Tuesday, March 27, 2018

On School Shootings

On School Shootings:
America’s Heartfelt Reaction and the Search for Solutions

On February 14, 2018, fifteen students and two school staff members at a high school in Parkland, Florida were killed in a mass shooting. Saddened by the loss of fifteen youth whose lives were cut short, Americans were also justifiably angered and frustrated by the increase in frequency of such attacks. In the weeks following the attack, massive student-led protests called for new gun control legislation in response. The movement’s common mantra, “never again,” focused on stricter gun controls to prevent a recurrence of such a horrible event. Student spokespersons suggested that any legislator who didn’t meet their demands for stricter gun control would be replaced in the next elections. Some among the protesters quickly latched onto a scapegoat and carried signs that read, “Kill the NRA!” Media provided extensive coverage and support for the movement.

But will this movement produce the correct answer to the prevention of school shootings?

1.  Risk Assessment
Attempts to solve social problems through legislation often result in the redirection of governmental resources from one activity to another, thereby creating winners and losers. In many cases legislation can impose limitations on certain freedoms or even restrict civil liberties. So a good starting point is evaluating the magnitude of the problem in comparison to other societal concerns. How do school shooting fatalities compare to other tragic and unexpected loss of life?

Over the past six years, 138 people have died as a result of school shootings, or an average of 23 deaths per year. (This is a significant increase over the prior 32 years in which 297 people were killed, or an average of 9.2 per year.) To those affected, the loss is incalculable. But how significant is the absolute threat to American safety? Consider the following approximate annual fatalities – all incalculable to those affected.

Lightning strike           27 deaths
Bicycle crashes            1,000 deaths (and 467,000 injuries requiring medical attention)
Drowning                    3,800 deaths
Distracted driving       3,500 deaths
Drug-related crashes   5,900 deaths
Alcohol-related auto   12,300 deaths
Drug overdose                        64,000 deaths

Or consider this: in 2015 the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research estimated that in the prior 20 years, about 12 high school football players died each year from injuries ranging from broken necks, to cardiac failure, to heat-related causes. That’s half as many as killed in school shootings.

The point is not to downplay any cause of preventable deaths, but to raise the question of when to take legislative action, and to what extent.

2.      Unfamiliarity breeds fear. Knowledge builds understanding.
Generally, those who most fear the impact of guns in American Society are those who know the least about firearms. That should not come as a surprise. Unfamiliarity of any subject is a prime ingredient to fear and mistrust. When a new ethnic population rises in America, be that Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, or Hmong immigrants seeking refuge from reprisals in Southeast Asia, or Hispanic immigrants seeking a better life, the unfamiliarity creates fear and mistrust from those already here. When geo-political disagreements arise, as with Russia’s attempts to regain global significance, we quickly demonize an entire nation of people with whom we are virtually identical. At the outbreak of World War II, public fear of unknown motives quickly led to the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent. With every new invention, from steam power, to electricity, to artificial intelligence, those unfamiliar with the technology fear catastrophic consequences. Fear of snakes, fear of the dark, fear of going in the water, fear of flying, are all alleviated to some extent through familiarization therapies.

Most of those today who want to see guns banned or restricted have never invested the time to learn about them, to understand their contribution to a free society, and to develop some basic proficiency in their use and handling. Dealing effectively with problems in any aspect of life, requires knowledge and experience in the subject. Making informed decisions on the constitution’s 2nd amendment requires some knowledge and experience.

3.  To solve a problem, it must first be properly identified. Only then will root cause analysis lead to the right solutions.
There are enormous pressures to exploit the Parkland school shooting to advance a political agenda – that of gun control. Thus many frame the problem as “gun violence” which automatically presumes a solution. Unfortunately, that solution is unlikely to end mass casualties in schools, because it misses the real problem. For most of America’s history, guns have been found in and around schools, sometimes even as part of the curriculum or extracurricular activities. Why has the incidence of mass school shootings only begun to accelerate in the past few decades?

At the core of every school shooting, or every act of workplace violence, or every act of domestic violence, are people who are so distraught that they want to lash out and hurt others. Shouldn’t the problem definition center on knowing and correcting what drives an individual to such a state that they want to kill others? If we start with that position as the core of the problem, we can analyze downstream actions. Who does the person want to hurt? Is it family members, co-workers, school mates? Is it people with certain beliefs or values, certain ethnic groups, or random Society? How, where, and when is the hurt to occur? Is it planned – requiring forethought and preparation, or is it spontaneous reaction to some stimuli? What is the tool of choice (gun, explosive, knife, vehicle, etc.)? What is the means of execution? Looking upstream, we can investigate what caused the distress, why the individual chose to respond with violence, and what kinds of interventions would have resolved the distress. This kind of thorough examination will allow us to identify: (1) upstream strategies to prevent destablizing distress in the first place, (2) downstream strategies to defend against the possible violent options, (3) cost-benefit analysis of preventive and defensive measures, and (4) potential unintended consequences of various measures.

