What we get wrong about mass shootings and how to curb them

Shootings in Pittsburgh and South Carolina this past weekend brought the year’s number of mass shootings (in which four or more people were killed) to 146. William Brangham talks to Mark Follman, a journalist who has long covered gun violence, about the deadly mix of political volatility, pandemic stress and rise in gun sales, what people get wrong about mass shootings and how to break the cycle.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There were several mass shootings across the country over Easter weekend, leaving many to question yet again about what can be done to curb worsening gun violence in America.

    William Brangham has our conversation.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, this weekend, two children were killed and eight others wounded in Pittsburgh after a shooting broke out at a party.

    In South Carolina, two mass shootings happened just hours apart, one at a shopping mall and another at a restaurant. More than 20 people were injured there. That makes at least 146 mass shootings, where four or more people are shot, so far this year.

    For more on what can be done to prevent these types of tragedies, I'm joined by Mark Follman. He's long covered this country's epidemic of gun violence, and is now out with a new book called "Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America."

    Mark Follman, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    These shootings that occurred over the weekend are not what we think of as the sort of archetypal mass shootings. These are gatherings where there's a lot of armed people, and things erupt. It seems like those are uniquely different and difficult to disrupt.

    Mark Follman, Author, "Trigger Points": Yes, I think we tend to think of the mass shootings problem in sort of monolithic terms, and certainly in highly politicized terms in our country.

    But this is a complex problem. And there are different versions of it. And what we saw with this spate of violence over the weekend is sort of one version of it, which is more kind of reactive in nature, where you have groups of people kind of getting into heated fights, and then turning to guns.

    That's different than some of the other public mass shootings that are so high-profile and traumatizing that we keep seeing in the country as well.

  • William Brangham:

    It also seems that the ready supply of guns not just makes these types of beefs, to use that term, more deadly, but they also seem to fuel them, in the sense that, if I think every one is armed, then I then convince myself I need to be armed, and, thus, guns is how we settle things.

    I mean, is there any evidence to how we disrupt that particular cycle?

  • Mark Follman:

    I think it's difficult.

    And we're experiencing a surge in this now. A lot of people have been asking the question why. I think, if we look at the increasing kind of political volatility and rage and polarization going on in the country, all the stresses from the pandemic of the past couple of years, and there's been record gun buying as well.

    We have an estimated 400 million firearms in this country now easily accessible in many places, this issue with ghost guns that's been at the forefront recently. So, all of this together, I think, makes it very difficult to solve these kinds of explosive, sort of reactive events that we're seeing a spate of now.

  • William Brangham:

    Your book "Trigger Points" zeros in on what we think of as the more archetypal-type mass shootings, like at Virginia Tech. A young man kills 30-something people, clearly a disturbed young person.

    You argue in the book that we have all sorts of myths that we have built up around these types of shootings. What are those myths?

  • Mark Follman:

    Well, there are a couple of really big ones that I think fundamentally misunderstand the problem of mass shootings, in terms of how the general public perceives them.

    One of them is that all of this is — should be blamed on mental illness, that all of the perpetrators of these attacks are crazy and they just snap. That's a term we use a lot in the media. The question is often asked in the aftermath, what made the guy snap?

    That's not how these cases work. When you study the research into these attacks, as I have for "Trigger Points" and the field of prevention work that I focus on in the book, you can see that all of these are planned attacks. This is predatory violence. So it's distinct from what we were talking about earlier, which is more reactive in nature.

    These are people who are developing violent ideas over time, taking steps to plan and prepare, and then carrying out the attack. So that's a different issue, a different problem, with different possible solutions, and some potentially very promising ones, in terms of a window of opportunity to step in and try to prevent it, to intervene before it's too late.

  • William Brangham:

    It does seem like, if there are these warning signs along the way, that stepping in, in that moment is the key to this.

    But there are seemingly so many obstacles to that, I mean, our gun laws, our privacy laws, the correct fear of stigmatizing mental illness. Are there good solutions to addressing that? Do we do a good job of intervening?

  • Mark Follman:

    I think we could certainly do more.

    And the focus of my book "Trigger Points" is on the field of behavioral threat assessment, which I think does have some real promise here. There's more of it going on in the country now.

    It's a collaborative effort between mental health experts, law enforcement, education leaders, people in the workplace, and others who are working together to try to evaluate cases of concern, and then step in and prevent people from going down what the field calls this pathway to violence, which is the planning of these kinds of attacks we're discussing.

    And there are quite a few successful examples of where this has worked. I write about them in the book. I was able to gain access to cases where constructive prevention measures, getting people mental health help, getting them educational or employment support over time can really divert an individual away from violent thinking of this nature.

  • William Brangham:

    In our current political environment, the refrain that always follows is commonsense gun control, magazine capacity limits, red flag laws, waiting periods, et cetera, et cetera.

    Does your research indicate that those things would have a meaningful impact on gun violence in America?

  • Mark Follman:

    I think they can.

    I think there's some strong evidence at a more state and local level that some of these policies are very effective. One that you mentioned, the so-called red flag laws, is a tool that has grown a lot in the past few years, and intersects very directly with the work of threat assessment, this form of community-based prevention, because you're talking about addressing specific cases where people are raising serious concerns that they are posing a danger to themselves or others.

    And, in that case, the question becomes, should this person have access to a firearm? And so these laws now provide a tool where family members and, in some cases, law enforcement can go to a judge and have a court proceeding to determine whether or not to take that firearm away.

    We're always asking the question, what — how did a person like this mass shooter after the latest one get hold of a gun? How do we keep guns out of the hands of people who do this? Well, this is one potential tool. And it's been growing.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, journalist Mark Follman.

    The book is called "Trigger Points."

    Thank you so much for being here.

  • Mark Follman:

    My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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