Are Mass Shootings Just the Cost of Living in America?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

At least 18 people are dead after two horrific mass shootings at a Maine restaurant and bowling alley on Wednesday night, and we are left with the usual questions: “Why does this keep happening?” and “What, if anything, could have prevented it?” There is an understandable desire to do something about this—right now!

If Hamas had been behind these shootings, we would already be mobilizing the national guard and dispatching another aircraft carrier to the Middle East. If the Proud Boys were the culprits, we would already be focused on white supremacy and right-wing political radicalization. If this were a school shooting, we would be discussing background checks, hardening school security, the peril of first-person shooter video games, or bullying.

In this case, however, there is thus far no manifesto or political motive. The suspect was a 40-year-old “firearms instructor believed to be in the U.S. Army Reserve,” according to Associated Press. He had been “committed to a mental health facility for two weeks in the summer of 2023” and was reportedly “hearing voices and threats to shoot up” his military base.

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As such, this most recent mass shooting is more likely to lead us to discussions about mental health in general, whether the military should be doing more to test and address mental health, and red flag laws. These are valid discussions.

According to a 2018 ABC News story, “Three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history were at the hands of veterans...”

I am also reminded that, aside from harboring radical Islamist views, Maj. Nidal Hasan, who was convicted of killing 13 people at Fort Hood a decade ago, was also described as “disconnected, aloof, paranoid, belligerent, and schizoid.”

We also do not want to advance a narrative that veterans or brave active duty men and women who serve this nation are predisposed to be predators. Nor should we confuse correlation with causation.

In the aftermath of any mass shooting, gun control is an obvious topic of conversation. According to AP, “Maine doesn’t require permits to carry guns.” This fact would likely be more relevant if the person of interest was not reportedly a firearms instructor.

This brings us to the topic of red flag laws, which is where the topics of gun control and mental health directly intersect. As Washington Monthly columnist Bill Scher observed, “Maine does not have a ‘red flag’ law, [t]hough it does have a ‘yellow flag’ law, which has more conditions than a red flag law.”

So what are the current conditions? According to the Portland Press Herald, “Anyone under a restriction cannot possess or buy any weapons and faces arrest if they do. They’re also put on a registry that’s sent out to licensed gun dealers. If they didn’t give their weapons to a family member for safekeeping, police will seize them until the order is lifted.”

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Critics of this law argue that it is too “time-consuming and resource-intensive, as it involves police, district attorneys, defense attorneys, judges and medical professionals.” Still, although it is more limited than a traditional red-flag law, it sounds to me like Maine already had a law on the books that, if rigorously enforced, might have prevented this shooting.

The suspect’s sister-in-law told The Daily Beast that “He truly believed he was hearing people say things.” How could someone whose family understood he was hearing voices—and who had been institutionalized as recently as this summer—obtain a firearm, despite Maine’s law?

The obvious problems are that a) people who are willing to kill innocent people are not sticklers for following the law, and b) in a free country where guns are almost ubiquitous and people are inclined to mind their own business, it’s inevitably hard to police such laws.

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It’s almost always the case that, no matter how horrific the shooting, someone could claim, “no law would have stopped this from happening.” Indeed, mass shootings happen in states with red flag laws; those laws clearly failed to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous or mentally ill people.

The truth is that no reform will be a panacea, but smart reforms will reduce the number of these incidents. According to The New York Times, Jeffrey W. Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, has calculated that “for every 10 to 20 people who had guns taken away, one life was saved.”

Commentary at this point in any sort of mass shooting or disaster is bound to get things wrong. It’s entirely possible that some of the reporting—even from ostensibly reliable sources—will turn out to be inaccurate. Caveat emptor, as they say.

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In my mind, there are two big takeaways, if we are to use this horrible event to try and prevent the next one. The first is to provide better mental health services, with an emphasis on veterans and military members. The second is to pass strong red-flag laws in all 50 states and normalize rigorous enforcement of those laws.

Although there will be inevitable pushback to these ideas, they don’t cast one side as gun-grabbers and the other side as uncaring gunslingers who see shooting victims as “the cost of doing business” in a free society.

The devil is in the details, but almost everybody says they want to address our mental health crisis in America today. Meanwhile, red-flag laws are broadly popular, even among Republicans.

Even if it turns out that the suspect was not a veteran and was never committed to an institution, it would still make sense to address these issues.

The time to hesitate is through.

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