To prevent mass shootings, California should rely on science, not rhetoric

By Vern Pierson, Special to CalMatters

In the wake of the recent atrocities in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, Gov. Gavin Newsom convened a meeting of law enforcement and others and called for action.

“Failure to act on gun violence is a damn disgrace,” he said.

Given the recent murder of no fewer than 34 human lives, I couldn’t agree more. 

But this action should be grounded by science, research, and common sense, rather than hyperbole.  

Assembly Bill 1722, languishing in the California Legislature, would help keep California schools safer by requiring a comprehensive school safety plan to include targeted gun violence prevention. 

This bill provides Gov. Newson with an opportunity for immediate action to put into place preventative measures to help keep our children safe at school. 

I have served as a state and local prosecutor for 28 years, and am a graduate of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. 

My research focuses on why young men radicalize and commit atrocities.  We know there are commonalities among mass killers that are distinct from any narrative or ideology used to justify the shooting.

The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center annually publishes a report analyzing mass shooters for commonality.  The center has found that two-thirds of these shooters had a history of mental health symptoms, including depression, suicidal tendencies or psychosis. Nearly all had a significant life stressor within 5 years, and three-fourths elicited concern from others prior to the attack.

Yet the media and politicians obsess over finding the individual actor’s motive. Far too many quote from manifestos and social media posts, ignoring the reality that they are perpetuating the cause of a mass killer’s need to be heard and feed into the fascination of the next mass shooter. 

The shooter’s warped motive, properly labeled narrative, is nothing more than an excuse for malignant attention seeking. A few years ago, it was “Muslim extremism.” Before that, it was bullying. Now, it seems to be white nationalism and occasionally Antifa. 

The media and many politicians appear to see each mass shooter as unique. They are not.  Instead, these actors and their narrative should be viewed as pieces of a larger puzzle. 

Rather than staring at the individual piece trying to understand it, we need to examine its broader context for commonality with other attackers.

The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, the FBI, and others know that we can save lives by identifying and managing threats in a coordinated, behavior centered, multi-disciplinary approach.  

These experts have recommended best practices which include a central reporting mechanism for suspicious behaviors and ensuring that information is evaluated by a multidisciplinary team.

Moreover, the best practices include implementing the recommendations of the threat management team including therapy and other treatment. They also recommend taking steps to ensure that such persons are not further isolated due to archaic and illogical disciplinary processes such as “zero tolerance.” 

I helped draft Assembly Bill 1722 by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Republican from Rocklin, based on these recommendations. This bill would require a common-sense approach to building these best practices into our regional school safety plans.  

Recognizing one size does not fit all, the bill seeks to bring together school superintendents, teachers, sheriffs, chiefs of police, probation officers, district attorneys, psychologists and other policy makers to begin planning for threat management in the best manner for their region.

As our children return to school consider, despite crime being at historic lows, overall school shootings doubled between 2013 and 2018. 

Appallingly, in each of these attacks, information known to school officials, law enforcement, counselors, friends and neighbors reasonably should have been used to prevent the attack.

As a career prosecutor, I’m troubled that our approach to mass shootings has been to over-emphasize reaction to the first shot fired, and under-emphasize the warnings signs.  

The shooters in all three of these recent massacres were men between the ages of 19 and 24. 

What warning signs might have been noticed by their teachers and school officials while they were still in school?  What kind of intervention might have been possible if an early warning system like that proposed by AB 1722 been in place?

Gov. Newsom, rather than calling for action, we should act. A credible first step in combating this crisis is withering away in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. 

The science-based approach in AB 1722 can set us on the path of preventing mass shootings. That would be so much better than using this senseless loss of life as another political talking point.

Vern Pierson is El Dorado County District Attorney, and a board member of the California District Attorneys Association, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. Please read his past commentaries for CalMatters by clicking here and here.

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