Following months of investigation, federal authorities have arrested Justin Olsen, 18, in connection to online threats against law enforcement and Planned Parenthood. A subsequent search of his parent's home uncovered hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
We will never know — fortunately — whether Olsen would actually have put his plans into action, or whether it was more a reflection of adolescent bravado. But it does reflect the kind of leakage identified much too late in relation to certain mass shootings of the past.
Olsen’s arrest is the type of success that President Donald Trump likely had in mind when he announced following the massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, “I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partnership with local, state and federal agencies, as well as social media companies, to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”
Needle in a haystack
Notwithstanding the latest victory over evil, this is largely wishful thinking. We are a population of 330 million people. From that, there are, on average, only about two dozen individuals each year who fatally shoot four or more victims, according to the USA TODAY/Associated Press/Northeastern University mass killings database. These figures present rather long odds for detection.
Predicting rare events — be it a plane crash, a tsunami or a mass shooting — with any degree of reliability is not possible. Whatever the indications of dangerousness, there are just too many false positives: Individuals who fit the profile but will not commit mass murder.
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It is a needles-and-haystack dilemma. There is a large haystack of people who are angry, depressed, socially isolated, blame others for their miserable existence, write hateful words on social media sites, play violent video games and own a gun or two. But there is a small number of needles who will turn their angst into action.
These characteristics are yellow flags, easily identifiable with 20/20 hindsight. They become red flags only after the blood has spilled. For example, the Dayton shooter’s ex-girlfriend now says she saw warning signs, but she could not have anticipated the disastrous outcome.
What if we were to adopt some checklist of seemingly telltale warning signs to guide us? What would we do about the throngs of people who scare us? Should we force them into treatment or take away their guns based on a hunch?
Mass killers externalize blame for their misfortunes and see themselves as victims of injustice or corruption. They want fair treatment, not the psychological kind. Furthermore, truly dangerous individuals would resent the suggestion of mental impairment and any aggressive efforts to coerce counseling, even if with the best of intentions. That could actually spark the very murderous act we wish to prevent.
What about those folks with guns at their side? The “you’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hands” crowd won’t give up so easily. In fact, an attempt to deprive them of their Second Amendment rights could backfire quite literally.
A reason for action
This is not to suggest that we should do nothing. Mass shootings can serve as a powerful catalyst for change. Expanding mental health services and tightening the nation’s gun control laws are the right things to do, but the rare although devastating mass shooting is not necessarily the best reason. Increasing access to mental health services might not prevent a bloodbath, but it would enhance the well-being of millions of Americans who are suffering but not dangerous.
Let’s also not increase the stigma associated with mental illness by conflating it with mass murder. Most mass killers are not mentally impaired, and most mentally ill Americans aren’t a threat to public safety.
Enacting tighter gun control laws (such as universal background checks and limits on the size of large-capacity magazines) might not have prevented the 31 fatalities that took place in El Paso and Dayton over one weekend, but they could impact the 40 gun homicides that, on average, occur daily in America.
Let the lasting legacy of the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton be something positive through improved mental health services and more sensible gun laws.They might not appreciably reduce the threat of mass shootings, but they will be a significant boost to the quality of life in this country.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and co-author of “Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder." Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: We should reform gun laws, mental health not just because of shootings