT)
- Mass shootings as a policy priority
- What to watch in the political arena
- Legislative options and realities
The high-level notes about the event
- The shooter was autistic, as was the Sandy Hook shooter.
- He had regular behavioral problems to the point that his mother would sometimes call the police to come over and talk to him.
- He had been treated at a local mental health center and had been on medications
- He was in a degrading mental state.
- He had a set of disruptive personal setbacks, including:
- Expulsion from high school for making threats against other students
- Recent loss of his adoptive mother
- The assault had been planned from the approach to exposing victims, to his escape plan.
- The shooter had sought public attention, posting online that he would be a “professional school shooter.”
The sundry issues
Mental health and the recurrence of such
The mental health issue is both the most complicated, but also the one most likely to tick people off. So, let’s get it out of the way first.
When it comes to mass public shootings, mental health may be the common denominator. Using one database 1 2 of public shootings, and another one that investigates clues as to the mental condition of the shooters, we see that at a minimum, 54% of mass public shooters had prior signs of mental health issues. The actual (and currently unknowable) ratio is likely much higher.
In the Parkland shooting, the mental state of the shooter appears to be deranged. In police confessions he claimed that voices in his head directed his actions. This follows a history of behavior problems seemingly linked to his autism.
NOTE: Before anyone bashes me for insensitivity for diving into autism, know I have a nephew with autism and associated behaviors.
Some places on the autism spectrum are known for erratic and occasionally violent episodes. This makes certain events unpredictable. Though not universal to mass shooters, we did see autism in America’s two most notorious public school massacres (Parkland and Sandy Hook). Autism does not cover all mental disorders of mass public shooters, but it has recurred often enough to be of interest. Enough so that some mental health researcher are exploring the topic more deeply.
There are several complicating factors to devising meaningful policy from the mental health angle (though I do have a proposal to get the ball rolling).
- There are two general categories for such murderers: sociopaths (who have a lack of empathy for victims) and psychopaths (who have an overt desire to harm others). This factor may help us identify two (or more) policies.
- The motivations of such persons to kill are, by definition, irrational. Applying a rational policy for a small group of irrational people is difficult.
- Any policy that controls this tiny subset of the population, yet leaves everyone else alone, is really tricky.
My research into this realm indicates that we really don’t know enough about the psychology of mass murderers. This is due in part to medical privacy laws that prevent researchers from aggregating profiles of shooters. State and federal law needs to change to mandate public disclosure of all medical records of these shooters. This is a necessary first step for us to have a real handle on such a killer’s motivations.
This would include their pharmacology histories. Family members of the Parkland shooter note that he was under treatment at a mental health facility for his sundry issues. Once relative of the Parkland shooter claims he had been medicated to deal with his eroding emotional state. An open question, then, is what medications he was taking or withdrawing from. Various classes of medications used for mental health patients have well-known, violence-associated side effects. Two of the most frequently used medications for autism – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and antipsychotic medicines such as haloperidol or risperidone – have established withdrawal side effects related to violence.
Since the Parkland shooter admitted to hearing voices, the antipsychotic medications become of immediate interest. For haloperidol, some withdrawal symptoms include agitation or aggression, hallucinations and delusions. For risperidone, they include anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, delusions, depersonalization, irritability, mood swings and psychosis. Yet, due to current medical privacy laws, we will likely never know the Parkland shooter’s pharmacology history even after he is executed.
Legal intervention failures – Parkland and VT
Laws are only as good as law enforcement. With Parkland, we see critical failures at both the local and national level.
The Parkland shooter was on law enforcement’s radar since 2016. Local police had been called twenty times to tame him. School officials were engaged, and even the FBI had been alerted due to a social media post in which he said he would be a school shooter. Local law enforcement, alerted, did not or could not intervene. Federal agents were alerted, but did not forward notification to the local office.
In short, law enforcement failed.
It has been confirmed that the Parkland shooter was at least recently under the care of government mental health services. They, more than law enforcement, should have had a handle on any potentially endangering behaviors. Thus far I have found no evidence of these mental health services reporting endangering behaviors to law enforcement. Again, due to medical privacy laws, this may never be disclosed.
Mass shootings as a policy priority, and the realities therein
Now, time for some perspective.
First, this classifies as a “mass public shooting” using the established definition honed by the FBI (though social media posts show that people are quite content to make up their own definitions of “mass public shooting” to fit their sundry prejudices). Horrific as it is, we must keep in mind that such events are numerically rare and constitute a small part of firearm homicides.
