What We Can Do About School Shootings When The Best Solution Isn’t Going to Happen

Over two centuries ago, Captain James Cook observed a strange phenomenon that would eventually become little more than a forgotten footnote in the annals of modern psychiatry. During his exploration of previously uncharted areas in the Pacific, he noticed that Malay tribesmen sometimes went on an unprovoked rampage, maiming and executing animals and villagers.

The attacks came to be known as “running amok” from the Malay word mengamok, which means to make a furious and desperate charge. They involved an average of ten victims and ended only when the attacker was subdued or “put down” by fellow tribesmen.

According to Malay mythology, running amok was an involuntary behavior that came upon a person when the evil tiger spirit entered that person’s body and led to the uncontrollable rampage. But running amok wasn’t limited to Malay culture. Following Captain Cook’s observations, psychiatric researchers observed amok in primitive tribes located in the Philippines, Laos, Papua New Guinea and Puerto Rico.

Over the next two centuries, interest waned and decreasing incidences of the phenomenon in tribal communities were attributed to the encroachment of Western Civilization. Amok came to be seen as a product of cultural isolation and spiritual beliefs.

This view of amok as a rare culture-bound syndrome began to unravel when psychiatrists noted that contemporary descriptions of multiple homicides by individuals were similar to the sudden, violent and unprovoked attacks described by Captain Cook.

Dr. Manuel L. Saint Martin, writing in The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, cited reports that amok behavior existed in all countries, differing only in methods and weapons used in the attacks. He went on to write that amok should be viewed as one possible outcome of an individual’s undiagnosed and/or untreated psychiatric condition.

Violent video games, social isolation due to social media, bullying, bad parenting, proliferation of guns, lack of spiritual direction, medicating students for social and behavioral reasons, a culture that devalues life; all have been cited at one time or another as reasons for the increasing frequency of school shootings.

But just as no conclusion was ever reached for the underlying cause of amok behavior in isolated tribal societies, we might never agree on the root cause that is fueling current mass shootings. Instead, we need to focus on protecting our children and our teachers. We have to become pragmatic rather than idealistic if we want to turn the tide that threatens to wash away our security and freedom.

The Gun Control Dilemma

The first subject that always comes up for debate after every horrific mass shooting is gun control. Both sides arrive at the discussion armed with their own data to prove that gun control does or doesn’t work to curb violence, and both sides make valid points.

Proponents of unlimited access to guns point out that our second amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms. Some governments that have stripped their citizens of any means of self defense have gone on to commit atrocities, including genocide, against their own defenseless citizens.

The two best-known examples are the Soviet Union and Germany. In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control, and from 1929–1953, 20 million dissidents were rounded up and murdered. In 1938 Germany established gun control, and from 1938–1945, 13 million Jews and others were rounded up and exterminated.

Self-defense is a valid and necessary reason for owning a firearm, gun advocates argue. “It’s not guns that kill people, but people that kill people,” they rightly conclude.

Another popular argument is that criminals will be the only ones with guns if gun control is enacted. Heroin addicts still use heroin even though it’s illegal, and murderers will still use guns even if guns are illegal, the reasoning goes. Bad guys don’t follow the law.

But even taking into account the validity of these arguments, we need to look at the other side of the equation. Gun violence increases statistically as the number of guns in a country increases. Conversely, a decrease in the number of guns corresponds with a decrease in gun violence.

Researchers around the country reviewed more than 130 studies from 10 countries on gun control. Findings consistently showed that the simultaneous implementation of laws targeting multiple firearms and increasing restrictions on ownership are associated with reductions in firearms deaths.

Twenty-two years ago, following the deadliest mass shooting in Australia’s history, Australia passed sweeping gun legislation that effectively ended mass shootings and dramatically reduced gun violence nationwide. The Prime Minister at that time, John Howard, said, “I would dread the thought that this country would go down the American path so far as possession of firearms.”

Australia banned some types of guns, set up a registry for all firearms owned around the country and required a permit for all new purchases. The new law called for a massive mandatory gun buyback with 700,000 firearms confiscated and destroyed.

