The Dallas Morning News
“Every societal failure, we put it on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. … Schools fail, give it to the cops.”
For anyone who doesn’t remember, those lines were issued by then Dallas Chief of Police David Brown after the vicious attack that killed five officers July 7, 2016. Now after another mass shooting, this one in Florida, the idea at the heart of Brown’s comments echoes through our thoughts.
We are in an era of mass shootings, and yet our response to the complex set of problems that enable them is something akin to whack-a-mole. We too often leave it to police officers alone to catch these killers before they commit their horrific crimes — and after each shooting we dissect what went wrong, spotlight a gap that “allowed” the shooting to take place, and then call for that gap to be filled in.
If that remains our approach, we are a long way from curbing mass shootings. The human mind — especially one bent on cruelty — can be very creative. It is nearly impossible to stay ahead of that creativity by focusing solely on the means in which such cruelty is inflicted. The next killer will always find a fresh gap in the system.
What’s more, in our divided political world, there is sharp disagreement about how to fill in those gaps, and that locks us into inaction. So even as no one today would argue that Nikolas Cruz should have been allowed to have a gun, we are stuck on the question of how to stop the next Cruz.
One thing that has emerged about the Parkland, Fla., school shooting is the number of red flags swirling around Cruz: suspension and expulsion from school, cruelty to animals, and violence at home. His declared desire to be a school shooter. A 911 call where he spoke of his world collapsing.
After Parkland, it should be clear that one big crack in the system is that local officials are too reluctant or unable to intervene. In any case, even if Cruz had been blocked from buying a gun, he still would have fallen into an abyss — and it is anyone’s guess if, once there, he might have figured out another way to perpetrate a mass killing.
This is where many people throw up their hands in frustration.
We, too, are horrified by each of these shootings, but we are not among those discouraged by the work ahead. This paper has editorialized in favor of a number of measures that would keep deadly weapons out of the wrong hands by curbing access to assault weapons such as the AR-15 and limiting magazine capacity. And we will continue to do so.
But our guiding principle is public safety, and here Brown’s comments resonate. If part of the problem is that we leave it to the police to correct too much of society’s carnage, then we aren’t thinking broadly enough. To that end, we offer three ideas that, taken together, offer a comprehensive approach to the problem.
First, clear the path for obvious reforms. These include banning bump stocks (which increase the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle to make it virtually indistinguishable from an automatic weapon), fixing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to include data it already is supposed to include (there is already a bill in Congress that is hung up on a different issue that should expedited), and extending background checks to all gun purchases.
Second, build creative new alliances. The National Rifle Association is being vilified for the pressure it’s exerting in Washington — and that back and forth is part of democracy. But for real movement, we’d look to the source of the organization’s political power — its 5 million members. The NRA runs youth and other programs. Is it willing to launch a new public campaign to support programs that serve young men heading down the path to violence as a preventive measure?
Many members already engage in such work through churches and other organizations. We’re asking if the NRA will make fostering such public service a top organizational priority.
If “guns don’t kill people, people do,” then let’s do more work on the people side of that equation.
And finally, let’s put more data toward solutions. Amid the flurry of proposals, our mind turns to a prosaic but productive idea. After 9/11, the federal government reorganized intelligence assets into one place to close the gaps that allow terrorists to slip through. Now it’s time for a similar approach to mass shootings.
We’d like to see Congress create a federal center for mass shootings that would collect key data and review federal, state and local laws to find gaps before the next shooter does. This would give us a chance to get ahead of the problem of sorting through the thicket of laws that prevent officials from intervening as young men descend down the deadly path of mass violence. We’d call it the National Center for the Prevention of Mass Shootings. But whatever it is called, its purpose would be to create accountability to act on the red flags evident in these shooters’ lives.
For years we’ve heard people say, “If you see something, say something.” After the Florida school shooting, the mandate for officials at all levels needs to be that if you know something, you need to act.