The story is tragically familiar: Every mass shooting is followed by impassioned pleas for more gun control, but no attention is paid to how frequently our current laws fail or why our culture seems incapable of spotting the obvious signs that an attack.
Let me begin by saying that I’m a believer in the Second Amendment in principle, but have never owned a gun and have no plans to purchase one. I admit to finding some people’s obsession with guns a little odd, but I am equally certain they will find my predilection for cars and racing equally so. Like many Americans, I have grown weary and saddened by the seemingly steady stream of mass shootings inevitably followed by the same stale debate over gun control. It seems to me that well into the 21st century we should be capable of developing some reasonably reliable means to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of potential mass shooters, while protecting the Second Amendment for law abiding citizens. We live in a world where we have an analytic for everything from our credit rating to our car insurance risk, but appear completely incapable of anything similar for gun sales. At the same time, we have no shortage of gun laws that are supposedly designed to prevent mass killers from acquiring weapons. We have background checks managed at the federal level and red flags at the state level. Many states have permitting processes, wait times, and other measures, all of which appear to be sadly ineffective every time one of these tragic incidents occurs.
The questions before us are two fold: First, why do our current laws appear completely useless? Second, what else can we do when that’s the case?
In November 2017, a gunman attacked a church in rural Texas. The scene was all too familiar: The ballistic vest and military style rifle. The unsuspecting occupants of the pews turned into sitting ducks in a normally peaceful setting. In total, 26 people were killed by Devin Patrick Kelly that gruesome morning. The tragedy was compounded when we learned Mr. Kelly, who died himself shortly after the attack, should never have owned a firearm in the first place. He’d been court martialed while serving in the Air Force for assaulting his wife and child. After a sentence of 12 months confinement in a military prison, he was discharged from the military for “bad conduct.” The conviction and subsequent sentence were supposed to prevent him from legally purchasing a firearm, but he passed the requisite background checks because the Air Force never reported his status to the government department that manages the database. In other words, the system – even within nothing but the federal government itself – completely failed. To my knowledge, no one involved was ever held accountable. No changes were made to the chain of reporting for the background check database. Nothing was done at all, except gun control advocates moved on as if it never happened and the failure of the very system they champion and the desire to expand was not a concern.
A similar scenario played out earlier this month in Buffalo, NY. This time, the state’s red flag laws passed as recently as 2019 failed to prevent Peyton S. Gendron from legally purchasing a Bushmaster rifle even after he was arrested by the police and underwent a psychiatric evaluation in June 2021 for claiming he planned a “murder-suicide” after graduation. Once again, gun control advocates weren’t remotely interested in how or why this even more restrictive system completely failed. Putting this another way, if deep blue New York, dominated by Democrat governance at the state level, empowered to pass restrictive gun laws designed to stop mass shooters and successfully passing such laws within the last three years can’t properly execute their own regulations, why would anyone reasonably believe any additional law that offers at least a modicum of respect for the Second Amendment will help? We can accept that no system is perfect. We can even accept that, in some cases, more restrictive laws are required, but why would we accept a failed system they designed accompanied by calls for more of the same?
Moreover, this failure of competence, or perhaps even will, also applies to illegal guns. For example, the city of Chicago has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, and yet remains steeped in violence largely stemming from illegal guns. In principle, anyone caught with an illegal firearm is subject to jail time, sometimes serving long sentences depending on their prior record. The problem is that these laws are rarely, if ever, enforced, and the criminals with the illegal guns are put right back out on the street to cause more carnage. As early as 2010, before the massive spike in violence afflicting Chicago and other inner cities, The New York Times reported that “City’s Restrictive Gun Laws Are Rarely Enforced.” As they described it back then, “court records show that relatively few people were convicted of violating the laws, and even top city officials have questioned how useful they are in deterring crime. Since 1982, when the city tightened its gun ordinances to include the handgun ban, there have been just 2,201 convictions under the laws, according to data obtained by the Chicago News Cooperative from the office of the Cook County Circuit Court clerk. That works out to an average of about 79 convictions a year.” To put that figure in perspective, there were 128 homicides between January and March of this year alone. This trend is accompanied by an increase in the number of guns carried illegally, up some 108% between 2019 and 2020. Given that approximately four out of five murders in Chicago are committed with firearms, it stands to reason that many of these weapons are illegal, and yet the local government rarely pursues what we might call the root cause of the crime. Any fair minded observer should want to know why, and, perhaps even more importantly, why we would believe they would enforce any new laws with anything resembling the necessary vigor.
