In 2019, many lives were lost at the hands of mass shooters. These tragedies occur so frequently they have become the new normal. Nobody is surprised anymore. But, as 2019 came to a close, at least one small step was taken to address mass and school shootings—revisiting federal funding for the study of causes of gun violence.
We know so little about why men—and it is primarily men—go on shooting, mass murder rampages. As someone who spent decades teaching and practicing criminal law, my hypothesis is that the crisis is closely associated with suicide. Suicide is now the fourth-leading cause of adult deaths. Consider that in most, but not all, mass shootings, the killer expects to die in the melee in shootouts with responding police, or they actually kill themselves before the police can. Looking at the big picture, if you add in the availability of guns (powerful guns and ammo) plus the prevalent social conditions of depression, hopelessness, loneliness and isolation, bullying at schools, mental health and mental illness and intimate partner violence, the picture becomes slightly clearer.
What’s the best way to find out if mass shootings are really part of the suicide epidemic? Medical research. Since 1996 the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute for Health were prevented by Congressional legislation from studying gun violence and causation in general. The move to cut the funding arose in response to efforts made in the early 1990s to begin treating gun violence as a public health issue. The 1996 legislation was called the “Dickey Amendment,” named after Congressman Jay Dickey of Arkansas. Dickey led the movement to add language to the 1996 federal budget that said that “[n]one of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.” Of course, medical research is not advocacy, but the language was included in every federal budget since. As a result, medical research became part of the overall gun control battle and fell victim to political gridlock. Some progress was made to clarify the intent of the research and the language in 2018, after the Parkland Marjory Stoneman High School massacre.
At the end of 2019, finally, $25 million was set aside set aside for the study.
Something else noteworthy happened in 2019. Some progress was made in how communities respond to mass shootings. It’s a subject I cover in a recent book, After The Bloodbath, Is Healing Possible In the Wake of Rampage Shootings? In the book, among other topics, I look at how a community responded on the reservation of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians after a fatal shooting at Red Lake High School. Consider, in 2019, two sisters, Tana and Brooke Risley. Brooke is a student at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, and Brooke is a recent graduate of the school. Last month, there was a fatal school shooting at the high school when a 16-year-old student opened fire with a .45 caliber handgun, killing two students and injuring several others before firing one last gunshot to his head. In the aftermath of the melee, Tina and Brooke created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the mother and sister of the shooter. Similarly, in 2005 the Tribal Council at Red Lake made efforts to support the killer’s family and help them pay for funeral costs.
“It is times like this that we must band together,” wrote the Risleys, “not to support the shooter and his actions, but to support his family. It is time to spread love, support kindness … Kindness is unconditional and constant. You are kind even when you don’t need to be, even when it is not convenient to be.”
In showing compassion to the family of the Red Lake school shooter, the people in Red Lake were not looking for recognition. The same goes for the Risley sisters. These days it’s a struggle to find anything upbeat to say about the shedding of so much innocent blood. Yet, Tana and Brooke found a way to light a spark of goodness amid painful darkness. Perhaps more light will be revealed into the causes of this deadly scourge after further federal medical research.
If the sisters in Santa Clarita are the future—as well as the children of Parkland in 2018 and other brave children of 2019—perhaps there is still hope for the rest of us.
James D. Diamond is the author of the book, After The Bloodbath: Is Healing Possible in the Wake of Rampage Shootings? He is dean of Academic Affairs of the National Tribal Trial College, holds a Doctor of Juridical Science degree (S.J.D.) from the University of Arizona College of Law and is the former director of the Tribal Justice Clinic there.