Switzerland is frequently cited as a country with liberal gun laws similar to those in the United States but with low rates of gun violence. But in citing Switzerland, we also need to consider the fact that gun ownership there is still substantially lower than in America; one gun per four people, compared to approximately one per person in the U.S.

Another important thing to consider is that Swiss authorities have a list of about 2,000 individuals they suspect of being willing to commit shootings. These “suspects” are frequently approached by authorities and forced to hand over their weapons or barred from purchasing new ones.

Compare Switzerland’s approach to “suspicious” gun owners with our government’s approach to Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz, who obtained at least 10 firearms in the past year or so, according to law enforcement. Cruz bought weapons legally, despite a history of encounters with the police, threats on social media and mental health issues.

Protecting the right of an individual like Nikolas Cruz to purchase firearms as opposed to putting measures in place that could potentially save lives seems absurd.

Individual Rights Versus Common Sense

An example of individual rights hampering a common-sense approach to protection of society as a whole is FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act).

This federal law was passed in 1974 with the best of intentions but has had unintended consequences. Enacted to protect private educational records of students from unauthorized parties, FERPA now prevents teachers from gaining access to important information.

A high school teacher told me he discovered “by accident” that one of his students had been expelled from a previous school for bringing a handgun to class. This information was kept from the teacher by an administration fearful of violating FERPA laws. Teachers should have the right to be made aware of previous criminal or violent behavior in the students they teach.

Because of a focus on individual rights and the threat of lawsuits, it’s harder to expel a student for misbehavior than you might think.

One teacher cited the example of a student who frequently disrupted class with threatening outbursts such as, “Fuck! Shit! I’m going to plant a bomb and kill everybody here!” When this teacher approached school administrators, she was told the student suffered from mental health issues that resulted in his “not having a filter.”

“There is nothing we can do. The parents have threatened to sue if we don’t accommodate him,” an assistant principal informed the incredulous teacher.

Our second amendment rights and our emphasis on individual civil liberties pose a conundrum. How can we retain our rights and still address the issue of school violence?

I believe the best and probably only way to move forward through this contentious political minefield is to keep gun ownership legal, but significantly expand background checks and make it illegal to own an automatic or semi-automatic assault weapon.

Background checks are already in place, but need to be expanded and made more restrictive to ensure that guns don’t fall into the hands of the mentally ill, criminals, children, or people with police records. Parents should be held accountable when children commit crimes with guns obtained from home.

Teachers should be informed when they have potentially dangerous students in their classroom, and they should be supported without fear of reprisal when they discipline or expel a student for unruly conduct.

The Mental Health Dilemma

In addition to gun control, we need to address the issue of mental illness. This subject is a double-edged sword, because medicines prescribed to treat mental conditions have also been purported to be a causative factor in gun violence.

Dr. Peter R. Breggin writes in his book Medication Madness about the dangers of mind-altering medications, citing numerous examples of children and adults he has seen during his years of psychiatric practice who have been “emotionally injured and sometimes driven mad by psychiatric medications, many committing horrific crimes.”

Dr. Breggin says, “Many people who take the drugs become desperately depressed and suicidal, violently aggressive or wildly out of control without realizing that their medication is causing them to think, to feel, and to act in unusual and otherwise abhorrent ways.”

The list of mass shooters taking psychiatric drugs is too long to include in this article, but a few of them are:

Columbine shooter Eric Harris, 17, who was first on Zoloft and then Luvox.

Jeff Weise, 16, prescribed 60 mg a day of Prozac, shot his grandfather’s girlfriend and held fellow students hostage in Red Lake, Minnesota.

Kip Kenkel, 15, was on Prozac and Ritalin when he shot his parents while they slept, then went to school and killed two classmates.

Matti Saari, 22, shot and killed nine students and a teacher while taking a benzodiazapine.

Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza had been on multiple antidepressants with reports of adverse reactions, according to police reports.

Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz is reported to have been on psychiatric medication.

An Esquire article by Ryan D’Gostino titled The Drugging of the American Boy points to the one in seven chance that a boy will be diagnosed with ADHD, with the high likelihood of being prescribed a stimulant such as Ritalin or Adderall to deal with the psychiatric condition. According to the manufacturers of ADHD stimulants, they can bring on a bipolar condition in a child who didn’t exhibit any symptoms of the disorder before taking the stimulants.

