The Mass Shooting State of America
Air Date: August 22, 2022
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Mother Jones magazine journalist, Mark Follman, author of the new book “Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America.” Welcome Mark. Thank you for being here.
FOLLMAN: Thanks Alexander. It’s great to be here.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you, you know, as you observe this compromise measure enacted in these past weeks that is supposed to be able to flag if maybe 18 to 21-year-olds are you know or prevent them from possessing weapons to engage in mass shootings. Does it feel like the compromise that was established is actually going to help given that so many of the assailants, the assassinators have been in this age-range where there apparently will be maybe more fulsome checks now?
FOLLMAN: I think it’s a step forward and that, and some of the other policies, including the funding for red flag laws, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole, making it harder for domestic violence abusers to get firearms, all of these measures do have meaning and can affect change going forward. I think the bill also opens the door to further regulation because it shows that it is possible to make progress at the federal level. I think we had become very stuck in this narrative, this idea that our politics was forever frozen in extreme polarization. A deadlock. And that was true for a long time, but now that’s no longer true that this bill has passed. And I think that also signals potential progress, further progress on the issues.
HEFFNER: From your reporting in the book do you have the same idea that that March for Our Lives and the aftermath of Parkland was a turning point, that wasn’t quite a point that was, was turning in the aftermath of the Gifford’s assassination attempt, for example. You know, certainly in the aftermath of Columbine there, there was not an, you know, an organized movement that was able to mobilize politically. I mean, there were parents grieving in every single one of these cases I think up until Parkland, there had been grieving parents. There had been some alliances formed, but there hadn’t been materially manifested legislative change. And that’s what happened in Florida.
FOLLMAN: Well, I do think that, you know, what happened after Parkland with the March for Our Lives movement was very significant, was another iteration of a kind of surge in the political picture in our country with gun violence and with mass shootings in particular and school shootings. And we have seen that in previous years and decades with Columbine, with Sandy Hook, of course, in terms of galvanizing public opinion. I think what the young students did in that case was unique in some ways, in terms of moving the needle with public opinion and demanding change. But this is really an ongoing story in American society now for decades, that we have these majorly traumatic events and tragedies that kind of set off these next waves of political movement and advocacy for a change in policy. But of course the politics is so fraught and so polarized as we were discussing that progress in this territory and in this realm of public policy and public health is very difficult change occurs over a long period of time.
HEFFNER: Here’s what I don’t understand. Mark. I’m being told that the NRA is effectively defunct. It’s bankrupt. It’s, you know, then we see its conventions happening. I don’t quite understand the lobbying structure. We are under the impression that that conservatives or Republicans, at least as they’re currently composed, are beholden to the will of the NRA. And yet the NRA as an institution is not what it was in the 1990s. So I’m just hoping you can help demystify this? The Republicans who will never vote against, who will never vote for gun safety measures or gun control measures, are they afraid more of their Second Amendment toting gun carrying constituents than they are actually of the NRA?
FOLLMAN: I do think that the political picture with gun politics in our country is misunderstood in some ways in this regard in recent years, that, you know, the obituary of the NRA has been written many times and they still wield significant political power. You know, that’s a story of money and political demagoguery in many ways that has been taken up by political leaders that they support. But there is also a very real political effect that has come from that over many years, I think in terms of creating an orthodoxy, a political orthodoxy around the issue of guns and of constitutional rights, the Second Amendment, that may or may not reflect the reality of gun violence in the country, or the reality of the role of firearms in whether it’s, you know, in terms of safety or security, or the various forms of gun violence that we have that constitute this, this broader public health crisis, this epidemic of violence that we have. Mass shootings included. So you know, there are a lot of things about this that I think are, are disconnected in some ways. We know that the vast majority of Americans do want change in terms of gun regulations, that there’s strong bipartisan support for more comprehensive background checks, for this newer policy known as red flag laws to remove guns from people thought to be turning dangerous. And other measures, and yet the politics and policy that we see, particularly at the federal level don’t reflect that. So I think that suggests that the political narratives that we have including about the role and influence of the gun lobby is in some regards out of whack or skewed in terms of public perception.
