Are We Going to Talk About Preventing the Next Mass Shooting?

Independent Journal Review/Leo Lutz

There’s been a rush to diagnose last week’s shooting at the GOP congressional baseball practice as a symptom of overheated political rhetoric and to prescribe enhanced security for lawmakers as the fix.

Both concepts are valid, but they stuck out in the days after because they marked a clear departure from how the press and the public tend to react to other mass shootings.

There’s usually a sense of helplessness — that this type of thing will happen again, and there’s not much that can be done to stop it. But that attitude did not dominate the coverage or the commentary this time, so maybe the unique circumstances could be instructive in this case.

What the shooting of Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and four others in attendance shared with other attacks is the eerie feeling that, somewhere along the line, it could have been prevented.

Intercepting Signals

Witness this statement, the second made on Wednesday morning by Illinois Republican Mike Bost, the congressman who represents the shooter:

“James Hodgkinson contacted my office 10 times, beginning in June 2016 and continuing through May of this year. While he continually expressed his opposition to the Republican agenda in Congress, the correspondence never appeared threatening or raised concerns that anger would turn to physical action. Had we any indication that Mr. Hodgkinson posed a threat to anyone’s safety, we would have taken the appropriate steps to alert U.S. Capitol Police immediately.”

I’m skeptical.

Maybe that’s because, according to NPR in 2014, Bost was given to angry rants himself, and perhaps that makes his tolerance for more heated rhetoric higher than normal.

To his credit, Bost said in his first statement following the shooting, “We live in challenging times, and the political rhetoric has been turned up to an alarming level. This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to step back from the battle lines and come together to strengthen our nation.”

But note how every major news organization is underscoring in promotional materials that its journalists will never stop asking tough questions. Shouldn’t we apply that mission to every aspect of this story?

I’d like to see for myself what the shooter wrote in his messages to Bost’s office, although we can assume those messages have been impounded and won’t be released publicly.

If the congressman’s office does supply this information — which I have asked for — I’ll add it right here.

I raise this broader point because, after nearly every highly publicized mass shooting, evidence spills out almost immediately that shows the gunman having demonstrated some eccentricities and an attraction to violence, just like Hodgkinson did.

And each time, I wonder if the shooting could have been prevented if someone had taken an extra step or two.

Was it a bored, young legislative correspondent who saw another angry email from another angry constituent and just sent back a form letter? Did the same staffer see all 10 emails? If so, did that staffer alert anyone else in Bost’s office? Did the congressman know about the emails before the shooting?

When I first raised some of these questions on a cable news show over the weekend, my fellow panelists dismissively laughed at the suggestion.

They said members of Congress get angry letters from constituents all the time. They pointed out that angry Twitter users, riled up by politics, spew nastiness on the social media platform all the time.

And that’s true, but isn’t it lazy to chalk this one up to the norm? How often does a lawmaker get 10 different angry rants from the same constituent? It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell the difference between an exasperated but engaged taxpayer and a psychopath.

I wonder if Bost issued the statement he did to get some cover for letting something slip through the cracks.

While I’m not suggesting that he or his staff shoulder the blame, it is constructive to learn from what could have been a mistake. General complacency and acceptance that Americans are charged up and prone to angry complaints will keep the cycle going.

The Department of Homeland Security has several web pages devoted to the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign that launched seven years ago to raise public awareness of potential terrorist activity.

Wouldn’t it behoove other parts of the government, such as a congressman’s office, to heed that advice in all cases that could result in violence and maybe head this off the next time?

Guns and Security

It is true that gun use did prevent this particular tragedy from becoming far worse.

And that led Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) to say he will carry a concealed weapon going forward, even though the law in the District of Columbia prohibits it — he and Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) have proposals in Congress to change that.

But remember that two highly trained members of law enforcement — who are required to have guns to do their jobs — used them in this case, and they both suffered gunshot wounds in the process.

If a civilian on the scene without the same kind of intensive training had been carrying a gun and chose to use it, would the outcome have been the same? Or could there have been other, unnecessary injuries — or even a casualty?

The actual outcome, though, led to a question that dominated the rest of the day after the shooting: should members of Congress get enhanced security?

While lots of lawmakers said they want to ensure they continue to have unfettered access to their constituents, there seemed to be an acknowledgment that as public figures, and thus big national targets, they may need tighter security.

But if you were a member of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, or a regular at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, or a parent of an elementary school student in Newtown, Connecticut, or a movie buff in Aurora, Colorado, might that rub you the wrong way? That the answer in one subsequent case is to protect a certain class of Americans and not you?

Tighter security at churches did bubble up as a secondary issue last summer following the Charleston shooting, but it didn’t inspire a major national dialogue that could have led to a more clear-cut solutions in the way expanding the Capitol Police force did last week.

But if this shooting and the response for more security gets a bigger public airing, it would come against a backdrop of increasing mistrust in law enforcement following a series of accidental police shootings of unarmed Americans in several cities that have sparked outrage.

Maybe it’s worth noting that in last week’s incident, two African-American police officers took down a Caucasian man who unquestionably had opened fire, and they were deemed heroes thereafter.

Maybe it’s not notable, but it is important to recognize that the issue race plays in recent mass shootings has not been without controversy in the past few years.

Guns and Access

Over the past decade, the reaction in Washington to mass shootings has become fairly routine.

Gun advocates on the right argue for loosened restrictions on carrying weapons, and gun control advocates on the left press for expanded background checks for all gun purchases. The press covers it as a major partisan fight in the same way it might cover a championship game between teams with a longstanding rivalry.

Some stakeholders edge in to say, “What about mental health?”

All sides dig in their heels, and there’s an obvious impasse being reached.

In reality, any kind of legislation that would stand a chance of passing would never be very wide in scope — it wouldn’t be a real threat to the Second Amendment. It gets packaged, lobbied, and presented in a way that forces Americans to think it would.

Absolutely none of that happened this time. It just got ignored entirely because Republicans and Democrats are trying to come together and tone down the rhetoric since all involved seem to realize nasty partisan discourse, which flies on both sides, contributed to this.

But there’s an obvious breakdown in the way Washington does business when Congress can’t figure out how to hammer out some kind of narrowly focused solution that addresses the intersection between mental health and access to guns. There’s an even bigger breakdown when these shootings happen so often that the correlation wasn’t even raised this time.

With the kind of violent history Hodgkinson has on the books, it’s clear he probably shouldn’t have had access to purchase the kind of guns he did.

The question is whether Congress will consider a route to prevention now that a troubled gunman has hit one of its own. Again.

What do you think?

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