Dr. Breggin recommends that physicians, healthcare professionals, patients, and their families become more aware of how psychiatric drugs impact the mind. They also need to be able to recognize the early symptoms of mania and depression, especially when a psychiatric drug is started or the dose is changed.

Dr. Breggin says, “We must take into account the harm done to cultural values and to society by the widespread use of psychiatric drugs. Instead of encouraging children and adults to take responsibility for their lives and to learn to manage their emotions in productive ways, we are creating a generation of drug consumers who have no idea how to live with a clear brain and mind, and how to improve their lives through self-understanding, personal responsibility, principled living, and higher ideals.”

There are no perfect solutions to navigating the precarious shoals of recognizing and treating mental illness, but we could make sure parents are educated about which danger signs to look for during drug treatment; push to have talk-based treatment (psychotherapy) covered by insurance as readily as pill-based treatment; and make pharmaceutical companies more liable when adverse drug reactions are implicated in suicidal or violent behavior.

Another Bad but Best Solution

Gun ownership restrictions, broader and better background checks, a common-sense approach to dealing with troublesome students, and greater awareness and accountability regarding psychiatric drugs; all these are approaches that involve muddling through our polarized political process and facing the probability of legal challenges.

We cannot, simply cannot, allow more of our school children to be murdered. The immediate solution is to place armed guards in our schools. Some people are recommending that our teachers be armed, but one teacher I talked with described two problems with this scenario. The first problem is, teachers are in the profession to teach students, not to shoot them. The second problem with arming teachers is that teachers are deeply embedded in the classroom, focused on teaching rather than roaming the halls to forestall a mass shooting.

Maybe just knowing that some teachers were armed would act as a deterrent to a potential mass murderer. But armed security would appear to be a better solution, given that their primary job would be protecting the school.

Are armed guards a bad solution? Yes, because of additional costs and because we dislike the idea of treating our schools as armed fortresses. Does more security work? Yes, and this is what makes it the best of bad solutions.

Increased airport security after 9/11 helped decrease the number of deadly terrorist attacks on airplanes. Celebrities and politicians hire bodyguards because bodyguards keep them safer. We should do no less for our children.

When deranged tribesmen in isolated tribal societies ran amok, they were stopped only when fellow tribesmen subdued them. Armed security in schools might be the only way to stop a deranged murderer bent on destruction. This might not be the best solution, but it could be the only one we’ve got for now.

Maybe if we enact sensible gun control legislation, insist on monitoring psychiatric drug use more carefully, give our teachers more control over student misbehavior and place an emphasis on protecting schools with additional security, we can stem the terrible tide of school shootings.

There is a Good Solution

I’ve touched on bad but necessary solutions to the epidemic of school violence. There’s also a good solution, but it would take a seismic shift in current culture; a transformation of hearts and minds.

We need to change our national character so that young people are imbued with a sense of their own self-worth and an appreciation for the value and worth of others. We need to create a culture that emphasizes respect, humility, kindness, compassion and unselfishness rather than a culture of conflict, isolation, materialism and selfishness.

If the hateful venom spewed anonymously on social media is any indication, we have a long way to go.

If our children are allowed to disrupt classrooms and disrespect teachers, we have a long way to go.

If civil discourse cannot take place among people with opposing political viewpoints, we have a long way to go.

If our own selfish interests are more important than modeling good character and spending time with our families, we have a long way to go.

If racial division and strife prevent us from seeing each other as we truly are; human beings trying to live and love in a difficult world, we have a long way to go.

If we can’t teach our children empathy and respect for others by exemplifying these traits in our own lives, we have a long way to go.

Having a long way to go doesn’t mean transformation can’t take place. Change begins within, and it begins with each of us. We can live and teach the importance of kindness, compassion and empathy; the truth that every life has value and potential. We can be loyal and loving in our own families and concerned about the welfare of others.

With this sort of cultural transformation, school shootings would become a forgotten footnote in the annals of psychiatry. There would be no more need for a debate about bad solutions.

Writer, editor, publisher, journalist, author, columnist, believer in enjoying my journey and helping other people enjoy theirs. bknicholson@att.net

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