This brings two elements of public policy to the forefront. First, why is that the larger problem – mainly gang-related homicides in poor neighborhoods with victims being people of color – captures little public attention? There have been fits and spurts of spending on gang intervention, but with little effect. Tough solutions should be sought for both kinds of violence; but people tend to focus on the highly publicized mass shootings because those events happen in their more affluent neighborhoods, not the poorer parts of town where they dare not venture.
|SOURCE: Mother Jones mass shooting database normalized to FBI definitions, 2000-2018|
That being said, we see one curious problem vis-à-vis schools. Due to numerous factors (densely packed and confined spaces, high people count, inexperienced victims unable to react well, lack of armed security, and, yes, “gun free zone” policies) the body count for mass public shootings is higher than other venues.
NOTE: One grain of salt is required here. Mass public school shootings are statistically rare. That means tallies are statistically fragile. Given that the years 2000–2018 in this analysis include Parkland and Sandy Hook, the fatality rates for school shootings are abnormally skewed. But, this is out of necessity. Since the Mother Jones database is derived from news reports, the year 2000 is the first year in which I am reasonably sure most major news organizations at the metropolitan level had a fully formed online presence. Anything before then begs incomplete reporting.
The questions on the table come down to:
- Are school mass shootings a topic that requires special attention because they are inherently different?
- What would be an effective solution?
The answer to the first question is “yes.” When the Columbine Massacre occurred, I said that the fame angle would cause copycat shootings by socially disenfranchised kids. This was the case at Sandy Hook and Parkland as well as some college shootings. Schools are also a special case due to the different physical aspects of the venues – lots of people packed into small rooms, few exit paths (especially in multi-story schools like Columbine and Parkland). Like the recent Las Vegas concert shooting or even the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, packed places create high body counts.
Turning to the second question, what legislation (aside from redesigning our schools to make them less packed) would be effective? Of the four public school mass shootings since the year 2000, we see these factors:
- Three of the shooters had prior signs of mental health issues, and for the fourth the case is uncertain.
- Only one acquired the firearms legally.
- The Red Lake and Marysville-Pilchuck shootings had ten or fewer fatalities, making the other two – Sandy Hook and Parkland – radical outliers.
- Handguns and shotguns were the only weapons used in half of the events (handguns and an AR-15 were used in one, and an AR-15 in the other).
Given these realities, we see that there is no statistical common denominator on weapon type. We do see a significantly higher student enrolment for Parkland (making it a better killing zone), which is undoubtedly a factor. Due to their young ages, the students at Sandy Hook elementary were ill-equipped for evasion.
Perhaps most interesting is the subject of weapons acquisition and mental health (a narrow intersection of topics). We see three quarters of the guns were acquired illegally and three quarters or more of the shooters had prior signs of mental health issues. There may be a legislative fix to deny sales of guns to people suffering mental illness, but it is clear that will not stop the problem. At Sandy Hook, the shooter murdered his mother before stealing her guns. At Red Lake, the killer murdered his grandfather before stealing his police-issued handgun and shotguns. At Marysville, the guns were taken from someone who had acquired them illegally.
Given this pairing – mentally unstable people who will steal guns to commit massacres – there appear to be few viable legislative fixes to how guns are acquired. This then devolves the problem to the other side of the coin – mental health intervention.
What to watch in the political arena
Sadly, some factions have quite adroitly hijacked this tragedy.
Two days after the shooting, there was a highly televised rally where students very specifically attacked the NRA and politicians who receive NRA contributions (DISCLOSURE: I am not a member of any group, including the NRA). From the flyer for the event, we see it was sponsored/organized at least in part by two gun-control groups. Additionally, browsing the websites of some of the other groups shows histories of advocating for gun control, even outside of school campus issues.
I admire the ability of twenty-first-century high school students to self-organize, but this rally was a top-down exploitation of the situation – driven, I would bet, by Michael Bloomberg’s front groups. They likely had sketched out plans for PR well in advance of such events; pre-funded them; and established liaisons with like-minded state and local groups; then created the flyer you see above and rented the sound systems when the opportunity presented itself.