FOLLMAN: There was also kind of running parallel to this, a political chill on research into gun violence for many years. And so even to understand the effectiveness of policies like that was difficult. So while regulating firearms may be at the center of it in certain obvious ways. Of course you don’t have gun violence without easy access to guns. And we have record numbers of guns in this country. That’s been the story for years now, a continued proliferation of firearms and powerful firearms. And so, you know, that of course is essential to this whole equation. But then there are other ways that I think we really need to come at it that reflect the nature of the problem. You know, suicide is a huge part of our gun violence problem in terms of annual deaths. It’s roughly two thirds of annual gun deaths. With mass shootings, there is of course other aspects of that problem in its nature that need addressing as well, that speak to the circumstances and conditions that lead up to those attacks. That became the focus of my book, “Trigger Points,” using community-based violence prevention, to try to be proactive, to stop people from going down this pathway where they’re planning this form of violence. There are a lot of things, a lot of aspects of these problems, and mass shootings in particular that I came to see are misunderstood by our cultural and political narratives. So it’s no longer just a matter of regulating firearms, in my view.
HEFFNER: It is complicated that, like you said. It has to do with mental health and wellness. That is a component of it. Surely the unprecedented access to weapons of war with a click of a button, or even through your own machinations, as you could see with the episode in Japan and the assassination of the former prime minister there. You know even in a country that heavily restricts guns or firearms, you know, it was still possible there, you know. And I suppose the salient question in my mind has to do with the tolerance of this kind of violence, whether it’s the suicides or the massacres in schools or malls, or, you know, in all these venues, like we became numb to it at a certain point. You said it’s misunderstood, but I don’t think that fact is misunderstood. That enough of us came to say, well, that is someone else’s child. That is someone else’s community. And even if the people weren’t saying that explicitly, it was the kind of operating reality. I mean, it’s what led this to become our status quo.
FOLLMAN: Yeah, I think from my perspective, it may be not so much that American society has become numb to this. That’s a common theme in our discussion of the problem of gun violence, but it may be more that people are so frustrated and don’t have a sense of how we can make progress That’s really the premise of my book “Trigger Points” is to say, you know, we have to get past this idea that only having this circular political dogfight over gun regulations over and over again for years, and then decades. We have to do more than that. We have to understand this problem better. We have to understand other forms of gun violence better. That begins with collecting data and doing research, which as I was saying earlier has also been a problem because of our gun politics That there was a kind of freeze on research coming from the federal level, coming from Congress. The influence of the gun lobby there I think was very important in the center that, that Assault Weapons Ban expired, that the government was essentially saying; the federal government was essentially saying, you will get no funding if you do anything around this issue, to the CDC and other organizations within the federal government. And that created a real political chill on even beginning to understand the deeper nature of some of these issues. Mass shootings included. When I set out to gather data on mass shootings 10 years ago and build the first open-source database on this problem I was really startled to find how little information was publicly available. And part of that was that story, that there had not been much research on it, I think for the political reasons that I’m describing, included
HEFFNER: To me Mark, it’s not quite as complicated as you’ve presented, in the sense of the Second Amendment and, you know, all of the tensions that you describe in American society. A lot of them exist in other societies too. I mean, other countries. When it comes to mental health crises, there, there’s certainly a component of, for example, not having a living wage in America that makes people more susceptible to distress and, you know, disharmony economically and in their relationships. And, you know, we’ve seen examples of vengeful killings of people who, you know, someone killing a doctor who performed a surgery and it was a failure for that person. And then they killed them. I mean the kind of retribution or violence of retribution that, the people who are going to enact that kind of harm exists in a lot of places, right? At the end of the day, the uniqueness of American society is that, you know, not that we have access to video games or violence on television. You have that in all these other societies. It is, it is the free flow of these weapons. I mean, fundamentally, I know you agree with that, I mean, or see that. And, and so this becomes a legal question. And I think some of that numbing that you identify has to do with the, how we, how we can, how we can try to struggle with the fact that this Second Amendment was interpreted in such a way that is kind of inconsistent with the founders had in mind, and that we’ve lived, been living all these decades and centuries now with that as our reality.
