A Downstream Addiction is keeping America’s Active Assailant/Shooter Phenomenon Untouched

Americans are traumatized by the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. As we should be.

Take a look at Tess Mata. She is one of the victims of this tragedy. Take a good look at her. Note the innocence shining through her sweet smile. Sit with her in your imagination.

Now ask yourself, “What can I do to help?”

I propose for your consideration that we all, collectively, have a responsibility to help future children like Tess not have to die as she did. Real future change, I propose, starts right here with you and me. Please don’t take that language of “It starts right here with you and me” as some kind of “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” No. Instead, I’m being very literal in that the change cannot be initiated by politicians, theoreticians, or others.

Now, we are questioning (again) everything about the most recent active assailant/shooter incident, asking, “How can this happen?”

Question: How does one stop a man with a gun?

Answer: One answer is, of course, shoot him. American law enforcement is great with this methodology. Just for the record, I’m not critical of this method. It would be stupid to be. A bullet to stop an active assailant/shooter in the act is often what is necessary at this point in the cycle of violence to stop him (almost always a him).

I am, however, critical of America still leaning on only the point of impact as the only place worthy of valuable intervention and transformation. I’m critical of America’s reliance on just this method (and a few others), as the sole means we should be leveraging to transform gun violence (with active assailants/shooters being just one variety) in America.

Another question: How do you stop a man with a gun 10 years from now, 100 years from now, or 7 generations from now?

Answer: Well, from this present moment, you seemingly can’t, as our bullets can’t fly into the future. And herein is where America finds herself. With this question and answer in mind, we look at our precious pistol or long rifle and realize, “I’m impotent to address this question, to answer it, with this tool. I’m impotent to influence future active assailants/shooters with this tool. I can very adequately address the one who is on the ground at this moment. But I have no power whatsoever with this firearm to influence any beneficial change (for instance, less recurrence) in the future.”

But is this really all we can do? Clearly, there must be more, but America is pretty well entrenched in her admittedly simplistic approach. Why do we continue to place the mitigation of gun crime and active assailants/shooters in the sole hands of law enforcement? Yes, in the full spectrum of the manifestation of gun crime, Law Enforcement is well suited to handle things near or at the point of impact. However, the full spectrum of violence includes way, way more than just focusing on the apogee of the manifestation. In other words, there are many opportunities, far more upstream, where intervention and transformation can also occur. Why can’t we get more sophisticated, applying long-term thinking, long-term planning, and long-term work, toward this public health issue? [Note: “Point-of-impact” means when the shooter is pulling the trigger. It is the finality of the cycle of violence where the shooter is pulling the trigger.]

It really is no shock that we’re approaching gun violence and active assailants/shooters in our shortsighted manner, treating the symptom, and giving far less attention to addressing the root of the issue. Most of American healthcare is still symptom-driven (take a pill, get back surgery, etc.), instead of dealing well with the root issues that cause or contribute to poor health in the first place. We can do better.

By the way, if you see this as an indictment of American society, it is. Look again at Tess, known by many as Tessy. We can do better. We have to do better. We have a responsibility to do better. But we’re blinded by a guns a ‘blazin fixation on taking care of matters almost entirely downstream near or at point of impact.

The question is, then: What needs to change?

Do police tactics need to change? Perhaps, in some cases. The recent Uvalde incident suggests that some agencies still have work to do.

Do gun laws need to change, knowing that any incremental change in making it even a tad more difficult to obtain firearms might add a little mitigative improvement? Absolutely. In this regard, the world is both laughing at America and crying for its victims of gun violence, since we’re standing still in this regard. If you wish to argue this point, go to the data. Argue with it, not me.

Would more Police in schools help? It certainly would if a shooter chooses to come to a school with an armed Police Officer present.

Would ever more improved access control at schools help? Yes, we all know it would help.

Would even more improved monitoring of social media accounts help. Certainly, as long as there are reliable processes built to address monitoring and response. Absolutely.

Would continued training in both civilian and law enforcement active assailant/shooter response training help? Absolutely.

Question: What do all of these answers have in common?

Answer: They are all responses well downstream in the cycle of violence, with almost exclusive focus on near-impact or point-of-impact. By this point, downstream, these are often what it is with which we’re left. We have to use these methods. Leave something unattended to long enough, and you end up with an emergency, whether it’s heart disease or an active assailant/shooter.

