Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to share your ideas with me. I’ve added the new ideas below (some are reprinted verbatim, and others I’ve consolidated and elaborated upon). Your thoughtful, creative solutions give me hope that we can find a way to take concrete action. Keep them coming!
Stop it Before it Starts
1. Increase sentencing laws and mandate counseling for domestic violence perpetrators. Around 50% of the mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years have roots in domestic violence against partners and family members. Researchers have found that the factors that would lead someone to commit domestic violence are similar to those that lead to mass killings. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act recognized that domestic violence is a federal crime and that federal laws can help an overburdened state and local criminal justice system. This law should be reauthorized to included strict sentencing guidelines for domestic violence offenders who violate the federal law, and the Department of Justice should provide assistance and recommendations to states to institute strict mandatory sentencing for anyone found guilty of committing domestic violence.
2. Define mass public killings as terrorism to put them under the jurisdiction of existing anti-terrorism laws and allow for more pre-emptive monitoring of potential perpetrators. Many mass killings, like the church shooting in South Carolina, are motivated by political aims that should qualify them as acts of domestic terrorism. Many mass killers share their grievances and plans on internet chat sites prior to their attacks. Federal law enforcement agencies monitor this type of “chatter” for foreign terrorist threats; they should be doing the same for threats of mass killings.
U.S. federal law defines semi-automatic weapons as a “weapon of mass destruction.”[i] The same law makes it a crime to conspire to use these weapons against a U.S. citizen. Federal law enforcement agencies should be given the funding needed to monitor threats and act on them. The Parkland, Florida shooter said that he wanted to be a school shooter, both verbally and in social media posts. Statements like that should qualify as conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction under U.S. federal law, and should be sufficient reason to charge someone with a crime (and hopefully lock them up for a very long time).
3. Screen early and often for mental illness. A study conducted by a forensic psychiatrist on 200 mass murders found that about half had clear evidence of mental illness before the attack. About a quarter of the perpetrators displayed signs of depression and psychopathy. Another quarter were likely to have paranoid schizophrenia. Depression and schizophrenia are highly treatable medical conditions; the problem is the availability and cost of treatment.
Screen often: The vast majority of mass public killers are males between the ages of 20 and 49. The Affordable Care Act should be amended to require health insurance companies and Medicare to provide annual mental health screenings for all males between the ages 16 and 49. In exchange for participating in a telephone or in-person screening, a participant would receive a discount on insurance costs. This could be funded via federal subsidies to insurance companies. Individuals who are identified as high-risk would be referred to mental health specialists, who would perform additional screenings and provide any necessary prescription medications, which would be required to be covered by private insurance and Medicare.
Screen early: Department of Education standards should be amended to require every kindergartener in America to be screened for social and emotional development. The lack of empathy that characterizes psychopathy is a personality trait common to many, if not all, mass killers. Several, such as the Parkland, Florida and Sandy Hook killers, have received diagnoses of Asperger’s or autism. These are social and emotional conditions that can be identified by trained professionals in children as young as 3 or 4. Every child in America should be screened when starting kindergarten. Those that show risk factors should receive early intervention services, which may include separate classes designed to develop social and emotional capabilities; wrap-around treatment, and resources for family members to teach them how to help their child cope and grow. These measures can only help vulnerable children, and may prevent a hurting 5-year old from becoming a violent 19-year old.
Gun rights proponents frequently call for targeting mental illness to reduce mass shootings, but I haven’t seen many policy proposals for how this might be done. This is a huge missing link and I don’t have many specific ideas, so I could really use your help filling in the blanks. How can laws be used to address mental illness in a way that could help prevent or reduce mass public killing?
4. Ask all major media outlets to take a voluntary pledge to stop publishing the names of mass public killers. They may still publish pictures and identifying details, and of course the names will be discovered and disseminated eventually, but it would drastically diminish the exposure that a killer receives for his deeds. Many mass killers, including the Columbine killers, expressed hope that their actions would earn them fame and notoriety. The man who killed nine people at an Oregon college in 2015 wrote in a blog post, “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”It’s time for the media to do some soul-searching on their role in these events becoming more and more commonplace. I won’t be including the names of any killers on this website.
