Can Hate Beget Healing? Looking Back at 2019 and for a Silver Lining in Responses to Rampage Shootings

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.

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Memorials in front of Saugus High School, November 19, 2019. Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News

“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.

 

 

Even Mass Murderers Have Mothers and Fathers

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This column first appeared in The Arizona Daily Star on Sept. 8, 2015.

In some ways, mass murderers are no different than you and me: At some point, everyone had a mother and a father. And, as difficult as it is to imagine, if somehow our lives took an awful turn and we did something truly heinous, we’d like to hope our parents would be in our corner doing anything and everything they could for us.

Last month in Centennial, Colorado, a jury faced one of the most onerous tasks society asks of its citizens. The townspeople in Colorado had to decide whether it was life or death for James Holmes, deciding upon a sentence of life without a chance of parole release or the death penalty. That same jury of 12 found Holmes guilty of 24 counts of first-degree murder and 140 counts of attempted murder for the July 2012 killing of 12 innocent people and injuries to 70 more. Holmes opened fire at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater showing of The Dark Knight Rises. 

Following the guilty verdict, the jury heard evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. Among the many witnesses called to the stand were both of Holmes’ parents, Robert and Arlene Holmes. With that one glaring exception of having a son who went on a monstrous, blood-curdling rampage, Robert and Arlene aren’t too different from the rest of the population of American parents. The father, Robert, is a senior scientist at FICO, the company that calculates consumer credit scores. He is a mathematician with degrees from some of the finest institutions in the U.S.—Stanford, Berkeley and U.C.L.A. The mother, Arlene, is a registered nurse. The couple have a home in suburban San Diego, California, where they attend a local Lutheran church.

 

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Robert and Arlene Holmes Appearing In Court

 

Robert Holmes came to court nearly every day to attend his son’s trial. He sat in a courtroom where he was probably not particularly welcomed with open arms. He sat among the dozens of grieving survivors of the innocent people his son murdered, other parents, children, brothers and sisters. He sat among the scarred and the severely wounded. Yet, he came. When called, he took the stand to try to save his son’s life. He told of his son’s near idyllic early childhood in Castroville, California. James did exceptionally well in school, played soccer and was always surrounded by a pack of friends. The elder Holmes told of a history of mental illness in his own family, but never suspected his son had an illness. Although it does not appear that James Holmes wants a relationship with his father at this time, Robert Holmes was asked if he still loved James, as if to suggest that the enormity of the bloodshed caused by the son had changed the way a father felt about his child. “Yes, I do,” he said. “Why?” asked James’ lawyer. “Because he’s my son,” he answered.

One of the parents sitting in the courtroom with Robert and Arlene Holmes was Ashley Moser. The prosecutors saved her heart-wrenching testimony for last, and strategically, it’ s easy to understand why they did. Moser, eight weeks pregnant at the time, was watching the movie with her 6-year-old daughter, Veronica, when James Holmes’ massacre took place. Moser reached for her daughter’s hand, but she felt it slip away. Of the 76 shots fired by Holmes from three guns, Moser was struck three times, and fell on top of her daughter. Veronica was struck by four bullets and was killed, and Moser suffered a miscarriage. Left paralyzed for life, a bullet still lodged in her back, she moved about the courtroom in a wheelchair, testifying in the courtroom as James Holmes and his family watched and listened.

Holmes’ mother testified on her son’s behalf. Looking back on things, Arlene Holmes said she could now see how her son changed when he became an adolescent, after they moved from Northern California to San Diego. Once a fast and athletic soccer player, he became uncoordinated and spent most of his free time playing cards and video games. She took him for counseling when he became depressed, but she never suspected he was mentally ill. He isolated himself but didn’t get into trouble and got good grades, she said. “I thought I had a good kid,” she testified.

I remember a client I once represented whose mother also thought she had a good kid, stuck with her son after he committed a vicious stranger-abduction rape. After he was convicted and sentenced to consecutive sentences totaling 35 years, she said something only a naïve but loving mother could say: “Thirty-five years? That’s a murder sentence, and he didn’t kill her.” Parents defend children, even when they commit atrocities.

By the time James Holmes was 24 and committed a murderous rampage, his parents had no idea he was suffering from schizophrenia or was homicidal. Yet several witnesses on both the prosecution and defense sides agreed that at the time of the murders their son suffered from schizophrenia and was mentally ill. Prior to the trial, nobody ever disclosed Holmes’ condition to the parents. Obviously, Holmes spiraled downward and spiraled fast.

With a different verdict, Holmes would be facing execution now. Holmes gets to live the rest of his days in a Colorado prison. His father says he will visit him. “Jimmy was always really an excellent kid,” the father testified. We’d all like to think our parents would continue to stand by us like that, even in the face of temptation to join the justifiably angry public, the victims who so often and understandably cannot do anything but express anger and frequent hatred at their children.

Holmes’ father still calls his son Jimmy. Just like my dad always did.