The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic, published in the year 2021, shows that there are striking similarities between the perpetrators of mass shootings and suggests a data-backed, mental health-based approach could identify and address the next mass shooter before he pulls the trigger. POLITICO talked to Densely from their offices in St. Paul, Minn., about how our national understanding about mass shooters has to evolve.
I wonder if you had the same reaction as the rest of us when we heard about the Uvalde elementary school shooting? Were you expecting this?
We were waiting because mass shootings are socially contagious and when one really big one happens and gets a lot of media attention, we tend to see others follow. This one was particularly bad. One of my kids is in 4th grade.
I am a parent of two boys, a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old. My 12-year-old knows what I do and he's looking to me for reassurance, but I didn't have the words for him. It's heartbreaking, but now it's ok for you to go to your school and live your life.
There is a link between the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings.
We don't know for sure, but our research says it's likely. An 18-year-old commit a mass shooting. We all spend a lot of time talking about his name and the replacement theory. If you have another 18-year-old who is on the edge, that could embolden him to follow. This has happened before.
Mass shooters study other mass killers. They often find a way of relating to them, like, "There are other people out there who feel like me."
The profile of mass shooters emerged from your research.
There is a really consistent pathway. Violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, and extreme bully are all related to early childhood trauma. You see the build up of despair, isolation, self-loathing, and rejection from peers. That turns into a crisis point where they are acting differently. They have tried to kill themselves before.
The self-hate turns against a group, which is different from traditional suicide. They start asking themselves, "Whose fault is this?", "Is it a racial group or women or a religious group?" and "Is it my classmates?" The hate goes outside. There is a quest for fame and notoriety.
POLITICO: You have written about mass shootings being acts of violent suicide. Do people know what is happening in mass shootings?
Most people don't realize that suicides and homicides are the same thing. These are the final acts of the mass shooter. It completely changes the idea that someone with a gun is going to deter this. That is an incentive for these individuals. They are going to die.
It is hard to focus on the suicide because of the horrible homicides. We know a lot from the suicide prevention world that can translate here.
I have heard many references to monsters and pure evil over the last few weeks. Why?
We feel better if we explain the problem as pure evil, like a terrorist attack or hate crime, because it makes it seem like we've solved the puzzle. We haven't solved anything. We have explained the problem. This terminology makes it hard for us to recognize that mass shooters are us. These individuals have done horrible things and it's hard for people to relate to them. Three days earlier, that school shooter was someone's son, grandson, neighbor, colleague or classmate. If we want to intervene before they become a monster, we have to recognize them as a troubled human earlier.
The Buffalo shooter told his teacher that he was going to kill himself. The people who do mass shootings are evil, psychopathic monsters and this is a kid in my class, so people aren't used to thinking that this kind of thing could be real. There is a discrepancy.
Do you get criticized for being too sympathetic to mass murderers?
We're not trying to make excuses or say they shouldn't be held responsible. What is the path to violence for these people? We need to start building data-driven solutions. We are never going to solve this if we are unwilling to understand the pathway.
What are the solutions?
There are things we can do as individuals, like safe storage of firearms or checking in with your child.
We need more resources at schools. When kids are in crisis, we need to link them to mental health services. In a lot of places, those services are not available. There is no community mental health or school-based mental health. It doesn't require a parent to take you to schools. A lot of perpetrators are from families that don't take mental health seriously.
In your book, you say that 500,000 psychologists would be employed in schools around the country. If you assume a modest salary of $70,000 a year, that's $35 billion in funding. Are there any national or state-level political support for the kind of mental health resources?
Every time there is a tragedy, you always ask yourself, "Is this the one that's going to finally move the needle?" We need to ask what the plan is to fix the mental health problem. Nobody is saying, "Let's fund this, let's do it, we'll get the votes."
Are Democrats talking about mental health?
It becomes an either-or proposition too often in politics. Mental health or gun control. None of these solutions are perfect on their own. We have to do many things at once and put them together in a package. It is not always easy to be comfortable with complexity.
The focus has been on teaching our kids to run and hide since theColumbine. The shift I am starting to see is that people realize that hardening doesn't work. School shooters target their own school over 90 percent of the time. These are not outsiders. There is a bill in Minnesota that recognizes public safety as training people in suicide prevention. I hope we keep moving in that direction.
There was an army of good guys with guns in the parking lot. The hard approach seems to be not getting the job done.
Do you support red flag laws?
Our research supports them because so many perpetrators are showing warning signs. They are telling people they are suicidal. Buffalo showed us that even though a red flag law is on the books, it doesn't mean people are trained in how to implement it.
What can be done to make the laws more effective?
There are two pieces. Training and awareness are the other two. People need to know how the law works and who has a duty to report someone. Practical law enforcement is the second piece. What is the safest way to remove those firearms? If you have a small law enforcement presence, you're asking them to go into someone's rural home and take care of their entire arsenal of weapons.
The state of New York has a red flag law.
There should have been more education with the police, the mental health facility and the school. The shooter should not have been able to make the purchase if one of those three had initiated the red flag process.
It shows the limitations of our current systems. The shooter had no guns at that time, so it was not an immediate threat. He goes back to school after the mental health facility concluded it was not an immediate crisis. Nobody can do anything if it is not a red-hot situation. It was not the job of these people to make sure that he got connected with someone who could help him for the rest of his life.
Something happens that puts people on the radar. Something isn't right if they aren't the next shooter. How can we help these individuals reintegrate in a way that will help them turn their lives around? If we fixate just on the word threat, that gets lost.
I was struck by the detail in your book about one of the perpetrators. You reported that he called a behavior health facility minutes before he opened fire. Is there always a way to communicate intent before it happens?
Older shooters often go into their workplace, so you don't see it as often. It is almost every case for young shooters. We need to see this leak as a cry for help. If you are saying, "I want to shoot the school tomorrow," you are also saying, "I don't care if I live or die."
Pushing people out makes them angry. The shooter came back after being expelled from school. We can't punish our way out of this problem.