Part of this response, too, were the speeches and television interviews given by kids from Parkland. Their very specific and targeted rhetoric is far above the pay grade of a high school student. The constant repetition of anti-NRA memes indicates message coaching. In short, they were likely co-opted by Moms Demand Action (note the similarity in font choices for Moms and the event flyer) then spoon-fed their talking points. Hijacking children for political positioning is now the new normal.
Legislative options and realities
The above campaign aside, let discuss legislation, from an efficacy standpoint.
- ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN: Foremost, most mass public shootings are done with handguns, and a full half of the twenty-first-century mass school shootings were done with handguns and shotguns. An assault weapons ban, even if it involved mass confiscation, would have no effects since the ease of substitution with handguns would be instant.
- “HIGH CAPACITY” MAGAZINE BAN: The Columbine killers murdered almost as many high schoolers as did the shooter in Parkland, but did not have anything like an AR-15 (they had a TEC-9, but that is a glorified handgun). Most of the Columbine bloodshed came from two 12-gauge shotguns. Cops keep “riot guns” in their squad cars for a reason – they move a lot of flesh with few shells. Combine all this with the fact that doing rapid magazine changes with a handgun takes very little practice, and that mass murders typically plan their assaults well in advance, and any magazine ban (even with confiscation) is easily mooted by using handguns instead.
- “UNIVERSAL” BACKGROUND CHECKS: As noted above, three quarters of mass school shootings were done with stolen guns, and half of these instances occurred with guns stolen after the owners were murdered.
- AGE FOR BUYERS: One of the four twenty-first-century public school mass shooters bought their own guns (the rest stole them). Currently, someone of high school age cannot buy a handgun. We could raise the age to buy a rifle, but at best that solves precisely one quarter of the problem, and given that three quarters of mass school shootings used stolen guns, even this is unlikely to make any progress.
- MENTAL ILLNESS BLACKLIST: Oddly, everyone – pro-gun and anti-gun – favors keeping guns out of the hands of lunatics. But adding the mentally ill to a no-sell list presents several problems:
- Who defines what is mentally ill? It wasn’t so many years ago that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed homosexuality as a psychiatric disease. If America were to create an all-encompassing database of the mentally ill, the definition of who is added would be hotly debated.
- The theft problem. As noted above, crazy people stealing guns is the most common mode for mass school shooters, so the efficacy of the blacklist approach is low. That being said, the authorities being alerted to a crazy person attempting to buy a gun would be a useful notification.
- Getting off the list. Some people will be misclassified (Senator Ted Kennedy was once on the terrorist watch list, and despite his political power, it took a long time for his name to be removed). Other people may be ill, but eventually get better. Civil libertarians will want the delisting process streamlined from the start.
- EMERGENCY CONFISCATION: A couple of states have passed laws (poorly written) to allow judges to order the confiscation of guns owned by someone alleged to be a danger to others. Only one of the twenty-first-century mass school shooters bought his gun. It was in a state with no firearm registration (and nearly no states register rifles), so the effectiveness of such laws is restricted to when a person is reported to be of unstable mental health and owns a gun. People may not know the latter even if the former s obvious.
- MENTAL HEALTH CONTAINMENT: Deinstitutionalization is a decades-old process of reducing involuntary psychiatric confinement. It has been blamed for the explosion in the number of crazy street people. But we have seen two cases – Virginia Tech and Parkland – where people with obvious and ongoing mental health issues, as well as violence-tinged social media posts, flirted with public mental health services and later shot up campuses. Since 75–100% of the recent mass school shooters were unstable, this might be a quick and effective
- PSYCHIATRICS DRUGS AND THEIR CONTROL: Medical privacy laws preclude true understanding of how often psychiatric medications create mass shooters. It is an area of research that needs to begin, and this starts with rewriting medical privacy laws so that the full medical history of mass public shooters is publicly disclosed upon death or conviction.
UPDATE 2018-02-25: It appears that there is a significant possibility that autism is one likely factor in events such as Parkland. One tally in an academic paper notes that of 239 killers evaluated, 28% had or likely had autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autistic people make up about 1% of the population. Statistically, this is of high interest.
- We used the ongoing mass shooting database maintained by Mother Jones, but extracted only events that conform to the FBI’s definition of a mass public shooting. The Mother Jones database has well-known limitations, but it is a good enough resource for ballpark analysis. ↩
- We extracted from the Mother Jones database those events that fit the FBI’s definition of mass public shooting. We also retained only records for the twenty-first century, since Internet content before that time, even for news organizations, is of unreliable consistency. ↩