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Wednesday, Mar 12 2014 02:00 PM

BRIK McDILL: Focus should be on person, not guns, in killings

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Contributing columnist Brik McDill.

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BY BRIK MCDILL Contributing columnist

Will it ever end? Truth be told, no. Gun violence probably won't get any less frequent, and certainly not because a mania of tighter purchase and gun design laws is going to do anything about it.

As described in earlier editorials, laws recently passed are unrelated to anything that would have hindered any mass shooter from obtaining a weapon and doing violence with it. Most mass shooters plan on dying in the process of their rampage anyway. And virtually all have a history of mental illness, which makes their rampage an expression of their mental illness and not something that can be controlled by better gun laws.

As guardedly good as psychiatry has become in managing the symptoms of mental illness through medication, no one yet has managed to control any symptoms by passing gun laws. Moreover, psychiatric histories cannot be unsealed for the sake of placing anyone's name on a gun purchase prevention registry. A person's psychiatric history is wrapped within layer upon layer of privacy such that it is impossible to have that history be made part of a gun-buying prohibition portfolio of names.

A recent editorial by Dana Milbank (Jan. 30, 2014) decrying America's "numbness" toward gun violence misconceives the problem. America is the opposite of numb; we are in agony over what is happening. Every gun wielded with such fatal effect is easily obtained despite a virtual firewall of well-intentioned -- yet clumsy -- laws and buyer and seller and gun design regulations. The slowdown in legislative momentum is not because we're numb. It's because we're bright enough to know we've done as much as can be reasonably done to keep guns out of disturbed embittered hands. No one yet seems to have connected the dots between the problem and its tried and true solution. Move forward from here with more laws and we pass the point of what's rational into the land of wasteful, useless overkill.

We are a gun-owning people. Always have been; always will be. Nothing wrong with that. As a recent letter writer so adroitly put it: he stood his gun by the door, and a month later it hadn't shot anyone. Others have insightfully rightly argued that blaming guns for violence is like blaming silverware for obesity. The problem lies in the person, not the instrument.

The person is where our focus should be.

Let's break it down.

Do we find common denominators? Yes. But for now let's set aside slaughters for religious reasons, which we've had since the dawn of religion itself. First there's gender. All mass shooters have been male. Nothing we can do about that. Keep guns away from men? Really? They've all used a gun of some sort. Let's put that aside for a moment. They're young and still unformed. Something useful there. They've all been ready to die in their rampage. We're getting close to something meaningful: suicide by own hands or by cop (they seek complete and final escape from an intolerable situation). They all are driven by rage. Now we're onto something: rage. An uncontrollable fury that breaks through the bounds of containment with such explosive intensity it brings the killer himself into his own kill zone.

Now we have some handles: rage, youth, self-destructiveness and low impulse-control. We're getting somewhere. All shooters have been known by their extreme and painful estrangement from others. "He was a loner" or "loser." "He was a neighbor, but kept to himself." "No one really knew him." OK, more handles. He was at his "breaking point." Still more. It was carefully planned. Let's pause here. Carefully planned means many self-directed, calculated, fully mindful steps.

Most exhibited something odd in conduct, habits, interests, hobbies or appearance. More handles. Are we getting the picture? Clearly that picture encompasses a wide universe of members, the vast majority of whom, though odd, are harmless; but there's a tiny subset that bears watching.

The point is mass killings don't just happen. (And remember, as we are now seeing, more and more mass killings via methods having nothing to do with guns.) Pay close attention and you'll notice there's a lengthy prodrome of suggestive signs and symptoms. Mass killings are a product of identifiable cues and clues, and we need to tune into them.

The earlier the better.

"Bears close watching..." Important words. But what do they mean? Wherever you look, society shuns oddity. Painfully so. And much of that turns into wounded depression. And anger. And some of that turns into violence. That's the way depression is expressed in young men. Here's where we are getting close to some "what to do" strategies.

Early in the life-cycle of a mass killing is a series of festering emotional injuries. Depression in young men wears a variety of faces that can be recognized: social withdrawal, agitation and anger, emotional flatness (emotional deadness or over-control), seething resentment. And more. Teachers and coaches (and peers) are in a position to recognize some of them and do something. Schools and organized sports activities are locations where early warning signs can be spotted. Teachers and certain kinds of coaches can gently come alongside those who are hurting, or are misfits, or outcasts and check in with them. They can make mental note of who's not doing well by observing their students' activities in the best behavioral laboratories ever made -- classrooms and gymnasiums.

It can all be done discreetly and informally, without attention drawn or anything written or officially noted in the student's file. Young kids who are hurting can be comforted and upheld, encouraged, warmly treated. Their wounds and woundedness can be salved with kind words, inclusion and affection. None of this requires passing laws, establishing government programs, allocating monies. It doesn't cost a thing. It's about tenderness shown by the right person, to the right person, in the right way, at the right time.

Anyone can do it. Anytime. Anywhere.

Brik McDill, Ph.D. , is a community columnist whose work appears here every third Thursday. These are the opinions of McDill, not necessarily The Californian. Send email to him at bmcdill2@gmail.com.

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