Mass shootings in the past year like the ones at a Connecticut elementary school, the killing of Sikhs at their temple in Wisconsin, the movie theatre shooting in Colorado and the shooting at a Minneapolis factory tell a sad tale of violence and sickness in our society. That is not to say that mass shootings are recent phenomena; they have occurred numerous times over the last several decades. According to a report I found online, "A Guide to Mass Shootings in America" by Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan, "Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Twenty-five of these mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and seven of them took place in 2012."
I have long believed that society is responsible for curing itself; not the government. To be clear, some laws that regulate the possession, sales and transfers of firearms are helpful. In fact there are myriad laws at the all levels of government, but none seem to be able to prevent the kinds of mass shootings that have been taking place in recent history. Take for example the Fort Hood military base shooting of November 2009 where a U.S. Army Major (who happened to be a psychiatrist) killed 13 people and injured 30 other people. The U.S. government calls this an act of "workplace violence." Other people see the suspect as a religious zealot, while yet others view him as a terrorist. Regardless of the Fort Hood suspect's motives or any label we might assign him, we have to wonder what law or other preventative measures could have been taken to stop this killer before he carried out his heinous crime.
Similarly, the suspects featured in the other mass shootings in the last twelve months were very unlikely to come to the attention of law enforcement prior to their acts of violence. Yet, for each of these individuals, there were probably clues that there was something wrong - but they were the kinds of clues that only family and friends were likely to detect. Of course, looking in retrospect, the warning signals are now quite clear. Mental illness, severe depression, a sense of having a meaningless life, the loss of a job, feeling castigated from society and any number of other mental health conditions that interfere with normal thinking can lead some to do drastic things.
Whether these shootings could have been prevented is truly a difficult question. Assuming that most mass killers have some kind of mental illness, how many of us are qualified to tell what goes on in their minds? Making matters worse, we have a broken mental health care system. In California, for example, most persons committed by the police on a 51-50 hold stay for just a few hours, even if the behavior that led them there was extreme. As a police officer, I have seen that for myself. In one case some years ago, I saw a man running in an out of traffic, he tore the sleeves off of his shirt, and he rolled around on the roadway and was yelling unintelligibly. After he was dropped off at the mental health unit, he stayed there for a mere three hours and was then deemed to not be a danger to himself or others, ostensibly because he had assured the medical practitioners that he had calmed down and was no longer out of control.
It does not help that the media so rigorously reports on mass murders. This is not to say that the media should avoid reporting on such tragedies; with their sense of obligation to inform the public and the public's high interest in drama, this kind of reporting is unavoidable. But it is the publicity that adds to the shooters' motive to carry out highly publicized killings. The more people that are killed, the more notoriety and publicity the killer is likely to get. The prospect of achieving notoriety and becoming infamous may not be the main motivator, but it may be just enough to cause an unstable person to carry out his murderous fantasies.
In most cases a person making plans to kill will either intentionally or unwittingly leave clues before they act. These clues may be passed along verbally, they may appear on the person's Facebook page or in other forms of social media, there may be drawings, poems or an obsession with certain kinds of violent music or movies, the person may have a diary or personal journal that may provide indications, there may be pictures or news clippings displayed in their homes and bedrooms and the possibilities go on. The most direct and best form of intervention will come from family and friends of people who are in a position to pick up on the clues.
If you become aware of a person whose mindset appears to be leading them to carry out violence, it is important to act on it. Acting on it may include simply asking the person what they are thinking about and planning. Try to get them mental health assistance if necessary. Police may have a role as well, but the worst thing is to do nothing at all. The lessons of the mass shootings in the recent past should not be lost on us.