We have been trained from young on to think in a linear fashion, i.e. cause-effect. But every outcome in life is influenced by a complex array of systemic factors. We are easily frustrated by such complexity and instead seek out black-and-white, quick and easy answers to our problems. Finding a scapegoat, then pinning the blame on one person or thing, is a much more palatable way to respond to a problem. Besides, blame deflects our personal contribution to, and responsibility for, the problem. However, blame rarely, if ever, solves a real problem. Blaming guns for school shooting is easy. It’s simple. And it absolves us from facing the many ways in which we each contribute to the problem.

4.  Labeling gun control as “common” sense is actually “non” sense.
The phrase “common sense” is a highly poll-tested term effective at building support for ones views. Why do you think it’s so often used by politicians? But slapping that label on ones viewpoint doesn’t make the view prudent or beneficial.

Given the complexity of the problem as outlined in Section 3 above, specific changes to gun laws might ultimately be identified as reasonable measures to affect downstream defensive strategies. But those would need to come after the analysis, and be carefully crafted and targeted to achieve a well-defined purpose. Broad, proposed reactionary measures like banning a certain model of rifle, or limiting magazine capacity have no bearing on preventing the incidence or magnitude of future school shootings. What they do accomplish is the imposition of one ideology on a whole segment of the population that has little or no impact on the problem. That kind of rash and irrational action creates intense polarization within Society, and reduces the ability of people with differing views to work collaboratively towards good solutions. In extreme situations, government restriction of individual liberties historically leads to police states, oppression, insurrection, and eventual anarchy. Founders of our nation understood that very clearly. And world history is replete with lessons from other failed nations. There are typically plenty of positive, collaborative steps that can be taken to solve any problem without resorting to divisive actions.

5.  How do we solve the real problem of violence?
The kinds of problems that lead to school shootings cannot be solved if driven by national political agendas, or media sensationalism. They must begin with sincere people coming together at a grass roots level to begin understanding the upstream and downstream factors in a properly-defined problem. Real solutions will require the willingness to eschew the blame game and simplistic thinking, and delve instead into the complex, systemic factors that coalesce into such tragic outcomes. Real solutions will also require the willingness to gaze into the mirror to see and acknowledge the ways in which we as individuals contribute to the problem. Finally we must place accountability not on a scapegoat, but on the individual actions of everyone and every factor driving the systemic outcome.

What might that look like?
·         Teens must understand how their actions contribute to the violence of others, and must correct their inciting behaviors.
·         Families must understand the importance of building open communication among themselves, and learn effective techniques to do so.
·         Teachers must strive to recognize distress in their students, employ best interpersonal practices in their classroom, and refer concerns to the proper resources.
·         Districts must provide (or arrange for) timely access to needed counseling resources.
·         Districts must assess the security of their school buildings and take steps to minimize easy threat access.
·         Laws regulating the legal sale and ownership of firearms must be stringently enforced.
·         Inter-agency law enforcement must work collaboratively to investigate and resolve all threat referrals.
·         On site security personnel must be properly trained and committed to engage active threats
·         Media must recognize their role in creating overblown fear among the public, and promoting copy-cat behaviors in troubled individuals. Management must temper their network’s ratings-based sensationalism and politically-biased coverage.
·         Everyone must improve their tolerance toward, and compassion for, those whose views differ.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Switching Channels

The motivation behind almost anyone who writes an internet blog is the desire to communicate one’s thoughts, ideas, and opinions to others who chose to read those compositions. But since launching this site in May I have acquired several other outlets for my literary urges.

First, I am now writing a weekly opinion column for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, which more than amply imposes my personal viewpoints on a sufficient audience. Those few souls outside of Northeast Wisconsin who still thirst for my weekly bombastic musings can follow them online each Monday at www.greenbaypressgazette.com in the “Opinion” section.

Second, I’ve just released my book Who’s to Blame? – Living along society’s “fault” line. Therein lies the summation of my lifelong inquiry into why we are addicted to the blame game, the costs of participation, and how we can quit the habit. I sincerely believe anyone who reads this book will end up changing their life for the better. You can find the book at www.whostoblame.net.

