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Pure Onsense

Moving On From Gun Control

Scott Zuke

(7/2015) It has been clear for some time that America is absolutely paralyzed when it comes to discussing and implementing policies to address its problem with gun violence. Following the racially charged murder of 9 people in a Charleston church last month, President Obama delivered his 14th national address in the wake of a mass shooting. While he had things to say on race and violence in America, his message as a policy leader to the nationís gun lobby was pretty clear: "Hands up, donít shoot."

Thatís not to say that policymakers and activists were sitting idly. On the contrary, there was a surprisingly swift political movement immediately following the massacre, just not to do anything of substance. The movement to change South Carolinaís laws for flying the Confederate flag was, in fact, literally symbolic. It will have about as much impact on gun violence and racism as a flag-burning amendment would have had on patriotism and national unity. But what else could anyone do?

The Economist, a British newspaper, said this about Americaís frequent mass shootings: "Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution."

That is both a stinging critique and a good point, in that we would do well to approach this issue as a matter of long-term public health. After mass shootings the media, the public, and policymakers go through the same ritual of grieving, decrying senseless violence, resolving to take action, and then promptly moving on to other matters. Emotion has not been sufficient to get the job done, and nowadays itís not even enough to get the ball rolling in the policy sphere.

The same can be said for statistics. According to the Center for American Progress, 2015 is expected to be the first year that gun deaths will surpass automotive fatalities in the United States. Since 2007 mass shootings have killed more than twice as many Americans as terrorism. There are a torrent of articles with compelling statistics like these after each shooting grabs national attention, creating the illusion of a "national conversation" on gun violence. But these, too, fail to lead to any durable change in public opinion or to shape policy discussions.

So are we doomed to have this violence become a defining characteristic of American exceptionalism? Is there any way to work toward change, and if so, where will it come from?

My guess is that it wonít be found in the realm of politics or law enforcement. Instead, the next stage of violence prevention will come from non-governmental organizations and institutions that quietly work inside communities to help identify individuals exhibiting concerning behavior and intervening before they go on a shooting spree.

This is a model currently being employed in Europe to counter radicalization and recruitment of fighters to join the Islamic State. At a recent conference in D.C. on countering violent extremism, Judy Korn of the Violence Prevention Network, a German organization, explained the various measures that are being employed across Europe to intervene in the radicalization process. They include hotlines for friends and family members worried about individuals at risk of being recruited; raising awareness of ISIS recruitment strategies; mentoring and religious counseling; psychological support; and education, employment, and housing assistance, among other things.

She emphasized the importance of building trust to facilitate communication. "We talk to extremists, not about them," she said. And much of their work is aimed toward social rather than legal interventionóthat is, finding ways to keep at-risk individuals out of the jails and prisons where radicalization is known to occur.

Compare this to the options available in the United States, where there is a wide gap between communities and law enforcement. The story we hear over and over again after mass shootings is that the perpetrator had exhibited numerous warning signs observed by friends, family, and other authority figures like teachers, but that no one took them seriously enough to seek professional intervention.

Part of the answer could be better public education in identifying those warning signs, but there also needs to be a softer option for intervention than going to the police. For one thing, people are not inclined to turn their vague suspicions into a police, or even a federal matter. But law enforcement is also not well equipped to do much of anything before a law has been broken. By their nature, they are only interested in a personís offense, not in their personal issues, beliefs, or psychological condition. They cannot develop the kind of relationship with at-risk individuals that a social institution might be able to.

Some organizations certainly already exist that serve this role either in official or unofficial capacities, from churches to other local or national institutions. The federal government has been working to make community-level engagement and intervention a key part of its strategy for countering violent extremism, but thereís a long way to go in making this mainstream for domestic terrorism, hate crimes, and general violence.

This is surely related to Americaís "tough on crime" politics and misplaced faith in deterrence through threat of punishment. After the Charleston shooting, the governor of South Carolina called loudly for the shooter to receive the death penalty if convicted, and warned others thinking of committing murder to watch his case as an example. We know that this approach does not work and never has. Itís just a way to look tough and proactive when the opposite is the case.

The European approach to countering extremism and violence will look to some to be weak and sickeningly liberal, but maybe a deal can be struck: letís agree to drop the gun control debate, which gets everyoneís blood boiling and is going nowhere, and try this out for a while instead.

Read other article by Scott Zuke