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This past weekend: 13 mass shootings

COMMENTARY: Gun violence--how we begin to stop it

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Clint Van Zandt

Fredericksburg resident Clint Van Zandt is a retired FBI agent with extensive experience in hostage negotiation.

The tsunami of gun violence in America didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be corrected overnight. Bold actions such as repealing the Second Amendment are not within reach. That would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, followed by ratification by three-fourths of the states.

So what could we do to reduce the incidents of firearms violence, especially in our schools?

Here are 10 steps we can consider right now that could help to move our country in a safer direction. Many have additional suggestions.

  1. Raise the national age to purchase a firearm or ammunition to 21.
  2. View gun violence as a public health/mental health issue, and develop measures to deal with this significant challenge in America. (In one study, it was found that guns killed about as many people each year as sepsis, a life-threatening response to infection, but funding for gun violence research was about 0.7% of that for sepsis.)
  3. Teach verbal (non-violent) conflict resolution skills to children in grade school, while we work to reduce the influence of violent movies, TV shows, music and video games that serve to numb an individual’s view as to the value of a human life.
  4. Require a firearms safety course for every purchaser of a firearm.
  5. Limit firearms purchases to one per month with a 30-day waiting period to receive the weapon.
  6. Institute Red Flag laws across the country. This allows someone to be flagged as needing additional background scrutiny before acquiring a firearm, or, if deemed a significant threat to self or others, have firearms held by the court or another person or organization until the individual is no longer deemed a threat. (According to a study by the New York Times, in 57% of the shootings they studied, the shooter had issued a specific threat or was known to be potentially suicidal prior to the attack.)
  7. Elect prosecutors and judges who enforce current gun and violent-crime related laws, and who will incarcerate such offenders and not allow violent repeat offenders the opportunity to re-offend.
  8. Mandate a minimum five-year sentence for any firearm related crime in addition to the sentence for the crime itself.
  9. Require a deeper, so-called “comprehensive,” background check for any firearm purchaser, noting younger buyers are not likely to have as significant a criminal record, as their juvenile offenses may not be available in a routine check.
  10. Consider the deployment of armed security officers in all schools, noting, however, that there are about one million law enforcement officers in America, and schools K-12 could absorb a significant percentage of these currently available officers, plus consider our 6,000 colleges and universities.

It’s also true that we all must become more aware of possible threats and “if we see something, say something.”

While there is no cookie-cutter profile for a school shooter or mass murderer, there are many warning signs and trigger issues. These include:

• Access to firearms

• Threatening social media posts

• Inappropriate photos of an individual with a firearm

• Statements concerning self-harm or harm to others

• Expressions of hopelessness and helplessness

• School assignments or statements to others regarding potential violence

• Clues provided through an individual’s “psychological leakage” about problems he is having and things he might do.

Many shooters plan their murderous activities days to months in advance, and most potential school shooters, especially the young, can only hide their plans from those of us who are not looking.

For the 131,000 K-12 schools in America, identifying a potential student-at-risk shooter is particularly difficult right now.

Because of the appalling impact on education and socialization from our recent pandemic, school administrators report significant increases of students experiencing anxiety and depression, having trouble managing emotions, and displaying low self-esteem, any of which could contribute to some negative action by a school-shooter-to-be.

And while there is no perfect litmus test to accurately identify such a challenged individual, we must become better at reviewing the warning signs in our attempt to keep a firearm from an individual’s hands on the worst day of their lives.

What choice do we have but to try harder?

Clint Van Zandt—a Fredericksburg resident and retired FBI agent who was the bureau’s chief hostage negotiator, was a supervisor in the behavioral analysis unit, and was part of the analytical team that identified the Unabomber—looks at what we can do legislatively to address gun violence, and be more aware of potentially dangerous individuals.

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