Monday, August 12, 2019

Mass Shootings Again and Again

There seems to be some optimism that Congress may be more motivated to do something about mass shootings in America given the recent events.  As I have said before - I will believe it when I see it.  Gun control is the prototypical deadlock in the USA, largely due to the effects of the gun lobby and their resistance to common sense gun legislation such as universal background checks, ban on high capacity magazine, and ban on assault weapons.  If anything, the rhetoric in these areas has intensified.  The assault weapons for example are described as not more than semi-automatic weapons just like hunting rifles.  Forget about the fact that the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter fired 154 rounds in 4 minutes from the 10-30 round magazines he  brought with him - killing 26 people 20 of whom were children.  Putting "mass shooting" in the search box in the upper right hand corner of this block will pull up about 14 essays dating back 7 years to 2012 including a proposal to consider violence prevention as a public health intervention.

Another important level of the deadlock is the Supreme Court. Interpretation of the Second Amendment can occur at several levels and in the current Court 5/9 justices are Republican appointees making restrictive gun legislation less likely.  Gun advocates controlled the narrative about the Second Amendment early on so that the preamble is typically ignored.  Gun advocate rhetoric is basically that gun ownership of practically any gun one might want to own is an unconditional right.

Over the years the pattern remains the same.  The issue of mass shooters disrupting American society and killing people is always minimized relative the "rights" of gun owners. The spokespeople on this issue don't even attempt to address the problem. They immediately produce pro-gun rhetoric and maintain that nothing needs to be done.  They are obviously wrong about that.  Mass shootings are the problem.  That is not a gun rights problem or a gang violence problem. It is a problem of keeping guns out of the hands of mass shooters. A secondary public health issue is keeping guns out of the hands of suicidal people. Limiting access is a known solution to both problems. Every reasonable solution should be available to solve that problem including universal background checks and outright bans on weapon types and permanent bans of some people purchasing firearms as well as confiscation and destruction of firearms.

To some degree the police response to terroristic threats is instructive. 30 years ago I received a fax from the local police that a person who I testified against in a commitment hearing had purchased a handgun and they were "letting me know" about it.  I called them back immediately and they told me: "We can't do anything because he hasn't done anything yet." Within a few weeks he was on my front porch shouting at me to come out. I could see he had the handgun concealed under a newspaper and he was planning to use it. Flash forward 20 years and I had a similar threat on my voice mail. I called the police in, they listened to it and told me they were going out to talk to the caller. They called me and said they had talked with him, and that if he contacted me again they were going to arrest him for terroristic threats. I never heard from him again.

The threshold for police intervention needs to be at least this low for every person identified as a potential threat with access to firearms. Terroristic threats or behavior should be the threshold for police intervention.  In the NICS system persons who have been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or subject to a restraining order for harassing, stalking or threatening are prohibited persons and they would fail this federal background check that rejects firearm purchases. In many cases, early signs were noted by members of the public and family members, but it was not clear which authorities should be contacted and how the problem should have been approached.  The protocol for identifying potential mass shooters and the response by the police needs to be standardized and widely applied.  The police response in almost every locality is also a political issue as evidenced by the very gradual adoption of consistent domestic violence laws.

There has been some blurring of boundaries between psychiatrists and the police - most notably by the Tarasoff laws that transfer what I consider to be a police action (warning potential victims) to clinicians.  In many states now, commitment laws are decided by the police since only they are allowed to put people on mental health holds. This is a completely illogical approach to psychiatric emergencies and holds.  There should be a clear division between clinicians and the police.  Clinicians do not take custody of people or discuss confidential information outside of what is legally required and that generally is to specific government authorities and not members of the public.

There have been no public health interventions focused on mass homicide prevention. I have been an advocate for this for a long time. There needs to be a campaign that focuses on anger control and what the resources might be to address it. On acute care psychiatric units, much of what is focused on has to do with the prevention of aggression and violence it has several causes. The message that anger - especially if it involved aggression even to the point of homicidal thinking and planning is a treatable problem and it can be treated before anyone is hurt or that person's life is ruined. Instead of treating it we have allowed mass homicide to persist as a way to express anger in a subculture of largely men. There are many forces in social media reinforcing this inappropriate expression of anger.

Although I have mentioned psychiatric problems here and see violent psychiatric patients as being part of the problem, they are not by any means the major part. I am sure that a personality disorder diagnosis exists in many of these remaining men, but the majority have not had any psychiatric contact. 

Psychiatry in itself will never be a solution to the problem without cultural changes at the level of this violent subculture and their way of expressing their anger and the law enforcement culture seriously resetting the threshold for intervention.  There also has to be a clear intervention to keep highly lethal firearms out of the hands of potential mass shooters. 

Pro-gun rhetoric never addresses that basic point.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

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