It is the upstream points of intervention and transformation in the cycles of violence to which I propose most of America is blind and/or way under-leveraging. It is also upstream work that can do what a pistol or long rifle cannot do (remember the aforementioned impotence).

Read this valuable article, entitled The Epidemic of Mass Shootings Is Neither Inevitable Nor Unsolvable, in which author Mark Follman highlights that:

Mass shootings can be prevented. In fact, it happens with regularity at the hands of threat assessment teams. They work to intervene constructively with troubled people, often after someone in the orbit of those people becomes worried by their behavior and reaches out for help. The method relies to a great extent on community awareness…

Follman goes on to describe some unhelpful myths surrounding active assailant/shooter incidents, including:

  1. …that mental illness is fundamentally to blame for these massacres.”
  2. Another major falsehood is continually reinforced through news reporting that quotes people who knew or came in contact with a shooter: ‘I never thought he could do something like this,’ and, ‘No one could’ve seen this coming.’ In many cases, nothing could be further from the truth. In the scores of threat investigations and mass shootings I studied, every case subject showed a mix of identifiable warning signs.”

Read Follman’s valuable article in which he concludes by sharing:

Diminishing this American nightmare is going to take many different forms of action: continuing a relentless, long-term effort to strengthen our nation’s gun laws. Quashing a surge in violent political extremism. Investing in a lacking mental health care system. And building community-based violence prevention programs.”

Follman’s article focuses a great deal on how high-quality threat assessment can help curtail shootings. It is valuable work!

This is upstream work and it must continue. However, we must not be tricked into thinking this is as far upstream as we can and ought to work. We can go further upstream.

Now read this valuable article, authored by Jens Ludwig, entitled Opinion: The surprising solution to gun violence.

In this article, which I propose takes us even further upstream, we read:

Today, as gun violence is surging in American cities, we see growing concern about what, if anything, can be done. For 50 years, America’s policies were motivated by the idea that bad behavior is caused by bad people, which led to calls to be ‘tough on crime,’ which in turn led to the construction of the largest prison system in the world.

Those policies left us with a homicide rate that is still higher than that of any other rich country while exacting a ruinous cost to society…”

The author proceeds to explain that there is far more to the picture than simply identifying so-called “bad” people. This echoes the insights of Philip G Zimbardo, author of the highly recommended “The Lucifer Effect,” who makes a compelling case that: “If you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.” We know this well in leadership that a toxic workplace can change the behaviors of otherwise great-performing Team Members. Similar dynamics in society should not be left unexamined.

There are, of course, root causes that deserve attention. Ludwig acknowledges those such as “poverty, segregation or widespread availability of guns to people who shouldn’t have them.” But, there is more.

He goes on to describe intriguing studies that highlight that we have “an arguments-with-guns problem.” I won’t steal the thunder of Ludwig in the article. If you care about America, the world, its people, and little ones like Tess, however, I ask that you read this article. The research is intriguing and valuable.

Behavioral Science is shedding more and more valuable light on understanding more precisely why people do the many things they do. This includes criminal behavior.

Ludwig shares:

The key lesson is that criminal behavior is not fundamentally different from human behavior. Teens in affluent neighborhoods with lower instances of street violence are no more moral or thoughtful than teens anywhere else; it’s that their lives demand less deliberate thinking to navigate because their situations are more forgiving.”

So how does this relate to reducing gun violence? Ludwig does a notable job of describing how most gun violence is not how it’s popularly understood and depicted in movies (and we know Americans love movies). Instead, much of it has to do with seemingly complex (but not really) circumstances related to interpersonal relationships, communications skills, and human nature.

Ludwig describes approaches, informed by Behavioral Science (science matters) that contribute to “violence interruption” methodologies that are worth further research and action (all of which should occur NOW). Interestingly, studies strongly support that something as straightforward as teaching people Conflict Communication (aka: De-Escalation) and Conflict Management, so that they have the tools to navigate through difficult situations, is especially helpful, particularly in difficult situations where a gun may be around.