FOLLMAN: I think what you’re saying is right. If we want to contend with the reality of the gun violence that goes on in our society, I think that does include accepting that the political equation and what comes of that in terms of change or lack thereof, is sweeping and profound and has been the way it is for quite some time. In other words we are going to continue to have an enormous quantity of guns. We have an estimated 400 million of them in civilian hands. It’s well more than one arm every man, woman, and child, in the United States. And they are easy to get in many places. We have a real patchwork system of regulation at the state level. We’ve seen that we aren’t going to have any dramatic change in terms of tightening gun laws at the federal level. And that’s been the reality for decades. So while that debate and that political struggle will go on, if we want to contend with the gun violence that we do have with the status quo, we need to be able to think about it in other ways as well. And again, I think that really fundamental to that is understanding the nature of the violence better. Particularly with mass shootings. We have some real big myths about mass shootings is became an important part of what I took on with the book was studying cases and coming to see that the way that we talk about mass shooters in the media and in politics in some ways is fundamentally wrong. And that’s unhelpful to reducing the problem, to solving the problem, not only through discussion of access to firearms, but the other factors they’re playing in. Perhaps the most important example of this is the way that mental illness is blamed for mass shootings. We hear this a lot in media discussion in the political arguments over mass shootings and with the ways in which they relate to gun regulations. But when you study the cases, mental illness as the fundamental cause of mass shootings is a myth. Most of these cases are not caused by that factor. It gives the, it gives the impression to the public that mass shooters are crazy monsters who just snap. This is sort of the cultural frame we’ve put around this, as if they’re totally disconnected from reality, as if they are impulsively committing an attack. And none of that is true. These are people who are planning out attacks over time. They’re not crazy. They’re angry and desperate, and in many cases suicidal. So you have serious mental health issues going on in these cases, but mental illness in and of itself is not driving the process, the behavioral process, that’s leading up to these attacks over time. Understanding that better can contribute in my view to preventing more of these from happening. And that of course, does go to these issue of access to guns. If you’re dealing with someone who’s turning dangerous in these ways, you want to prevent them from having a firearm. And that takes us up to the legislation that just passed recently to fund more red flag laws throughout the country. I think that’s a promising policy that has grown a lot, particularly since the Parkland mass shooting in 2018, it’s spread to more states. And there’s some initial research showing that this does work effectively to prohibit people from having firearms who are threatening mass shootings, or who are at serious risk for suicide. So those tools become more important, I think, too, going forward, not just saying let’s ban all assault weapons. Because that hasn’t worked. If you believe in that politically and you advocate for that, you can also see the reality of where that’s gone over 20, 25, 30 years.
HEFFNER: Right. As a result of the Second Amendment that in the alliance to defend it and preserve it in the contemporary context of you can have access to a bazooka if you want, if you’re a citizen, it doesn’t matter if you’re connected with an armed militia or not, right? And so I appreciate that very much what you’re saying about the wrong strategy being deployed in the framework of what is legal and precedent that had been established. I mean now we know with Roe v. Wade overturned that something can change in a heartbeat in 180 degrees. And that includes the interpretation of the Second Amendment. But we only have a few minutes LA left, but I did want to probe you a little bit on this this sort of crazy versus angry thing. You know, I think some people might hear you, at least I heard you in the way that you were describing craziness or mentally unhinged illness as not the cause. It, it took planning. You’re saying that it was not an impulsive act, but it, it did take someone to change their mental health status in order to see this as behavior that would be, that some behavior that they should enact, if you know what I mean. So it was the process of being radicalized over time. And I think that in this whole discussion of mental illness there isn’t a lot of clarity right now about what it means. I would argue that the people who are angry for whatever reason, disgruntled at an employee or an employer or whatever, that they are mentally ill to be in a state to carry out that action, even if there were other precipitating factors. I mean, and of course we hear a lot about these lone wolves who exhibited none of those qualities, and they may have started planning attacks at a certain point, but it was none of their family or friends was aware of their condition. So I just, I’m struggling to understand how you’re differentiating these, I know there are emotions that then can remold someone’s mental health, but isn’t it that, you know, the case that, that you, you can incrementally become diabolical, you can incrementally become unwell, and that anger and hate contribute to that unwellness?
