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Mass Shootings, Mental Health, Human Factors & Homeland Security

Another senseless tragedy, another set of funerals and another round of questions that all lead to one: “Why?” Sadly, you can just mention their locations and you know what people are talking about:

The list can go on quite a ways. So can the findings of the investigative reports for the reasons behind the murderous shootings. Depending on your point of view, people will either argue for or against greater gun control. As controversial as that may be, it’s probably not the most difficult issue to address in tragic circumstances such as these.

That issue would be mental health.

Aaron Alexis shotgun

Aaron Alexis’ etching atop the barrel of the shotgun he used to murder 12 people and wound eight more at the Washington Navy Yard. It reads: “End to the torment!” FBI photo

While there are certainly clinical means that are used to determine someone’s mental state, finding out whether or when someone is going to “snap” and begin a violent rampage is a crap shoot. For all of the advances in the study of risk, science and medicine, we do not live in a world like Tom Cruise’s science fiction film, Minority Report, where crimes and acts of violence are stopped before they occur.

As quick as people are to blame the weapon of choice at a violent incident, it’s a person who wields it and decides what they do with it.  Whether driven by mental illness, radical beliefs, warped theology or just ferocious anger at the world, people made a decision to commit these acts against other people.

Federal and state laws have given medical professionals the means to warn law enforcement officials, as well as employers, of persons who might do harm to themselves or others, but in our overly litigious and privacy-concerned society, it’s not surprising if those abilities are not fully exercised. Every physician, by oath, is sworn to “do no harm,” but there is little doubt that reporting a patient for good or even circumstantial reasons to law enforcement as a potential threat will harm that person, either through their current or future employment prospects, or by blemishing their reputation beyond repair. It is a decision of major consequence.

It’s certainly easy to second guess and armchair quarterback any of the recent tragic shootings, and forensically point to a day or time when someone could have reported something before the most awful of events happened. That’s practically a cottage industry for cable television news shows and trial attorneys either looking for ratings attention or big paydays.

President Barack Obama hugs Stephanie Davies, who helped keep her friend, Allie Young, left, alive after she was shot during the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting that occurred on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colo. The President visited patients and family members affected by the shooting at the University of Colorado Hospital on July 22, 2012. White House photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama hugs Stephanie Davies, who helped keep her friend, Allie Young, left, alive after she was shot during the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting that occurred on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colo. The President visited patients and family members affected by the shooting at the University of Colorado Hospital on July 22, 2012. White House photo by Pete Souza

Furthermore, family members of rampage shooters who have tried to deal with their loved ones’ mental states before they turned violent often tell stories of doing whatever they could to help make that person “normal” and a regular member of society. For as horrible as the anguish that victims’ families may suffer after acts of violence, the suffering and lingering guilt of a shooter’s family has to be multiplied many times over. It’s their family name that is forever remembered as infamous and stained. Time does not remove either blemish, or the legacy feelings of guilt.

In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education completed a landmark study examining the causes of the rash of school shootings that occurred prior to and following the tragic shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.  That report and subsequent other studies have led to improvements in emergency management plans for schools nationwide.

So what do we do and why should this be a concern for the homeland security community?

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...