Editorial: In mass shootings, focus on solutions, not labels

Not all mass shooters are mentally ill, and not all share the same motivation, background and approach

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

When faced with an overwhelming and complex problem for which there are few easy solutions, politicians who want to make an impatient public believe they’ve solved the riddle come up with a new label for whatever it is.

We all hate terrorists. And we’re all horribly upset about the mass shootings that seem to be occurring with more regularity in this country with every passing week.

Since our current approach to stopping them hasn’t seemed to have made a dent, why not combine terrorism and mass shootings into one super-category and convince the public that we’re really serious this time?

That’s essentially the approach Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking with his proposal last week to make New York the first state to classify “hate-fueled” killings as “domestic terrorism.”

Under the governor’s proposal, New York would increase the penalties for violence motivated by race, gender, sexual orientation or other protected classes by making them punishable by up to life in prison without parole, according to The New York Times.

The proposal comes on the heels of another feel-good plan announced earlier this month by Cuomo to deal with mass shootings, in which the governor called on all the Democratic candidates for president to take a “Make America Safer Pledge” to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, enact background checks, enact red-flag laws and create a database of mentally ill people to ensure they don’t have access to guns.

In an editorial last week, we liked elements of the pledge itself, but thought compelling candidates to take a pledge seemed like a simplistic political ploy. And so far, we’re unaware of any candidates who have taken Cuomo up on it.

On the surface, Phase 2 of the crackdown on mass shootings sounds good, too. If we round up all the domestic terrorists, we can lock them up, throw away the key, and the problem will be solved.

Only the problem won’t be solved. We’ll just be calling it by a new name.

Give the governor credit for trying to come up with new, creative solutions that might stick in people’s minds and get state and federal lawmakers to take tangible action to resolve mass shootings. He at least is trying to move the ball forward.

But there are dangers, hidden consequences and redundancy in attempting to apply the use of terrorism-fighting techniques and language to the mass shootings in this country,

For starters, there’s a danger of lumping all so-called domestic terrorists under the same umbrella and thereby dragging into the dragnet people suffering from mental health issues who have no connection to mass shootings. Not all mass shooters are mentally ill, and not all share the same motivation, background and approach.

The killers in the back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso last weekend, for instance, were motivated by different reasons. The El Paso shooter was motivated by racism and inspired by anti-immigrant rhetoric. The motivation of the Dayton shooter may never be known, since police killed him. But he seems to have been motivated in part by resentment built up over many years, a fascination with killing and fueled by drugs. The shooter at the garlic festival in California a week earlier, who also was killed by police, may or may not have been inspired by white supremacy, but he didn’t target a particular race or ethnic group during his rampage. 

Other mass shooters have been motivated by hate for the LGBTQ community, religious intolerance, hate for the media, hatred for their former employers and numerous other factors.

How does one lump them together under one category, and how does that get us any closer to a solution?

Prosecutors could always use more tools to help them punish offenders, but motive must be backed up by facts and evidence. Including motivations such as hate-speech as evidence could actually make cases more difficult to prosecute.

If the goal is to make sure these criminals spend the rest of their lives in prison, well, we already have ways to keep them there. According to state parole guidelines, parole boards can consider a number of factors in whether a murderer should be released, including the nature of the current crime, past criminal history, comments and attitude regarding the offense, a summary of treatment, disciplinary history and the impact on victims. Will labeling mass murderers domestic terrorists really add much to those criteria?

Much of what would be included under a domestic terrorism category already exists under the law, or could be added to statutes, including acts that incite fear and violence.

The government also would have to make sure that in citing individuals for hate that they’re not encroaching on people’s First Amendment right to free speech. Does saying something nasty without following it up with a plan or action constitute terrorism?

Finally, the label takes away attention from other potential solutions that could have a legitimate impact on reducing mass shootings, such as restricting access to weapons by people deemed by a court to be a viable threat, restricting access to weapons and ammunition that enable individuals to kill large numbers of people in a short period of time, enacting background checks to identify dangerous individuals, increasing security at potential target areas, identifying impending threats through social media and addressing the family, societal and medical issues that lead to people becoming mass shooters.

Creating a new label might make people feel good and make politicians seem like they’re doing something, but it won’t prevent any more shootings or put more shooters in prison where they belong.

Real solutions require tangible changes to the laws and to our approach to how we identify potential killers and thwart future shootings.

Let’s keep the focus on what might actually work, rather than just telling people what they want to hear.

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