5. Provide infrastructure hardening grants to all public and private schools. This is something that can be done immediately. It is not controversial like gun laws. Congress can act on this today. Locked doors, bulletproof glass and lock-down drills have already saved lives; a gunman in Northern California was prevented from entering an elementary school last year by the school’s security features.
Create an office in the Department of Education or Department of Homeland Security to administer funding and resources to every public and private school in America. Congress should appropriate funds to allow schools to install locking doors with bulletproof glass, or retrofit the existing structure with bulletproof windows or ballistic window glazing film. Make free training available to design lockdown drills, train staff, administrators and students of warning signs and establish reporting & action procedures in response to risks. If desired by the school, the funds could also provide defensive devices such as tasers, pepper spray and body armor to staff and administrators. It would be up to the school to determine what mix of resources would work best for the school environment.
The Department of Justice's Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) office was created in 1994. Its COPS in Schools grants, active from 1999 through 2005, gave out $753 million to nearly 3,000 school districts and law enforcement agencies to hire school police. Congress should provide appropriations to re-fund this program.
6. Expand the National Guard to include a new Domestic Protection Branch. Recruits would be paid, work part-time, and undergo regular training events. Domestic Protection agents would be available to provide monitoring and protection services free of charge upon request from school administrators, sponsors of major events, municipalities during parades or festivals, etc. Agents can also be tasked to patrol and monitor locations and events at their discretion. These agents would operate in their own home towns, where they would be in communication and in tune with the local population and aware of potential threats.
This concept has the potential to be a positive job-creation force for the unemployed and underemployed Trump voter demographic who are looking for a larger purpose in life. Many of these folks probably already own weapons, which they could trade in for standard-issue ones. Of course, they would be required to undergo extensive training, as well as undergo a mental health and background screening.
Guns: Voluntary measures that do not infringe on ownership rights.
Did I say that we weren’t going to talk about guns? Well, a multi-faceted problem requires a multi-faceted solution, and it would be insincere to turn a blind eye to the weapon of choice in almost all U.S. mass public killings. The ideas below do not restrict who may own a gun, or what type of guns are available on the market. They are voluntary measures to gain better control of the guns we currently have and keep them in the hands of the good guys, not the bad guys.
7. Institute an ongoing, large-scale gun buyback program. Gun buybacks are currently done on an ad-hoc, localized basis that is not effective. Every police station in America should have an ongoing buyback program that can be utilized any day of the year. Even better, the Federal government could contract with a private company to run a web-based system that would allow users to sell back unwanted guns through the mail, similar to the sites that purchase old iPhones. That would allow the transactions to take place privately and semi-anonymously.
8. Create a trade-up registration program. Similar to the buyback concept, this should be organized through a centralized, ongoing program. Gun owners could trade up their guns for a new or better version that contains a biometric trigger lock in exchange for registering it. The biometric trigger lock would prevent anyone other than the owner of the gun from using it. Guns could also be traded in exchange for a home security system.
9. Require all guns to be insured. Not registered with the federal government, but insured by a private company.
Sweeping firearm legislation passed in Australia following a 1996 mass shooting has been credited with reducing the rate of firearm homicides by 57% over the subsequent decade. Part of the legislation required every gun to be registered with the government and permitted for specific purposes ("self defense" is not a valid purpose). After every mass shooting, articles are written with titles like "Would Australia's Gun Laws Work in the U.S?" and this element of Australia's law is a major reason why they would not. Many of our fellow citizens believe their gun ownership offers them self-defense against the threat of a tyrannical government and wouldn't willingly advertise the presence of their guns via a registration process.
However, what if the registration process was confidential and records were maintained solely by a private insurance company? Proof of insurance would not have to provide identifying details about the number or type of guns owned, but would be required to purchase ammunition. The insurance companies would take on the role of screening gun owners to assess whether they have a mental illness, a history of domestic violence, a troubled family member, etc., and either deny insurance or require the applicant to take appropriate measures to secure their weapons in order to be insured (anyone who has ever applied for a life insurance policy knows how thorough the insurance screening process is). Forbes published a great overview of this option here.
10. Enforce the laws that already exist to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. This should go without saying. But apparently, we need to keep saying it.
