The United States is facing a puzzling paradox. Even as gun crime has plunged precipitously from the terrible highs of the early 1990s, mass shootings have increased. Consider this, 15 of the 20 worst mass shootings in U.S. history have occurred since the Columbine school shooting in 1999. The five worst have all occurred since 2007, and three of those five were in 2016 and 2017.
It’s horrifying, and governmental solutions are hard to find. Twitter’s fondest wishes to the contrary, the unique characteristics of mass shootings mean that they often escape the reach of public policy. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler (hardly an NRA apologist) famously fact-checked Marco Rubio’s assertion that new gun laws wouldn’t have prevented any recent mass shootings and declared it true. Time and again, existing laws failed, or no proposed new gun-control law would have prevented the purchase.
The reason is obvious. Mass shootings are among the most premeditated of crimes, often planned months in advance. The shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School reportedly wore a gas mask, carried smoke grenades, and set off the fire alarm so that students would pour out into the hallways. Though we’ll obviously learn more in the coming days, each of these things suggests careful preparation. A man who is determined to kill and who is proactive in finding the means to kill will find guns. He can modify guns. He can find magazines.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. When policies fail, people can and should rise to the occasion. Looking at the deadliest mass shootings since Columbine, we see that the warning signs were there, time and again. People could have made a difference.
Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik spent at least a year preparing for their attack in San Bernardino, Calif. Farook may have even discussed the attack three years before the murders. A neighbor reportedly witnessed suspicious activity at the the shooters’ home, but was afraid to report what she saw.
The story of Devin Patrick Kelley — the church shooter in Sutherland Springs, Texas — is full of warning signs, acts of aggression, and missed opportunities. He was violent, he never should have passed a background check, and he “displayed a fascination with mass murders.”
Adam Lanza’s family struggled with him for years before he committed mass murder at Sandy Hook. His mother was “overwhelmed” by his behavior, and he lived in deep isolation — blocking anyone from entering his room and even covering his windows with black plastic bags.
Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, was known to be profoundly troubled. He stalked and threatened female schoolmates. In 2005, a court ruled that he was “an imminent danger to others,” but he was released for outpatient care.
The FBI twice investigated Omar Mateen, the Orlando Nightclub shooter, and he once claimed that he was affiliated with al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.
The list could go on and on. In fact, evidence of extended mental-health problems, aberrant behavior, or political radicalization is so common that the absence of such evidence in the Las Vegas shooting renders it the mysterious black swan of mass killings.
In 2015 Malcolm Gladwell wrote an extended essay in the New Yorker about school shootings and offered a provocative thesis:
Gladwell argues that each new shooting lowers the threshold for the shooters to come. Each new shooting makes it easier for the next shooter to pick up his gun.
Others have used the term “contagion” to describe the wave of copycat killers. Again, each killing inspires the next, and as the killings increase so does the inspiration.
What if the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic is … to think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?
What does this mean? It means that Americans need to be aware that this contagion exists, that this “ever-evolving riot” is under way. We can’t deflect responsibility upwards, to Washington. We’re still the first line of defense in our own communities. We cannot simply assume that the kid filling his social-media feed with menacing pictures is just in “a phase” or that strange obsessions with murder or mass death are morbid, but harmless.
We’ve trained ourselves to mind our own business, to delegate interventions to professionals, and to “judge not” the actions of others. But in a real way, we are our brother’s keeper; and an ethic of “see something, say something” is a vital part of community life.
Instead, we all too often retreat into our lives — either afraid that intervention carries risks or falsely comforted by the belief that surely someone else will do the right thing. We’ve seen this dynamic in other crimes. The worst of the sexual predators revealed (so far) by the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar, could have been stopped so much earlier if the people around them had shown just an ounce more courage in the face of known complaints and known misconduct. We didn’t need better laws to stop rape. We needed better people.
One of the greatest challenges for any society is stopping a man who is determined to commit murder, and we’ll never fully succeed. Even the most vigilant community will still suffer at the hands of evil men. But it’s days like these, when children lay dead in school, that we must remind ourselves that we’re all in this together. We have responsibilities, not just to mourn and comfort the families of the lost, but to think carefully about our own communities and the circle of people in our lives — and to take action to guard our own children and our own schools.
It is the duty of a free people to be aware, to have courage, and to care for one another. For me, that’s a reminder that I can’t consider a troubled person someone else’s problem. I can’t assume it won’t happen in my school or in my town. Rather than tweet impotently, I’ve armed myself to protect my family and my neighbors; in my past role as a member of a school board, I’ve worked to better secure my kids’ school; and I’ve vowed that if — God forbid — I ever see evidence or warning signs of the darkness of a killer’s heart, I’ll have the courage to seek the intervention that can save lives.
That’s not public policy. It’s personal responsibility. It’s also the best way to confine the contagion that’s killing our kids.