Even while the horrific crime scene at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, FL, remains active, as it will for days to come, politicians and media pundits are again circling the wagons and inappropriately getting on their soapboxes to use the Valentine’s Day massacre at the school as their spear point to press for more gun control measures.
I’m sure that “gun control” is a cause that resonates with many Americans who are uninformed on the many complicated issues we in the law enforcement and criminal justice communities are forced to deal with daily. Even within our own communities, many professionals are both torn and frustrated by the lack of forward movement needed to safeguard our communities and our children from the violent acts of active shooters and armed criminals. What the recent history of the political tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats documents is much competing political rhetoric, but no common-sense compromise solutions toward keeping guns out of the hands of people who pose a threat to our communities.
There are many layers to America’s gun violence problem.
An analysis of many active shooter mass-murder events provides evidence that the killers had severe mental health problems and that this precipitated their assaults.
Part of our society’s failure to properly address the issues of and care for people with mental illness is ineffective treatment laws that require someone to be a danger to themselves or others before they can be treated over their objection.
Nationally, the lack of political commitment and funding to solve our country’s epidemic mental health crisis is abysmal. A 2014 research project conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center regarding mental health commitment laws in the United States found:
- No state earned a grade of “A” on the use of its civil commitment laws.
- Only 14 states earned a cumulative grade of “B” or better for the quality of their civil commitment laws.
- 17 states earned a cumulative grade of “D” or “F” for the quality of their laws.
- Only 18 states were found to recognize the need for treatment as a basis for civil commitment to a hospital, and several of those were found to have less than ideal standards.
- While 45 states have laws authorizing the use of court-ordered treatment in the community, only 20 of those were found to have optimal eligibility criteria.
- 27 states provide court-ordered hospital treatment only to people at risk of violence or suicide even though most of these states have laws allowing treatment under additional circumstances.
- 12 states rarely or never make use of court-ordered outpatient treatment (often called “assisted outpatient treatment”), including eight states with laws on their books authorizing such treatment.
- 20 states received penalty points for the prevalence of bed waits. In two of the most populous states–Florida and Texas–bed waits were reported to typically exceed two weeks.
The identification of and proactive response to people in mental health crisis should be a community-based effort. Any successful strategy to identify and intervene when high-risk people are in crisis must involve parents, teachers, schools, social workers, friends, neighbors, law enforcement and the courts. When any one of these components are either reluctant to act or fail to get involved, the mechanism for cutting the lit fuse for ticking time bombs like active shooters will fail and violence more likely than not will result. This is unacceptable.
Although law enforcement officers are not trained psychologists. The “reasonable officer doctrine” dictates that first responders should at least be knowledgeable in some basic psychology and cues of mental illness sufficient to quickly assess a subject’s potential for self-harm and harming others. School administrators, teachers, social service and those professionals who have daily contact with at-risk students and adults should receive similar training. Again, this strategy requires legislation, commitment and funding.
Active shooters and Suicidal Subjects
Research into the history of active shooters, especially the suspects who committed the past 25 school shootings since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, shows us that they share many of the same traits found in suicide completers.
Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death in the U.S., with approximately 11 suicides occurring per 100,000 people. Annually, there are approximately twice as many suicides nationally as homicides and firearms are used in 58% of all suicides.
The typical profile of a suicide completer or attempter is classically a person experiencing mental health problems such as severe depression who has poor coping skills and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Many are abusers of drugs and alcohol used for self-medication. People experiencing suicidal ideations are most often socially isolated from their peers, have no familial or social support systems, feel estranged from the mainstream and have recently experienced the loss of an intimate relationship. They also have a lethal means to accomplish their “death act.”
In the case of the Parkland, FL, school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, the psychological profile developing is quite like a suicide completer. It is interesting to note that 40% of active shooters end their event by suicide or by “suicide by cop.” Cruz is reportedly in the other 60%; police say he had a plan to escape and evade capture, it just didn’t work.
The objective of the assessment of verbal and written communication and behavioral indicators and stressors is to see the warning signs when they are being communicated; and to judge how close the person is at risk of suicide or violence to others. Such communications and behaviors are alarms that sound out to others to, “Notice me!” “I’m in trouble!” “I need help!” It is important to remember that the methods of both active shooters and suicide are determined by both availability to a means of lethality and the personality of the individual.
The psychiatric professional or law enforcement first responder assessing a suspected perpetrator of violence or a subject with suicidal intent should pay attention to the subject’s presentation of signs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders, with particular attention to mood disorders such as primary major depressive disorders, mixed episodes, schizophrenia, severe anxiety with panic and agitation, and personality disorders.
Risk assessors should pay attention to any communication “cues” presented by the persons of interest. This includes not only verbal communications, but written and social media posts. Studies of suicide completers indicate that 69% of completers expressed verbal or written suicidal communication sometime prior to their suicides. The same study documented that within one month before suicide, 33% made direct threats of suicide and when less direct communications were considered, this figure rose to 55%.