Dr. George Thompson, the creator of Verbal Judo, enthusiastically taught that “By truly believing and advocating the philosophy of respect for others, we can maintain our tactical position even in adversarial situations, while allowing others to disagree and keep their dignity. Verbal Judo strategies and tactics can help in so many ways to turn reactionary situations into winning situations. History classes are full of accounts of wars caused by the desire for land and resources, but many times these wars have been fought over simple disrespect. With anger becoming a new type of danger, the ability to speak calmly and persuasively has never been more necessary than now.” [From Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, Updated Edition]

Amazing, isn’t it, that Dr. Thompson perceived early on that teaching people to communicate more calmly, with some time-tested strategies, makes for more peace between individuals, nations, you name it.

Ludwig’s article points to actionable work that is even further upstream than the high-quality threat assessment work highlighted in Follman’s article. Getting further and further upstream is fruitful work that can do what no firearm can do. Interestingly, note that, as we get further upstream, the professionals involved in this work become less centered in a Law Enforcement-centric discipline. Collaborative, inter-disciplinary work is not just useful for corporate America. Having a diverse variety of minds in the think tank is how one solves seemingly complicated problems.

I share the above thoughts to highlight that most, if not all, of America’s so-called strategies to curtail gun violence and active assailants/shooters are downstream either near the point of impact (e.g, perhaps an hour before when something is posted on social media or a few minutes before when a well-functioning door-locking mechanism slows or stops the shooter) or at the point of impact (i.e., the shooting incident). We can, should, and must, however, do better than this. Follman’s and Ludwig’s articles highlight a journey upstream and the work it can involve. It’s all valuable.

As Ludwig accurately highlights:

Solving these problems would seem to be — unfortunately — a long-term project.

It is indeed long-term work. It is work the fruits of which we who are alive now will not see in our lifetimes. It is also work that a firearm in the hands of a Law Enforcement officer (or even a “good guy” with a firearm) cannot do. Of course, this upstream is also work that would be ineffective near or at point of impact. Then it’s too late, and use of force is what is necessary to stop a shooter. The different points in the cycle of violence demand different interventions and transformations. And this is precisely why the active assailant/shooter phenomenon should NOT be nestled only in the arms of Law Enforcement. They certainly possess excellent skills in managing the situation downstream. This is where bullets come in. But upstream, no.

Each tool, each methodology, has a fitting place in the cycle of violence where other tools are unfitting. One doesn’t use a screwdriver to drive in a nail, just as one doesn’t hammer in a nail with a screwdriver. A tool belt with only one tool is insufficient to meet the demands of a complex job.

Note that, by the very use of the terminology that we’re using (i.e., “cycle of violence”), we silently contribute to a blind spot. It is no exaggeration at all, if you really wish to live in a sane society, that we can indeed go upstream to the point that we even strive to mitigate the creation of a cycle violence in the first place. In your imagination, think what might be the very first thing in a boy’s life, the very first thing, that might initiate a so-called cycle of violence. Think of that point, whatever it may be. That is valuable upstream work!

Here, going that far upstream, we are talking about nothing less than a transformation of the parenting and upbringing of American children, the rebooting of social conditions (this must take many forms), of the transformation of the American collective character (in which we all participate in some manner, embodying it in our own life). This is nothing less than social (re)engineering to manage social change and regulate the future development and behavior of a society. We are aiming for better social outcomes.

Are you willing to go this far upstream to do the admittedly hard work of remaking society?

Do you believe it can be done?

Have you lost hope and are, therefore, just leaving a big hot mess with which your children and all future generations must deal?

It’s upstream work that I’m arguing must be initiated so that we can, literally, in the future (when you and I are not even alive), have less gun violence (active assailants/shooters are one example) because we will have less boys/men around who even wish to commit such heinous acts in the first place.

See these further posts on the conspicuous absence of upstream work and its vital necessity.


We need the involvement (suggested throughout the cited articles) of many other disciplines, the science in them being far more fitting to help adjust (long-term) outcomes in American society. We must begin steering the ship of America in a healthier direction. And we cannot do that by myopically remaining focused almost entirely on near impact or point of impact interventions. Upstream work transcends the disciplinary expertise of just one profession. We thus must be coming at this issue from a multi-disciplinary lens.

We must examine better how violence is not simply one point in time, but rather a cycle with many opportunities of intervention and transformation, from the very beginning to the very end. Each requires its own sophisticated approach.

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” ~ Horace Mann


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s