The "Be Aware" Campaign of Reducing Spree Shootings
Based on 35 years of mental health experience, I am proposing an approach to responding to the recent tragic shootings: the ‘Be Aware’ campaign. While the issues are complex and do involve decisions about weapon control, this article will not address gun control at the government level. However, a more stringent mental health intervention with potential spree killers and a more comprehensive mental health awareness of the public can be addressed and is an important PART of the answer to the recent tragedies.
The first step is to launch a comprehensive public education and awareness campaign that is twofold: a heightened responsibility of weapon security for individual gun owners, and an increased education of the public regarding the behavioral signs common to those disturbed people who are at great risk for public. And how will this be paid for? Well, if politicians can spend half a billion dollars on political campaigns, how about our government (and the NRA) allotting as much for a comprehensive public education campaign?
Virtually all spree killers have shown clearly identifiable behaviors when studied in retrospect. Many have gained access to weapons through means other than direct purchase through legal means, meaning that they appropriated their weapon from someone, quite often someone who knew them fairly well. If individual gun owners had at their disposal a list of characteristics common to spree killers and subsequently identify a family member who has access to their (legal) weapons, they would then have the information needed to add extra security to those weapons. Preferably and logically, this would mean total removal of said weapons from the suspected troubled individual’s ability to access them.
The characteristics of a potential spree killer information should be made widely and repetitively available to every citizen (regardless of gun ownership). This information can be distributed through all forms of media, with an initial ‘big push’ campaign and then a maintenance campaign that would be ongoing. Along with the information of characteristics, clear and simple information on how to respond if you are caught in a spree killer situation should also be made widely available, with a protocol for running drills in places like schools, churches, mental health centers and businesses.
Spree killers are usually male, white, and in their early twenties to late thirties. They have a strong attraction (if not obsession) with weapons, particularly guns. They are usually loners with few or no friends or acquaintances. They may spend extraordinary amounts of time alone, and may produce ‘rants’ filling notebooks or sending letters or making postings that ramble or do not make much sense. They may be an individual that has a tough time holding a job, or are jobless, and they have few responsibilities beyond themselves. They may not have a criminal record, and may not have had much contact with mental health systems. Others find them ‘odd’ or ‘creepy’. Spree killers may have had a series of difficult events, like losing a job or being turned down for a job or for school enrollment. They may have a history of severe difficulties in their adult romantic relationships. They may speak about or write about a list of real or imagined grievances that they tend to rage about, often over a considerable length of time. Overall, other people will have the impression that ‘there is something wrong and frightening’ about the individual.
Unfortunately, many people simply choose to avoid, and not report disturbed individuals to appropriate authorities. Those who are family members may have a very difficult time in getting the individual help because either they are minimizing the signs, are frightened of the individual, or are enmeshed in a larger family dysfunction that disallows them to see the behavioral signs for what they are.
Similar to laws about mandatory reporting of child abuse, as a mental health professional, I am required by law to inform someone if a patient makes a threat against them, or if a patient makes threat about simply going out and harming or killing someone. This is especially true if the individual has stated that they have a lethal means available to them to follow through on the threat (this is called a 'furtherance'). Some propose that every adult citizen should be, by law, responsible to report child abuse. So too, should every adult citizen be legally required to report a potential spree shooter. But once again, if the average citizen does not know the behavioral signs, they cannot report.
Educating the public at large on the behavioral signs of potential spree killers and how to get the help of the mental health system and police to execute a 302 mental health warrant are also key. The public needs to know how to access and go through the protocol of getting a potential spree killer the help they need to avoid tragedy.
False reports would easily be filtered out be means of establishing a protocol of triangulated information. The next step would be conducting a structured interview with the individual to make an initial assessment that would either dismiss the case or give indications for the need of an inpatient, seventy two hour evaluation. The inpatient stay would enable a much closer look at the individual, including gathering background reports to help discern any long term patterns. An existing useful tool for assessment could be the Hare Psychopathy Checklist for anyone demonstrating the behavioral signs common to spree killers.Further research would strengthen the current knowledge base of behavioral signs common to spree killers, enabling a more precise screening tool.
Finally, the public, starting with institutions and businesses, need education and drill protocols on how to respond as individuals and groups to spree shooter situations. A simple educational process of ‘run, hide, or fight’ , along with learning the skills of each option, can be efficiently communicated to the public.
While there is no guarantee that an individual can be definitively declared is 'safe' or that there is a means of predicting a person's future behaviors, a ‘Be Aware’ campaign, along with the practical measures mentioned, can go a long way at intercepting and treating more troubled people, quite possibly heading off killing sprees.