In another it-can’t-happen-here community, a young man has taken the lives of many others, and then his own.
Elements of the story in Thousand Oaks are all too familiar. He was known to his neighbors and law enforcement to be deeply troubled. He was not prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms, though he had been evaluated earlier this year for the possibility of severe mental illness. He had a high-capacity ammunition magazine.
Familiar, yes, but it should not be the new normal.
We can prevent mass shootings. Adequate background checks can stop many high-risk persons from buying firearms, whether that risk is a prior history of violent crime, substance abuse or severe mental illness. Extending the prohibition on gun purchases to include misdemeanors such as assault and battery makes a clear difference.
Unfortunately, many background checks are inadequate. Information is not reported or is mishandled; legal ambiguities can make it difficult to know whether events are, in fact, prohibiting. And even where background checks are required, many people avoid them.
There is much work to do here. Programs such as California’s Armed and Prohibited Persons System can recover firearms from persons who purchased them legally, but then became prohibited from owning them. APPS has retrieved thousands of firearms without serious incident. Our group of researchers is evaluating its effect on risk for future violence.
Perhaps most relevant to the tragedy in Thousand Oaks are gun violence restraining orders. These court orders allow firearms to be temporarily seized from individuals in crisis. Thirteen states have enacted such policies, including eight just this year.
Among them is “pro-gun” Florida, scene of the Parkland school shooting. I am aware of two potential mass shootings in California that did not occur because these restraining orders prevented would-be shooters from acquiring firearms. These policies have great potential and should be more widely adopted, and they should be much better known in states where they exist.
There have been other hopeful developments. Physicians and other health professionals, with strong encouragement from many of their professional associations, are stepping up and making public commitments to discuss firearms with their patients, to offer counsel on how to store guns safely and to help authorities recover firearms in emergencies.
Because of mass shootings, we all have a personal stake in preventing firearm violence. Our children and our grandchildren are all at risk. Each of us must also understand that we might be the one person who, having seen something, says something.
And we must remember that our elected officials depend on us to guide them. It is our job to let them know that action to prevent firearm violence is on the must-do list.
America has a proud tradition of mobilizing in the face of crises that threaten public health and safety. We put smart people on the case to do scientific research, so that we can understand the crisis and the clearest paths to solutions. We tell our policymakers to implement those solutions, and we follow through to make sure that progress is made.
We have done this for motor vehicle deaths, heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS. We can do it for gun violence.
But really, “we” means you. If you haven’t already, make your own public commitment to do your part — whatever that means to you — to help protect our shared right to live safely.