Over the course of a summer weekend, 31 people were killed in two mass shootings, one in El Paso, Texas and another in Dayton, Ohio.

Before our attention span lapses, let’s remember that three were killed in a shooting at Gilroy Garlic Festival in Northern California the week prior.

Why? The El Paso shooter left a manifesto outlining his fear that Hispanics were taking over Texas. The Gilroy shooter referenced some extremist literature, but FBI investigators have said it is not yet clear what, if any, ideology the shooter espoused. The Dayton shooter’s motive is not yet known but early indications are it is not race or ideology-based.

As humans we seek meaning for things, but all too often clear meaning or motives elude us. For example, two years after the fact no one knows why a man opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel room window killing 58 people and wounding 422 attending an outdoor concert.

As always there will be calls to “do something,” whether that involves gun control measures (most popular call at moment is for enhanced background checks), better identification/treatment of mental health issues or curtailing violent video games.

The call now is for a focus on mental health as if there was some way to identify people with mental health issues that could trigger a mass shooting. What little we do know about the Dayton shooter raises quick issues with that approach. According to an Associated Press story, the shooter was suspended in high school for developing lists of people to kill and girls to rape.

The same story said there was nothing in the shooter’s background that would had prohibited him from purchasing a firearm, and also quoted a guy in bar where he stopped at a few days before the shooting as saying him seemed friendly.

Also research indicates a very small percentage of violent crimes are committed by people with diagnosed mental illnesses. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, cited in a U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health 2015 report, fewer than 5 percent of 120,000 gun-related killings in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people diagnosed with a mental illness.

It is also relevant to point out that our court system rarely recognizes or acknowledge mental illness among defendants. After John Hinckley Jr. was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting of President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary James Brady, Congress and states enacted stricter rules on the insanity defense. According to a 2015 criminal justice study, the insanity plea is used in less than 1 percent of all cases in the U.S. criminal justice system. It raises the question of if we can say mental illness is the cause of a crime with a criminal justice system that does not acknowledge it as a reason for a crime to be committed.

It is tempting to sit here in Ellensburg, Kittitas, Cle Elum or Roslyn and think, “I’m glad I live here. That stuff doesn’t happen here.”

Unfortunately, that same thought likely occurred to people who lived in the many towns — small, medium and large — where mass shootings have occurred.

The solution to this problem is not coming from above. Politicians will tout solutions they can not bring about — whether that’s federal-level gun control or some enhanced, targeted mental health system — and then move on hoping that some other scandal will detract the public.

As citizens in communities we do not have that luxury. The next shooting could be in our town or claim the life of a loved one living elsewhere.

In general with mass shooters, we know we are talking about males. According to an FBI analysis in 2018, 94 percent of mass shooters were male, and 61 percent were white. There is no one profile that fits all the shooters, but many have a sense of grievance (El Paso shooter), or a desire for notoriety (the New Zealand shooter who live streamed his attack).

Lacking a magic wand, for each of us it may come down to connecting, to noticing people who may not want to be noticed or we may not be comfortable noticing. We need to honest with ourselves when a relative or loved one has a mental health issue that is going untreated. As a community we need to stand up and say there is no stigma to seeking mental health help.

Shooters receive no sympathy, but we need to care about the people capable of firing those shots before their finger is on the trigger, whether they are consumed with hatred and fear or suffering from mental health illness.

The catch is we don’t know who that person may be, so we just need to care about everyone. It may sound like an impossibly large task, but it’s better than waiting around for a politician to act.


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