The horror at the church in Texas mentioned earlier occurred on the eight year anniversary of yet another mass shooting at the Fort Hood Army Base, also in Texas. In 2009, Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people with a handgun. The Obama Administration originally tried to claim that the attack was an incident of “workplace violence,” but even The New York Times admitted his real motivation, writing that he “carried out his attack in an attempt to wage jihad on American military personnel.” The real tragedy was something that is also all too common in these situations: Mr. Hasan did nothing to hide the fact that he was committed to the radical Islamist cause, even while supposedly serving in the military. He handed out business cards to fellow soldiers inscribed with the words “Soldier of Allah.” He organized a presentation detailing his beliefs, what he described as a “Grand Rounds” delivered two years before the attack that described his warped view of the world for all to see. He browsed jihadi websites on a government computer, and used a screen name that was actually his real name, one which was picked up by other government agencies as a potential terrorist because he praised suicide bombers for their sacrifice for a “noble cause.” ABC News reported that anonymous government sources believed he was a terror threat. Throughout all of this, no one in the government, neither his superiors nor his fellow soldiers, did anything to stop him. To my knowledge, no one was held accountable afterwards, or even asked to explain how an obvious radical was allowed to work in the military, much less as a psychiatrist supposedly helping others.
Likewise, the shooter at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, who killed 17 people in 2018, Nikolas Cruz had a long history of erratic behavior going back to middle school. He was transferred between schools six times in three years, and was recommended for involuntary psychiatric confinement in 2013. He was investigated by the Florida Department of Children and Families in 2016 after posting photos on social media where he cut himself and said he planned to buy a gun. A school resource officer and two guidance counselors recommended he be involuntarily confined for examination once again, but the mental health institution he was referred to disagreed. He was investigated by the state, and though they reported he had “depression, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” they deemed him at “low risk of harming himself or others.” Students reported that he threatened classmates and openly talked about mass shootings. A peer councilor informed the school resource officer about a suicide attempt and his deisre to buy a gun in September 2016. That month the resource officer and two school counselors said he should be committed for the third time. Meanwhile, the the local sheriff’s office received somewhere between 23 and 45 calls about Mr. Cruz between 2008 and 2017. These calls included one on February 5, 2016 where shooting up a school was specifically mentioned, and another on November 30, 2017 describing him as a “school shooter in the making.” The FBI also received a tip shortly before the shooting, and released a statement after saying, “The caller provided information about Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.” They claimed the tip line didn’t follow protocol, but nothing was done that I am aware of. Incredibly, Mr. Cruz purchased all of his firearms legally as well including passing the requisite background check.
The tragic story of Mr. Cruz along with Mr. Hasan and others, we might call a cultural failure to address the problematic behavior of the shooter before they open fire. Mr. Cruz is likely the worst recorded case with 10 years of troubles and many opportunities to restrain him, but generally speaking there is usually a paper trail with a clear moment where someone could’ve done something to prevent the horror. Sadly, they usually do not, or when they do they are stymied by the authorities who refuse to properly investigate and restrain threats, either by involuntary confinement or regular follow ups to monitor the situation. That these situations occur in a country that spends $225 billion per year on mental health remains something of a mystery, but as this case with our gun laws there remains no real accountability. Who refused to admit Mr. Cruz not once or twice but three times, and why? We can all understand that involuntarily confining a person is a drastic measure, one which should be used in only the most extreme circumstances, but I think we can also refuse to believe that supposedly trained professionals, experts in their craft, are completely and totally unable to identify the warning signs of a mass murdering psychopath. Putting this another way, the entire world can see how crazy these people are just by looking at a photograph of them. We see the picture and marvel that this person was allowed to walk the streets and legally purchase firearms when most would likely run and hide after a single conversation. How is it possible that a person trained in the field can conduct an in-depth examination with the goal of ascertaining whether they are safe in society and not know who they are dealing with? Mr. Gendron reported that his examination lasted “fifteen minutes” and the cursory questions were enough to convince him that the entire US healthcare system is a joke. There has been almost zero interest, however, in figuring out how this can possibly be so. What are we spending $225 billion on if we can’t figure out who’s highly likely to shoot up a school?
In my opinion, these are the questions that must be answered first and foremost. Certainly, we can all agree that keeping guns out of the hands of potential mass shooters should be a high priority, but the place to start is to examine why existing laws are rarely enforced, why we seem to have a cultural aversion to seeing people as they are and understanding what they might be capable of, and why there is next to no accountability for anyone responsible for making these decisions. We don’t even know their names, much less why they decided to let Mr. Cruz loose on society or refused to address Mr. Hasan’s conducting a jihad in the military itself. Otherwise, no future law we might pass will make any difference and the tragic ending to the story will remain entirely the same.