11. Manned security checkpoints and metal detectors in all schools. Citizens of all types, but particularly parents of school children, need to demand that their state departments of education and their school boards take immediate steps to provide security at school buildings. We protect our courts, state and federal buildings, airports, and other public facilities with manned security checkpoints and metal detectors. Are school children less worthy of the same high level of protection? Therefore, a good first step would be securing all entrances to school buildings and providing security officers at manned checkpoints to screen those entering the buildings, as well as what they bring with them. All entrances would have to be monitored, either with personnel or warning alarms and security cameras, which are continuously monitored by security personnel.
12. Loosen legislation that prevents educators from communicating with law enforcement when a student’s behavior poses a risk. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and associated regulations prevents schools from sharing information about a student with law enforcement unless the school perceives an “articulable and significant threat.” The high bar set by “articulable and significant” may result in teachers and counselors staying silent about a suspicious student for fear of ending up on the wrong side of the law. A report commissioned by the state’s governor following the Virginia Tech shooting found that a misunderstanding about FERPA prevented the school from sharing information about the threat posed by the shooter to parents, school employees and others. This legislation should be amended, or new regulations issued, to allow schools to communicate with law enforcement when a student is demonstrating mental health, anger management or other behavioral issues that make him a credible threat to others.
13. Encourage the NRA to fund security equipment for schools as positive public relations outreach.
14. Renew the Federal law banning high-capacity ammunition magazines. Prior to 2004, magazines that held more than 10 rounds of ammunition were banned from production under Federal law. In addition to renewing the ban, require gun manufacturers to modify the design of all new guns that are produced so they won’t accept banned high-capacity magazines.
15. Require all new guns to be manufactured with biometric trigger locks by 2020. Not only would this feature make it more difficult for would-be school shooters to steal weapons from family members, it would also address the tragedies that occur when curious toddlers and suicidal teenagers get their hands on their parents’ guns. The Federal government mandates safety features for automobiles (another deadly weapon) and manufacturers must adapt to meet them. It’s reasonable to expect gun manufacturers to be held to the same standard.
16. Media campaign on “Human Decency 101.” Many of the comments I received focused on the breakdown of the family, society and civility as the root of this crisis, and called it a “heart” problem, not a gun problem. Occasionally, large-scale public relations efforts to convince us all to be a little nicer to each other have an impact; a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that anti-bullying efforts, including laws many states have passed in the past five years, appear to be reducing instances of reported bullying. A media campaign to encourage people to engage isolated individuals, as suggested in this article, would be a great project for the Ad Council or a concerned philanthropist.
17. Include a dose of “reality” in violent video games. According to The Week, virtually every school shooter in the last two decades played hyper-realistic, violent video games. Violent video games don’t turn a rational person into a killer any more than owning an AR-15 does. And just like gun owners, there are thousands of responsible, mature teens and adults who play violent video games and will never harm another human being. However, for the small number of people who are already lacking in empathy, suffering from mental illness, and prone to violent fantasies, these video games can certainly immerse them further into that fantasy, to the point where it can become reality.
The Supreme Court has granted free speech protections to violent video games, but perhaps there are other measures that can be taken to reduce their impact on violence-prone individuals. Video game manufacturers could build a few safety mechanisms into their games that would act as a reality check for players. For instance, every new level of the game could start with a quick multiple-choice quiz to assess the player’s mental health status, an empathy-building exercise, or a link to mental health or suicide-prevention resources. Rhode Island State Representative Robert Nardolillo has introduced legislation to tax violent video games and used the revenue to provide mental health funding to schools. Perhaps if such a tax were passed on a broad level, manufacturers that include mental health safety mechanisms in their video games could receive a waiver from the tax. [Thanks to a commenter for this suggestion]
18. Pass state or federal legislation requiring all schools to go through an annual security check and be graded on how secure the school is or what serious risks exist. Thanks to a commenter for this great suggestion. Making this information public would certainly compel schools to make security a priority and act quickly to evaluate their vulnerabilities. Of course, making this an unfunded mandate could have the unintended effect of putting a bullseye on the schools with poor security, so this change should be paired with legislative appropriations to pay for security improvements where they are needed.
19. Require gun owners to earn and maintain a license. This is a common proposal that mirrors the safety regulations that have been put in place to limit deaths from those other commonplace deadly tools: our cars.
