The Police Won’t Save Us: Confronting the Roots of Mass Shootings
Calls to increase police investigation of people with mental illnesses or extreme beliefs have grown louder in the wake of another tragedy. On July 4, a mass shooter in Highland Park, Illinois, killed seven and wounded dozens with an AR-15-style rifle. He purchased the weapon legally after passing the background checks required by “red flag” laws—despite having been previously detained for threatening to “kill everyone” in his family (WGAL, AOL, Reuters). Given his threats of violence and “disturbing” social media posts, “Americans are once again asking how the alleged shooter was able to fly under the radar” of law enforcement (Heavy, Raw Story). After repeated tragedies, many insist that politicians pass stronger red flag laws, help police stop the potentially violent before they act, and make sure unstable extremists can’t live, and purchase firearms, among us.
The man who murdered dozens in an Orlando gay nightclub had been “on the FBI’s radar” and investigated for ties to a suicide bomber (AP). The white supremacist killer in Buffalo legally purchased firearms after he wrote a school paper about murder/suicide (CNN). Robert Bowers posted virulently anti-Semitic content on social media for months before killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue (Yahoo!).
But when we’re thinking about solutions, there’s a real danger in only discussing how increased police powers and stronger red flag laws help police apprehend criminals before the fact. In practice, this is a demand for mass surveillance, arbitrary arrests, and unilateral restrictions on the civil liberties of those who haven’t yet committed crimes. This might seem like a small price to pay to prevent mass violence, but such practices are already used against marginalized communities—with devastating consequences.
Such policies are supported by conservatives and liberals alike. Far-right Congressman John Cornyn advocated arresting anyone investigated for terrorism in the last five years who attempts to buy a firearm, regardless of that investigation’s results (John Cornyn). But those considered extremists by the U.S. government include those struggling for justice. The subjects of terrorism investigations include Black Lives Matter protestors (The Intercept), a civil rights attorney (NPR), and hundreds of attendees at some of the country’s largest mosques (ACLU). An environmental justice activist will serve eight years as a terrorist because of nonviolent direct action against the catastrophic Dakota Access Pipeline (KX News).
Every mass shooting is a tragedy. It’s also true that police killed 20 times as many people as mass shooters last year (Statista, Statista). For police to be able to preemptively stop each of the 341 mass shooters in 2021, they would have had to surveil, arrest, and strip civil liberties from millions more (Insider). If recent history is any guide, the majority of those attacked would not be aspiring mass shooters but marginalized communities and progressive activists.
The U.S. culture of gun worship is rooted in white supremacy (NPR, The Guardian). But gun control efforts play out in systematically racist ways., as well. Those arrested under stricter gun control laws in New York were “almost all” Black men who kept a firearm for self-defense—despite the fact that white men are more likely to own guns (Slate).
Gun violence is a problem in the United States because of an abnormally high gun ownership rate. 42% of U.S. households own at least one firearm (Statista). There are 300 million guns in this country, but not even the most restrictive readings of the Second Amendment permit the complete disarmament of U.S. residents (Huffington Post). Even if such a thing were possible, it would be carried out by law enforcement agencies supplied with hundreds of millions of firearms of their own, together with the bayonets, military helicopters, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected tactical vehicles, and grenades they receive directly from the Pentagon—including school police departments (NPR).
There’s no magic wand we can wave to solve these problems, and if we did, it certainly wouldn’t involve on racist cops, courts, or prisons. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. 98% of mass shooters are male, meaning that trauma-informed schools and interrupting the toxic masculinity that hurts everyone, including young men themselves, can play an important role (NPR). Anti-fascist organizers and researchers are disrupting the far-right spaces that encourage “lone wolf” acts of fascist violence (Al Jazeera, Truthout). Communities of color are fighting gun violence in ways that don’t depend on the gun violence of over-policing. And because of the reality of gun ownership in the United States, marginalized communities are also organizing for collective self-defense (The Guardian, Salon, Vox).
Uncritical dependence on mass surveillance, over-policing, and red flag laws help police while often failing to actually prevent violence. And as even former FBI agents and directors argue, “We can’t have endless surveillance of our citizens” (PBS). Stopping right-wing radicalization, promoting self-defense, and confronting male violence are real interventions that can save lives today and tomorrow.
• There are demands for stronger policing to stop the next mass shooting before it happens.
• Over-policing and mass surveillance can’t eliminate incidents of violence, but they do have disproportionate effects on marginalized communities.
•Community self-defense and feminist and anti-fascist interventions can prevent mass shootings without police surveillance and violence.