The horrific July 4 parade shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, in which seven people were killed (including two parents whose newly-orphaned child was pulled from beneath his father’s body as the man lay bleeding), is the latest in a series of public killings that seem to be becoming a fixture of American life. We can expect more useless lamentations by Democrats, more useless “thoughts and prayers” from Republicans, and then for the news to move on until the next atrocity briefly attracts public attention.
We can also see why the country will inevitably continue to suffer from mass shootings until it gets serious about gun control. The Highland Park shooting has very clearly exposed the folly of two of the more common talking points that emerged after the Uvalde school shooting as alternative suggestions to strict gun control: the idea that we should focus on securing schools and improving police response, and the idea that we should focus on keeping guns out of the hands of the “mentally ill.”
The idea of turning schools into fortresses (more so than they are already) was always foolish. First, as I have noted before, you can’t possibly make schools anywhere close to impenetrable. Even if you put a big fence round the school, and even if would-be perpetrators can’t scale that fence (as the Uvalde shooter did), and you have a “single point of entry” for the school, your “single point of entry” just tells potential shooters exactly where to go to find a large crowd of children. And even if this problem were solved, as we’ve seen, protecting schools just means that shooters will have to find more accessible targets like public parades and grocery stores. No amount of “good guys with guns” can stop this—the Buffalo shooter wore military-grade body armor (which is legal, of course, though God knows why you’d need it), and simply shot the store’s armed security guard first. A public parade is always swarming with police officers, but if a shooter simply goes up onto a roof, they can unleash mayhem and kill many people before even the most effective police can get to them. In the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the shooter managed to kill a staggering 60 people within 10 minutes. What security measures of any kind could have prevented this?
Republicans, who oppose the introduction of almost any restrictions on what kinds of weapons the public can own, often insist that the problem here is “mental health” rather than gun ownership, and while they do not even really seem to care about improving the country’s mental health (say, by providing free universal mental health services), the only kinds of “solutions” they are open to involve trying to identify those who might pose a threat and maybe taking those people’s guns away. The new bipartisan gun bill, though it “fails to ban any weapons,” provides money for states to “implement and manage red flag programs—which through court orders can temporarily prevent individuals in crisis from accessing firearms.”
But the Highland Park shooting shows precisely why this isn’t a solution to mass shootings. Illinois has relatively strict criteria for receiving a license to own a gun, and has a “red flag law” that allows a judge to ban a person from owning a gun if they “pose an immediate and present danger of causing personal injury to himself, herself, or another.” The Highland Park shooter had had a “clear and present danger” report filed about him in 2019, after making threats, and briefly had his collection of knives taken away. They were given back after the killer’s father vouched for him. (In a tone-deaf interview, the father said he did nothing wrong, saying of the knife collection: “You know, I used to collect coins and baseball cards.”) The application for a firearms license in Illinois “includes a long list of questions about past felony convictions, failed drug tests or recent hospitalizations for mental illness.” But when the killer applied he “had no disqualifying convictions, no restraining orders, no psychiatric admissions, no ‘clear and present danger’ designations when he sought permission to own guns.” The police have said that procedure was followed correctly, and the prosecutor in the case has noted that screening potentially dangerous people out “is so dependent upon the people that may be closest around the individual of concern, the person that may be posing a threat to themselves, or the person that may be posing a threat to others.” The killer’s father says he had “not an inkling [or] warning—that this was going to happen.”
We can see here exactly why laws designed to find potential mass killers are destined to fail. They are an attempt to catch “precrime,” i.e., to figure out who is going to commit a crime before they actually do it. This is, by nature, extremely difficult, because it requires highly imperfect legal institutions to try to screen the entire population for malicious intent. As the prosecutor noted, in practice, the system is highly dependent on friends and family being vigilant. One can immediately see the problem: the people likely to be mass killers are also likely not to have particularly vigilant friends and family. The Uvalde shooter had no friends, the Sandy Hook killer’s mother bought him guns, and the Parkland shooter was an orphan. In a Michigan school shooting, the killer’s parents bought him the gun as a Christmas present, and his mother told him “You have to learn not to get caught” after the school raised concerns about him searching for ammunition online. Even when the school showed the parents violent drawings their son had done with the words “help me,” they did nothing.
If we are trying to filter out potential mass killers from the general population, then, we have a serious problem, which is that if mass killers tend to be loners with dysfunctional social and family lives, the filtering system is unlikely to catch many. There is another problem, though, which is that even if potential mass killers were surrounded by astute and compassionate people, it is very hard to know what the standard of evidence should be for banning a particular person from having a gun, and for how long. Illinois applied a “clear and present danger” test, but as the police noted, there wasn’t evidence before this shooting that the perpetrator posed a “clear and present” danger. We can perhaps say that anyone who has ever been reported for any kind of threatening behavior should be banned for life from owning a gun (thereby prohibiting a lot of people who would never have been mass killers), but the Last Vegas killer offered very few clues as to what he was going to do. Those who knew him knew he was depressed and a compulsive gambler, but that was about it.
If we are to try to establish a system of finding “homicidal lunatics,” we are faced with the problem that many people with mental illness who are not violent at all may become suspects. (An estimated 1 in 4 adults suffers a mental disorder of some kind in a given year.) I don’t think losing one’s right to own guns is a terrible deprivation of liberty, because I don’t believe in such a right in the first place, but I do think an intrusive legal regime that targets the rights of mentally ill people will inevitably ensnare some of the wrong people and is very unlikely to be able to find the right ones. The problem with “red flag laws” is threefold: first, you need there to be red flags, which in many cases there are not. Second, you need someone to spot the red flags, but many people have families like the Highland Park shooter’s father, who cannot conceive of the idea that their child would hurt someone. (Parents of dangerous kids can be delusional in the manner of pet owners who insist that their clearly vicious dog will not bite.) You can ban guns, but you can’t ban parents who see their kids through rose-tinted glasses. Finally, you need the bureaucratic legal system to be able to effectively adjudicate “precrime” in ways that do not involve excessive suspicion of mental illness and can efficiently and fairly decide whose rights should be curtailed.
One of the main criticisms leftists have of “means testing” for social programs is that when you start to ask the government to make careful distinctions between people based on deep knowledge of their personal circumstances, the results tend to be a disaster, because government is not very good at adjudicating individual cases and is much better at applying universal rules. A similar critique applies here: asking the government to find the potential mass killers is like asking it to find worthy benefit recipients. They just don’t have the data or the institutional capacity to make the correct decisions. What the government can do effectively is hand out universal benefits or enforce universal prohibitions. That’s why countries that have simply banned assault weapons tend to see less of the kind of situation we are getting disturbingly used to in the United States. (China, for instance, might have a school stabbing rather than a school shooting—one where everyone survives.)
One can see why politicians are reluctant to state the obvious, because nobody wants to take on gun ownership itself. The gun lobby is aggressive, Republicans are totally uncompromising, and the task of getting rid of assault weapons in the United States seems downright Herculean. But let us at least admit that we are faced with two alternatives:
- Accept that mass shootings are the price we are willing to pay for the freedom of all people, even disturbed teens, to own military-grade weaponry
- Refuse to accept this, and actually get serious about eliminating the private ownership of weapons meant to cause “maximum wound effect”
An honest conversation at least begins with the recognition that these are our alternatives. Let us hear no more of the pseudo-solutions of increasing policing, locking the doors, and effectively picking out the mass shooters before they start shooting.
PHOTO: A makeshift shrine and memorial is set up to remember the victims of the July 4th mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois (Photo By: Alexandra Buxbaum/Sipa USA via AP Images)