Third, I’ve set up a Facebook page “Who’s to Blame?” wherein I hope to foster interactive discussion about blame. Ideally, those willing to share experiences in which they’ve been blamed can help everyone else learn about how to deal with blame. To the extent that venue generates strong lessons I will likely post those stories back onto this blog with attendant commentary.

So I’d like to temporarily sign-off this communication channel for now with a sincere “thank you” for the time you’ve committed to reading its contents. Any resurrection of this blog will be announced on the related Facebook page. Meanwhile, I hope you will follow along on one of these other venues, and help wean Society off the blame habit.

Friday, September 24, 2010

My pledge to you...

This week GOP leadership in the House of Representatives produced a 21-page document they call the Pledge to America. I downloaded the document and took the time to read through it. This move is obviously politically motivated. (All concerted actions by either party are politically motivated.) Predictably, the document is full of patriotic euphemisms, political rhetoric, and vague statements. But it does commit its authors to a set of beliefs and even some specific legislative actions.

As you’d expect, Democratic critics immediately denounced the entire document with a bunch of their own vague, evasive rhetoric. But of more interest and significance, a number of right-wing political pundits jumped all over the pledge wondering why Republicans would want to pigeon-hole themselves into specific future direction. Their logic is that by focusing on what the Democrats are doing wrong (in the economy, border security, foreign policy, and ignoring voters) they will win seats in the coming congressional elections. If Republicans state what they will do, then the Democrats will be able to shift the focus away from their own deficiencies and simply rip holes in the Republican strategy, maybe preserving seats in the process.


Probably no other institution in our society thrives so intensely on blame as our two-party political system. By the time John Adams faced off with Thomas Jefferson in the first Presidential campaign, political strategists began to realize that blaming the other party for national problems was the key to winning votes.

This current GOP strategy of a “Pledge to America” may, or may not, be smart political theory. Its framers obviously believe it will garner favor with voters as did the Republican “Contract with America” a generation ago. But conventional political advisors worry that it takes on accountability and surrenders their attack opportunity. This is an interesting deviation from the norm. Blame (which is the tried and true strategy) is an abdication of responsibility. This pledge lays out in writing, for all to see, the GOP commitments. It will be tough to deny these statements two years from now if they are not achieved, or if they produce poor results.

Whether you consider yourself a liberal or conservative, I think this sort of pledge is exactly what we need from any party. It gives us, the voters, a specification of what we can expect from that party. We get to evaluate those promises, then vote the direction we believe will take us in the right direction – sort of like when you compare bids on two different contractors to re-do your bathroom. We also get a subsequent basis for accountability two years down the road. Did we get what we paid for? Would we hire them again?

Our democracy has survived for over 200 years with the blame game being the dominant political mantra. So, maybe it will survive another 200 years using the same techniques. But wouldn’t you sooner evaluate a few written proposals than watch months of grotesque, mud-slinging, attack ads on television?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Step Right Up

Last Tuesday, primary elections were held in many states around the country. On average, about 25% of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots. What prevented the other three out of every four people from bothering to vote? I’m sure some couldn’t find the extra 5 minutes in their pre-work or after-work schedules. I’m sure some didn’t want to go out in the rain. Some others probably completely forgot. Some likely didn’t have a clue who the candidates were. And then there were probably a bunch that just didn’t care.

On Saturday, parliamentary elections were held in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, in an attempt to disrupt the elections, made it clear that anyone who tried to vote was putting their life on the line. Polling places were bombed. Rockets were launched into civilian neighborhoods and city centers to scare people into staying in their homes. Yet, about 25% of Afghan citizens risked death to get to the polls and cast their vote.

Two points about this contrast really stand out for me. First, America is supposed to be the beacon of democracy in the world. We hold ourselves out as the example for others to follow, and we try to convert the rest of the world to our democratic ideals. But the ugly reality is that most Americans have lost their appreciation for what we have. We thump our chests about “land of the free” but quietly shirk the responsibilities that go along with that freedom. It’s much easier to simply whine about the country being headed “in the wrong direction” as survey polls often indicate, than to spend the time and effort learning about our candidates and issues, electing the most qualified ones, then guiding their actions through our feedback.

The second point is that those Americans who did not vote are probably most likely to be the ones complaining that they are somehow “disenfranchised” by our society. (That seems to be the popular banner of victimization today – is it not?) They are disgruntled that our government does not take adequate care of their special interest. Yet, they shirk the responsibility to organize around their interest and seek solutions to attaining whatever objective they desire. Whatever your level of agreement or disagreement with the ideals of America’s Tea Party movement, you have to admire their ambition in gathering like-minded people, defining their vision, and promoting political candidates who support that vision. That’s a lot tougher than sitting back and whining about being “disenfranchised.”