FOLLMAN: I think it goes without saying that anyone who commits a mass shooting is not a mentally healthy person. These are people with a lot of deep problems, anger, grievance, despair, desperation. That being said, this is talking about mental health in the context of mass shootings is very challenging. And I think it runs up against the limits of lay understanding of mental illness in terms of conditions, disease that is clinically diagnosed, and the way that it is then exploited politically and the way that it is kind of bandied about in media narratives historically. The real problem here is that it tends to be almost scapegoated for the problem. And I think frankly, it’s been used as a tactic for a long time by political forces to try to distract from other aspects of the problem and of course, you know, intrinsically the debate over firearms and regulating firearms. So in other words if we blame it all in mental illness, that kind of lets us off the hook from A truly understanding the complexity of this problem, and B also looking at some of the other key factors. And I think in doing that, that’s largely interpreted by the general public, as people who are completely out of their minds, insane, hearing voices or blaming conditions like paranoid schizophrenia. You know, those conditions have come up in some mass shooting cases, but it’s rare. It’s a very small…
HEFFNER: But when I hear mental, when I hear mental illness, I don’t, I don’t think of those things myself, you know. I think, and so maybe there’s another way to conceive it, right, a better term.
FOLLMAN: Well think of it this way. In some sense, if we say that everyone who commits a mass shooter is mentally ill, it’s putting all of the onus on the field of mental health to fix the problem. It’s saying, you know, send these people to therapists and they can fix them and prevent this from happening. But that’s also fundamentally wrong. We need a lot more than that. It’s about all of these things taken together. What the field of behavioral threat assessment does to do community-based violence prevention is to take into account a broad range of factors in individual cases that include mental health in many cases, but also what are the circumstances of the person who is planning violence? What are the warning signs they’re showing? What are the patterns in that behavioral process? What is that person’s access to a firearm? All of those questions become pertinent in the quest to try to prevent a mass shooting from happening. And I think that the public has not understood that well at all, historically, that it’s been discussed and argued about in our general conversation in politics and the media as only a function of access to guns and mental illness.
HEFFNER: Right. Right.
FOLLMAN: That’s a disservice to understanding the nature of the problem.
HEFFNER: And, and just final question, the, the, and a magnification of that disservice is the suggestion that these things have to happen in order for us to preserve the Second Amendment or the right to bear arms, right? And that’s been suggested implicitly by a lot of elected officials that we, this is the price of freedom, right? Well, we know that there are far more stringent requirements for automobiles and access to drive than there are for access to guns: car ownership, and, you know, to rent a car for 24 hours, you need more, you know, in some cases demonstrated age, maturity, credit track record, you know, so my question to you is this, what within this movement what is the most effective response to these folks who continue to parrot this idea that we’re not going to let folks take away our freedom as a function of some awful apples?
FOLLMAN: Well, I think if you look at this problem from a data-driven perspective, looking at the frequency of mass shootings, the proliferation of guns, the, the trends with gun violence more broadly, that’s the most powerful discussion you can have in my view, in terms of the reality of how we could deal with this going forward. And a lot of the arguments that are repeated in the political debate over guns have been repeated for a very long time. And it’s almost like we’re watching this happen on autopilot. After these massacres that happen, Buffalo Uvalde, Highland Park. But the fact is, you know, some of these arguments that, you know, may have been persuasive years ago, I think have become less persuasive when you look at the growing research and the data that we have on the problem of mass shootings. You know, for example, the notion that good guys with guns are going to stop this. Implicitly and explicitly, we know that’s wrong because as we’ve had more and more guns throughout the United States, we’ve also had more of these mass shooting events. So clearly that’s not stopping the problem. At the same time we also know that we’re not going to ban all assault weapons. That’s not a reality. So I think that, you know, when you talk about how to contend with these political arguments that we’re so familiar with around this issue, that seem so stuck, the way to become unstuck is to look beyond that and to use research and data-driven discussion of the problem to really convey the reality better to the general public that may not have the time or the wherewithal to really dig into this to understand it. But again, I think we oversimplify and yet we also totally sensationalize the political frame around this problem. And I think a big part of making progress on the mass shootings epidemic is also a matter of demystifying it. Of being more realistic about what it is, how it happens and what more we can do to solve it that gets us beyond the same debate that we’ve been having politically over and over for a very long time.
HEFFNER: Mark Follman, author of “Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America.” Thank you for your insight today.
FOLLMAN: Thanks for having me. It was good to talk with you.
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