While no research has been conducted to date to determine how many school active shooters have communicated bizarre, threatening or violent posts; including posts with photos of weapons on social media, I would wager that the statistics of this might be similar to suicide completers.
Lighting the Fuse
Both active shooters and suicide completers and attempters are psychological ticking time bombs. While the person presenting with suicidal ideations more often simply directs their violence inwards and kills only themselves, the active shooter directs their violence outward toward others. There are six basic motivations for an active shooter to kill: (1) anger, rage and revenge; (2) mental health disorders; (3) anti-government sentiment; (4) anti-religion sentiment; (5) terrorism; and (6) pure evil.
However, both the active shooter and the suicide-intent person most often experience a precipitating event–the ignition of a fuse–to cause them to explode and kill. In the case of Nikolas Cruz, I don’t find it at all coincidental that he had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman High for fighting with the new boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend; his adopted mother had died suddenly last November, and he chose Valentine’s Day to explode in a well-planned murderous assault on his former classmates. Once the bomb explodes, you cannot control it.
The Gun Control Paradigm
America is not the United Kingdom, or the European Union, both of which have very strict gun control measures in place. In America, we have a totally different history and culture with respect to the possession of firearms, as well as constitutionally guaranteed civil protections for gun ownership. It is no coincidence that the Second Amendment of our Bill of Rights, which guarantees the ownership of weapons to citizens, follows our First Amendment, which guarantees our freedoms of speech and assembly.
You cannot expect what works in other parts of the world with different governments, laws and cultures to work here. Freedoms and liberties must be balanced against government intrusions. The discussion we must have is how far do we want to go as a nation to repress the freedoms of law-abiding citizens against those of the reckless, the criminal and the mentally impaired who need to be controlled.
Rationally and practically, few if any gun control laws would have proved successful in thwarting the murderous assault of Nikolas Cruz. He had no criminal history; to my knowledge had never been involuntarily committed for psychiatric observation; he successfully passed a weapons background check and was legally able to purchase a firearm. The type of firearm he used is irrelevant. He was vetted by our legislated “system” of checks and balances.
The lawless care nothing about our laws. They care about committing violent crimes and killing us. While we can mitigate or perhaps to an extent curtail a mentally disordered person from buying a firearm legally; they can buy them on the street. The answers lie in intense vigilance, reporting, treatment and proactive enforcement.
As I have repeatedly written, the real issue that must be ultimately acknowledged and resolved is that guns are merely a mechanism of violence and not the cause of violence. Behavior is the forensic cause of violence. Therefore, any efforts we take to curb gun violence must primarily address the behaviors and people who select firearms as their device to kill and maim our citizens.
While gun violence has been way up, federal prosecutions for gun crimes during the past eight years went way down. Many states allow defendants in gun-related crimes to plea down their charges to almost nothing. In many courts, there is such a fear of “racial disparity” in prisons and prison over-crowding that suspects who possess or use guns during the commission of crimes almost never get a just sentence that both modifies behavior and keeps them off the street.
If we are ever going to deter gun violence in America, we must learn to treat the behavior. This may mean building more prisons; expediting the adjudication of gun crimes; mandatory, no plea bargain prosecutions; and locking offenders up for longer periods of time to keep them off the street. If our review of the criminal histories of violent criminals who use guns shows us that they were undeterred from using guns due to a lax or otherwise enabling dysfunctional criminal justice system, then we must commit to making it functional.
The Way Forward
As a nation, we need to get serious about modifying dangerous and violent behavior. Race, socio-economics and politics cannot be a part of our calculus in protecting innocent citizens and children from gun violence. We need to literally scare potential offenders into not possessing or using guns to commit crimes. History tells us that the most violent of gun offenders and cop killers are recidivists who had multiple arrests and convictions for felony and gun crimes yet were consistently released from jail or prison early. They were not first-time offenders.
In truth it is the case that in some rare cases, some goal-oriented people are going to get through our safety net and be successful in killing many people in one incident. These are the quiet, deadly ticking time bombs like Las Vegas active shooter and mass murderer Stephen Paddock. No one saw Paddock coming, apparently not even the woman who lived with him for years. We may never discover his motives for indiscriminately mowing down 58 victims and injuring hundreds of others.
However, if we are truly serious about reducing gun violence, suicides and active shooter deaths, we must stop the political posturing and the self-serving, useless rhetoric and commit ourselves to the many viable solutions that are out there. We owe it to our children to find a way.
Ron Martinelli, Ph.D., BCFT, CMI-V, is a forensic criminologist and a federal and state courts qualified forensic expert. Martinelli is a retired San Jose, CA, detective and a retained expert for numerous state attorneys general offices and cities. He specializes in psychological profiles, in-custody deaths, officer-involved shootings, and active shooter events. Martinelli is a certified medical investigator and a board-certified expert in forensic traumatology. He can be reached at: [email protected]. His training site is www.responsetoactiveshooter.com.