This truly is a nation of opportunity. But opportunity remains unattainable unless you are willing to mount the campaign to seize it. If you don’t take the time to get involved in our democracy, then don’t complain about the direction it takes.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who's in Charge Here?

Why do some people seem to be chronic “blamers” while other people accept the tough situations the world throws at them? Is it possible that those with a certain psychological profile exhibit a greater propensity towards blame? If so, a possible place to begin looking is within a concept called “locus of control.” Largely attributed to Julian Rotter’s work in the 1960’s, locus of control essentially means that some people view their experiences as a result of forces outside of themselves (an external locus of control) while other people believe that they control their own destiny (an internal locus of control). For example, one traveler (external locus of control) who just missed his airline flight might believe that the cause was due to the traffic jam on the way to the airport, the long lines at security, and the date being Friday the 13th. At the same time the other traveler (internal locus of control) who missed the same flight is saying to herself, “I knew I shouldn’t have hit the ‘snooze’ button on my alarm for the third time.”

Rotter proposed that we all lie somewhere along a continuum. Those at the “external” extreme believe that events occurring in their lives are largely beyond their influence, and that fate, or destiny, or the gods, or luck, determine what happens. Those at the “internal” extreme believe that events are primarily due to the actions they’ve taken to shape those outcomes. Most people do not lie at the extremes, but probably do have a tendency to lean one way or the other. (There are several fun and informative online surveys you can take - some free, some not - to determine your own locus of control.) Try the one at:

What might this have to do with blame? In general, those with an internal locus of control are less likely to blame others when things go wrong. They believe that their own actions have contributed to or shaped the current problem in some way and are quick to begin looking for how to change the situation instead of blaming. Those with an external locus of control are more likely to blame forces outside of themselves for the problem. They believe that some person or event is responsible for the problem and that they are merely the victims of circumstance.

Bert and Ernie were each recently issued speeding tickets while driving along a 4-lane boulevard in a commercial district. The speed zone was 25 miles-per-hour. They were both ticketed for going 40. Both were frustrated. However, Bert (an external) blamed the municipality for setting such a low speed limit on such a wide-open street; he blamed the officer for not considering the lack of other traffic at the time; he blamed the person whom he was driving to meet (if not for that appointment he wouldn’t have been there); and he blamed all the other speeding drivers who didn’t get ticketed. Ernie (an internal) said to himself, “Dang, I finally got caught.”

Next time you find yourself blaming someone else for your misfortune, think about whether you are feeling in charge of your destiny or feeling a victim of circumstance. Then, think about what you could have done to alter the situation.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Church Controversies and American History

Note: The post below was published in the Green Bay Press-Gazette. However, several key concepts were edited out. So here is the full, unedited version.

Today’s controversy surrounding the proposed mosque near ground zero has an interesting parallel dating back to colonial Boston. Most early Bostonian colonists were Puritans, having fled England to escape persecution by the Church of England. To emphasize the ideological canyon between themselves and Anglicans, Puritans called their places of worship “meeting houses” instead of “churches.” They also banned public Anglican worship within Boston. However, not every resident of Boston was Puritan. Royalists, who were typically appointees of King James II to various colonial positions, often remained faithful Anglicans. Naturally, they wanted their own place of worship.

By 1685 tensions between the Puritans and Anglican King reached a breaking point. The King revoked Massachusetts’ charter of self-governance, and installed a Royal Governor (Sir Edmond Andros) with full authority over the colony. Governor Andros quickly organized an Anglican congregation and demanded that Boston Puritans sell land from their first cemetery to the congregation for a church. The Puritans refused as the cemetery contained the remains of their first generation settlers and was thus considered sacred ground. Exercising his legal might, Andros used eminent domain to confiscate a portion of the cemetery, then dug up and moved the remains of those buried there.

