Preventing Mass Murders
A summary of the facts regarding this fraught issueBy Robert Whitson, Ph.D. | Mar 13, 2018
I was a police officer for 30 years and I have taught Criminal Justice for 16 years. Nothing I can say will help the people affected by the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., or people involved with previous mass murders.
After the shooting in Parkland, I watched a variety of media pundits blame a long list of individuals and/or entities for the deaths of 17 students. Some people personally blamed President Trump, Florida Governor Scott, or Florida Senator Rubio. Some blamed the United States Congress or Florida Legislators. Others blamed the F.B.I., the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, the National Rifle Association, the mental health system, and the social services system. A few people blamed the suspect, Nikolas Cruz. Students and their families gave emotional testimonials explaining their feelings about the murders. This is understandable and I commend them for sharing their feelings.
The question is, “How do we, as a nation, keep Americans safe and prevent future mass murders?”
The people I watched on the news did not provide statistical data to help answer this question. The purpose of this article is to present relevant data for the public and the people who implement laws and policies. This article assumes that laws and policies should be based on a factual, objective, and realistic perspective.
Due to media coverage, violent crime and property crime may seem to be at an all-time high. It’s not. In contrast, reported crime is relatively low. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), violent crime includes murder (manslaughter), forcible rape, aggravated assault, and robbery, violent crime peaked in the early 1990s. In 1992, there were 1,932,270 violent crimes reported to law enforcement. 1991 had the highest number of murders with 24,700. Violent crime consistently decreased from 1993 through 2014 (slight increase during 2006-07). In 2014, there were 1,186,185 violent crimes reported, including 14,164 murders, even though the population in the United States rose from 252 million in 1991 to approximately 319 million in 2014. The murder rate in 1991 was 9.8 per 100,000 residents, compared to a rate of 4.4 per 100,000 residents in 2014.
Murder and violent crime increased during 2015 and 2016, primarily due to increases in cities with populations over 250,000. Murders increased 8.6 percent from 2015 to 2016. There were 15,883 murders during 2015 and 17,250 murders in 2016, which are 4.9 and 5.3 murders respectively per 100,000 residents. Violent crime increased 4.1 percent from 2015, up to 1.2 million cases reported in 2016. Chicago had 762 murders in 2016. Baltimore had 343 murders in 2017, which made it the highest per capita murder rate in the nation, with 56 murders per 100,000 residents.
Property crime decreased 1.3 percent from 2015, with 7.9 million cases reported in 2016. Of course, not all crimes are reported to law enforcement.
Law enforcement made about 10.7 million arrests during 2016 (excluding arrests for traffic violations).
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 37,461 people died on public roads due to motor vehicle crashes during 2016. This represents a 5.6% increase from 2015. Driving under the Influence of Alcohol or Narcotics accounted for 10,487 of these deaths, as well as injuring about 290,000 people.
This may appear to be a high number, but there were 54,589 traffic deaths reported in 1972. The amount remained above 40,000 each year until 2008. In 2011 the number dropped to 32,479 traffic deaths.
Definitions: Any Mental Illness (AMI) is a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, which has varying degrees of impairment. Serious Mental Illness (SMI) is a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, which substantially interferes with one or more major life activities.
The vast majority of people with a mental illness do not commit violent crimes. The challenge is to identify individuals with a mental illness who pose a high risk of committing a violent crime, and successfully treat those individuals.
According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 18.3% (44.7 million American adults) had any mental illness and 4.2% (10.4 million American adults) had a serious mental illness. These figures are deceivingly low. The survey did not include juveniles under the age of 18, nor did the survey include high-risk populations, including correctional facilities, mental institutions, nursing homes, or homeless people. If all of these at-risk populations were included in this survey, the percentage of people with AMI may increase to 25%, or higher. In other words, 1 out of every 4 Americans will have a mental illness. If the population of the United States is about 330 million people, approximately 82 million people have some form of mental illness, with 13 million people suffering from SMI.
In 2016, there were 64,070 overdose drug deaths reported in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Opioid based prescription drugs, heroin, and Fentanyl were linked to 42,249 of those overdose deaths. Law enforcement made 1.57 million arrests for drug law violations during 2016.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, as cited by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (2018), there were 44,965 reported suicides in the United States during 2016. But, for every suicide, there are about 25 attempted suicides. The present rate is 13.4 for every 100,000 residents, compared to only 10.9 in 2005. The highest rate occurred in the 45 to 54 age group. Firearms are involved in about one-third of female suicides and half of male suicides.
See Something, Say Something
The Secret Service was assigned to study school shootings and documented their findings in the U.S. Secret Service Safe School Initiative Report (2002). The Secret Service discovered one common denominator among school shooting suspects: They tell someone before the event. This was the case in other mass murder events other than schools. There are warning signs. Reasonable steps of prevention must be taken by law enforcement based on these warning signs. This is discussed further under Red Flag Laws in this article.
It’s difficult to know how many firearms are in the U.S. Estimates range anywhere between 300 – 360 million firearms, excluding firearms in the military. Nobody knows for sure, nor does anyone know how many Americans own firearms. (Estimates range from 50 – 75 million Americans own firearms). According to ATF, there were 11,497,441 firearms manufactured in the United States during 2016 (5,576,366 handguns, 4,239,335 rifles, 848,617 shotguns, and 833,123 miscellaneous).