Think about the hoops you need to jump through to own and operate a car. You must qualify for a license to drive, which requires a lengthy test of both knowledge and driving skills. You must renew your license periodically, which might require providing updated personal information and demonstrating compliance with the law. If you use your car irresponsibly and put others in danger by driving under the influence or speeding, you may lose your license and driving privileges. Almost every state requires drivers to maintain insurance to compensate for damage that results from accidents or irresponsible use. Car ownership must be registered with the state, and transferred if the car is sold or changes hands.
All of these rules are heavily enforced. At every traffic stop, police ask for a license and registration; if you don’t have these items, you’re toast. You may even receive jail time.
The law also requires us to take safety precautions to limit traffic-related deaths, such as wearing seat belts, using car seats for children, and maintaining properly functioning vehicles that are inspected regularly. Car manufacturers are required to comply with certain safety standards to reduce accidents and deaths (such as making anti-lock breaks and airbags standard) and these standards are constantly improving. Before a new car can be sold by the manufacturer, it must meet a list of 595 safety standards.
We all have to comply with these rules if we want to own or drive a car, and for the most part (except for the usual grumbling at the DMV), we understand that these rules are necessary to keep our society safe and organized. As a result of all these rules, car-related deaths have fallen by 95 percent since 1921.
Now, imagine if these same restrictions were applied to gun ownership. Gun owners would need to prove their skills and competence to get a license, and continue to behave responsibly to maintain that license. Gun manufacturers would need to apply ever-improving safety standards to reduce accidental deaths. If a policeman suspects that you have a weapon, you must produce a valid license or face jail time. If you behave irresponsibly and dangerously (for instance, by being charged with domestic abuse or making terroristic threats) you lose your license and your ability to purchase or own a gun. These changes may even make it simpler for responsible gun owners to purchase more guns; they could just produce a valid license rather than waiting for a background check to be completed (of course we still have the issue of private sales, but keep in mind that when a car is privately sold, the law still requires the new owner to register the vehicle with the state).
20. Treat gun manufacturers the same as car manufacturers. This is copied from above, but is a separate concept that bears repeating. Before a new car can be sold by the manufacturer, it must meet a list of 595 safety standards set by the U.S. Department of Transportation, ranging from anti-lock breaks, to seatbelts, to airbags, to windshield wipers. Car manufacturers are expected to retool their factories and their specialized equipment to comply with these requirements. Gun manufacturers should be held to the same standard. Biometric trigger locks, “smart guns,” PIN-activated barrel locks. “Personalized guns” would reduce accidental deaths, as well as making the guns useless when they are stolen by criminals.
21. Make gun owners liable for crimes committed using their weapons. Fourteen states have "negligent storage laws" that can make gun-owning parents criminally liable for crimes committed by their children using the parent's weapon. However, some states have loopholes that reduce the effectiveness of the law. For instance, the Texas negligent storage law considers a child to be under 16 years of age; a detail that will allow the father of the Santa Fe shooter to go unpunished. Massachusetts is the only state that requires the gun to be secured with a lock. A few other states only apply negligent storage laws if the gun owner lives with a felon or domestic abuser. So many mass shootings have been possible because a violent young man had easy access to his parent's weapons. Passing and tightening negligent storage laws across the country could encourage gun owners to store their weapons more safely and responsibly.
22. Join the NRA. Pay your dues. Tell them you want sensible gun control laws. The National Rifle Association has an interesting history. Formerly a sportsman's club that turned a blind eye to increasing gun control laws in the 1970's, the association was actually planning to close their Washington D.C. office and get out of politics altogether. That is, until the 1977 NRA annual meeting was usurped by a dozen riled-up members who forced a vote to dethrone the association's leadership and steer the group toward its current policy of not budging a single inch on gun control. Listen to the whole story here.
Admittedly, this is a risky strategy. Every dime given to the NRA is money used to promote their current, uncompromising agenda. But if you are a gun owner and you do support common sense gun laws (as most gun owners do), use your vote in the NRA to tell them that easier access to guns does not appear to be making any of us safer.
 https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2332a, 18 U.S. Code Section 2332(c )(2)(A) and 18 U.S. Code Section 921(a)(4)(B)