A few years later, when King James was overthrown, Bostonians imprisoned Governor Andros, then, sent him back to England. But by then, the Anglican church had established itself and found acceptance within the community. Although the original wooden church was eventually replaced with a more elaborate granite structure, and the congregation evolved into America’s first Unitarian congregation, King’s Chapel, and its legacy, still remains a vibrant part of Boston’s community.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the lessons that can be learned from those who’ve gone before us. With each new crisis or controversy we face, there seems to be a relevant parallel in our not-too-distant past. Drawing from the story of King’s Chapel I’ve come to this conclusion:

Construction of this Muslim center is an important step in surfacing the underground debate about Islam in America. Visibility into the operations of this center will be unprecedented because of the publicity received. Why not allow its members to show us their true colors? We’ve been promised a multi-cultural center where all are welcome to come, learn, and share. Perhaps this becomes the place where an American brand of Islam takes root that publicly denounces Sharia, Jihad, oppression of women, stoning, and all the traits that run counter to American ideals. Evolution of other religions has pivoted on similar events. If this turns out to be true, then the “sensitivities of families of 9/11 victims” will have been unfounded – much as the paranoia towards Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. In this case we can score one for American-style freedom and the wisdom of our forefathers in creating the First Amendment.

If, on the other hand, this center becomes the breeding ground for radical elements of Islam, and anti-American sentiment, then Muslim credibility will have been seriously eroded, and we will need to begin debate on whether Islam is right for America.

Governor Andros, who defied colonial Boston, was disgraced and deported back to England. But the church once viewed as unacceptable to Bostonians has now become a celebrated part of its heritage. Let’s see what comes of the current project. This may be a defining moment for America, and for its Muslim community.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Not so fast!

This past Sunday eight people were killed and more than a dozen injured at an off-road race in California’s Mojave Desert. One of the competing trucks crested a hill, became airborne and lost control, then rolled into the crowd. Definitely a tragic Sunday for all involved. So, who’s to blame?

Let me be clear, I’m not asking, “Who’s to pay?” Lawyers will have a field day with this one, and damage awards will easily be in the tens of millions. Our tort system of legal liability dilutes our sense of personal responsibility, replaces it with a culture of victimization, and fuels blame for tragic incidents like this. Most likely those with the deepest pockets will pay, because that is the system of laws we have developed. But who is really responsible for the deaths and injuries?

The main players are: (1) The Bureau of Land Management who approved the race on federal property, (2) Mojave Desert Racing, who organized the event, and signed an agreement that they’d be “responsible for the safety of participants and spectators,” (3) Brett Sloppy, the driver, whose racing rules included “slowing to 15 mph when passing within 50 feet of any social group,” and (4) the hundreds of spectators, who ignored the 100-foot safety setbacks and stood within touching distance of the racing vehicles.

Watching the amateur video of the crash reveals this was a senseless tragedy. There was no evil terrorist intending to kill and maim people. Just typical human craziness. Off-road vehicles bouncing across desert terrain at high speed, combined with crowds pressing into the race course, seems like a recipe for disaster.

Seeing this, the event organizer likely sensed the risks. Calling off the race would have been the smart move. Why wasn’t it called? At the moment, that would not have been an easy decision. The promoter would have incurred the wrath of the racers, the spectators, and any live television coverage. And he would likely have faced personal financial losses in the six-figure range. Moreover, this type of situation had been occurring at many off-road races and had squeaked by without incident. Poor judgment – definitely. Contributory responsibility - certainly. But somewhat understandable.

The driver certainly knew that loss of control is common in such races. Why did he continue to push the limit when crowds were lined on both sides of his path? In the heat of competition race drivers tend to focus on one thing – winning. Slow down, even for a moment and you become the loser. Besides, other vehicles had passed through here in front of him. Poor judgment and contributory responsibility – definitely. But also understandable.

I really have to wonder, though, about the hundreds of spectators who willingly walked past the safety barriers and stood arm’s length from 2-ton chunks of iron hurtling past in uncontrollable conditions. Aren’t they ultimately responsible for their own demise? The lawyers seeking damages will portray these people as innocent victims. But if one ignores all sense of self-preservation is he still innocent? Doesn’t putting oneself into clear and present danger mean taking responsibility for the possible outcome? Certainly there was mob mentality at play: “Everyone else is doing it.” And I’m sure the adrenaline rush was extreme. But it seems that the spectators demonstrated no judgment at all, had the most immediate control over their own fate, and thus are ultimately responsible for the tragedy.

The Bureau of Land Management announced yesterday it would no longer permit this race in the future. In a world where we increasingly need to guard ourselves against liability for the dumb actions of others their decision is understandable.

If you take to the streets in the annual running of the bulls should you expect to blame the event organizers when you are gored by a bull? I suppose sooner or later that tradition will be eliminated as well. At one time or another we all seek thrills. And once in awhile we all do dumb things. Too bad we just can’t accept the outcome when it happens. I guess the option is to live in a totally padded, protected, and monitored world where all risks are systemically eliminated.