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is managed by the FBI and was implemented on Nov. 30, 1998. NICS uses three national databases (sometimes four) to screen gun buyers for criminal history records, protection orders, criminal warrants, and immigration violations, etc. The goal is to allow law-abiding citizens to purchase firearms, while keeping firearms out of the-hands of high-risk individuals.
From its inception to the end of 2016, the NICS processed 253,217,165 transactions, including 27,538,673 during 2016. In this time NICS denied 1,393,729 transactions.
Can criminals and violators still get firearms? Yes. They can steal firearms or buy them from private individuals, who are not licensed firearm dealers. From 2005 through 2010, the Department of Justice estimated an average of 232,400 firearms stolen each year. But not all stolen or lost firearms are reported.
It’s true that firearms are used to commit homicides and suicides. It’s true that some people are accidentally killed by firearms. But it’s also true that firearms are used for self-defense and have been used to stop crimes in progress. The following statistic stood out from all the other data: During 2013, there were 2,596,993 deaths in the United States—only 1.3% of those were related to firearms.
Gun-Violence Restraining Orders (Red Flag Laws)
Police officers can place someone on a 72 Hour Mental Hold if the person is an imminent threat to their self or someone else. The key word is “imminent.” A person must be a threat at that time. A psychologist will conduct an evaluation and determine if the person should be released or held more than 72 hours. If a person is released, the person can regain possession of their firearms initially taken by the police for safe keeping, unless the person was not legally authorized to possess firearms originally (due to a domestic violence conviction, felony conviction, or prior mental health commitment, etc.). This creates a problem for law enforcement officers who are trying to prevent someone from using a firearm to commit suicide or homicide.
So how does law enforcement prevent someone at high-risk from possessing firearms?
Connecticut was the first state to enact Red Flag legislation in 1999. Washington, Oregon, Indiana, Rhode Island, and California have similar laws. Red Flag laws allow law enforcement (or in some cases family members) to take possession of a person’s firearms for safe keeping if there is probable cause to believe a person poses an immediate and present danger to their self or someone else. A Duke University Study of Connecticut’s Red Flag Law found 762 “risk warrants” were issued between 1999 through 2013. The majority of firearm seizures were focused on suicide prevention, not homicide prevention, but the law saved lives (Swanson, et al., 2017, as cited by Friedman, 2018).
Law enforcement can’t simply seize a person’s firearms for no reason. A judge must issue a restraining order. The person has the right to a hearing and to appeal their case. In California, if a person refuses to relinquish their firearms, law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to take firearms and ammunition. Law enforcement can’t destroy or dispose of firearms without due process. Items are kept for safe-keeping and a court may cancel the restraining order. The case must be reviewed periodically, based on the time frame established within each state’s law, usually each year (Paglini, 2015).
Will Red Flag Laws prevent mass murders? The answer is maybe. Nobody knows for sure, but there are several cases that may have been prevented (Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High, Columbine High, Sandy Hook Elementary, UC at Santa Barbara, Tucson, and the Aurora theatre, just to name a few).
Professor Swanson, of Duke University’s School of Medicine, has spent his career studying mental illness and gun violence. Swanson, et al (2016), conducted an “extensive” study from 2002 to 2011, in Miami-Dade and Pinellas (Tampa) Counties, with a population of 81,704 adults diagnosed with Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, or Major Depressive Disorder. Deidentified records were researched for suicide, arrests for violent crimes (murder, assault, aggravated assault, sexual battery, robbery, kidnapping), and firearm involvement.
The results discovered 38% of violent firearm arrests and 72% of suicides involved individuals who were legally eligible to purchase and possess a firearm. This study indicates the need to prevent high-risk individuals from legally possessing firearms, which may be partially achieved via Red Flag Laws.
The National Rifle Association (NRA)
Some people blame the NRA for the school shooting in Parkland, as well as gun violence in general. The challenge here is that the NRA clearly opposes weapons in the hands of criminals and would-be criminals. Every time a tragedy occurs, there is inevitably a reaction for stricter gun laws and protests to ban certain types of firearms from everybody. Some want to amend the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But again: The NRA supports lawful gun use and ownership.
Based on the information presented in this article, Gun-Violence Restraining Orders (Red Flag Laws) are laws every state should enact. They focus on the behavior of high-risk individuals, who demonstrate signs of anger, violence, and poor behavioral control, usually associated with a mental illness, who have access to firearms. Yet, Red Flag Laws still provides individuals due process of law.
History has proven that murder, violent crime, and property crime will always exist in a free society. There is always a balance between freedom and safety. On a national basis, crime rates are historically low. People need to take reasonable crime prevention precautions, but they don’t need to live in constant fear.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (2018). Suicide statistics. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from https://AFSP.org.
Friedman, D. (2016). Laws that allow for temporarily removing guns from high-risk people linked to a reduction in suicides. Retrieved on March 5, 2018, from https://www.thetrace.org.
Paglini, L. (2015). How far will the strictest state push the limits: The constitutionality of California’s proposed gun law under the Second Amendment. The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, 23(3) 459-485.
Swanson, J.W., Easter, M.M., Robertson, A.G., Swartz, M.S., Alanis-Hirsch, Kelly, et al. (2016). Gun violence, mental illness, and laws that prohibit gun possession: Evidence from two Florida counties. Health Affairs; Chevy Chase, 35(6), 1067-1075.
The National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). 2016 National survey on drug use and health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved on February 20, 2018, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov.