A Killer Awakens
On the morning of Friday, November 27, 2015, the day after Thanksgiving, Robert Lewis Dear woke up in his RV parked on a rural plot of land he purchased in Park County, Colorado. It served as a makeshift homestead of sorts, a lonely redoubt in a bare valley between rolling mountains. It was a cold morning with a light snowfall gently falling from the overcast sky. We don’t know why, but he must have been thinking that today was the day when he would do something, but in what must have been an incoherent and irrational, jagged jumble of consciousness, he was about to do something terrible.
Dear made the 20-minute drive down the pass from Woodland Park to Colorado Springs and parked his car at a strip mall. At approximately 11:30 a.m., Dear loaded his long gun (we still don’t know what kind of gun) and began shooting people randomly in the parking lot. By reports, he had propane tanks that he attempted to explode by shooting at them, but was unsuccessful. He then entered the Planned Parenthood clinic near the shopping center to continue his insane murder spree. Dear fired at responding officers as they arrived on scene, prolonging the madness. He subsequently surrendered to law enforcement while inside the clinic, after it became clear he had a choice – give up or die.
When it was all over, Dear had murdered three people in cold blood, including Colorado Springs Police Officer Garrett Swasey, a 44-year old married father of two who was one of the first responders, Ke’Arre Stewart, a 29-year old Army veteran who served in the Iraq War and Jennifer Markovsky, a married 35-year old mother of two. Another nine people were wounded by Dear, including five officers and four civilians, all were reported in “good” condition.
An emotional chill colder than the outside 20 degree temperatures shuddered through Colorado as the full extent of the tragedy unfolded on television screens across the state and nation. Another mass shooting occurred in Colorado Springs, only four weeks after the Halloween murder spree in the same city. Why does our beautiful state seem to be plagued with such evil?
Almost as soon as the tragedy ended, it was clear that Dear ignited a political firestorm. Only four minutes after the gunman was apprehended, the left-wing online progressive advocacy group ProgressNow Colorado issued a statement blaming Republican politicians for inciting the killer to violence. Conservative and right-leaning pols and activists quickly responded in kind, claiming hypocrisy, pointing out the failure of left-wing groups to call out inflammatory rhetoric from the Black Lives Matter and other far-left protest groups. Apparently, this crisis was too good to waste, and it was uncanny how quickly the Left responded. Even now, the flames of partisan anger, hate and division lick their way skyward.
Lost in the vitriolic partisan bickering were the victims and the motive of the shooter. You see, to those who are hyper political, everything is, well, political. Yet, if politically motivated voices are all that we hear, then we lose sight of the bigger picture at our own peril.
But that is exactly what the far-left wants you to do – lose sight of the larger context of Dear’s murder spree and focus on their wedge issues of abortion and gun control, and to be fair Republicans would rather have you just dismiss the shooting as the random act of a lone madman and that we can’t do anything to prevent future insane spasms of violence.
Whatever you want to call the incident – the “Black Friday shooting,” the description favored by the Right or the “Planned Parenthood shooting” the moniker preferred by the Left – both descriptions are intended to posture and position a horrific crime in a way that sways the opinions of unaffiliated voters.
That’s the cynical view from the chair of a political consultant, but it misses the true nature of the situation and why now is the time for sober, open minds to elevate their perspective, otherwise more tragedies will happen. This particular murderous rampage has multiple layers of meaning and implication, and the political dimension is but one. We also have to take into account the human dimension if we are going to respond with positive change or just accept more of the same.
An Emerging Bloody Mosaic in America
The Colorado Springs mass murder at the Planned Parenthood clinic is but the latest incident in what is nothing less than a slow motion riot, in which each convulsion of violence serves to raise the threshold of action to greater numbers of bad actors that might not otherwise commit to murder to achieve personal notoriety. This theory was noted by Malcolm Gladwell in his October 19, 2015 piece in the The New Yorker, who described Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter’s threshold theory of how riots evolve, and applied it to how school shootings catch on.
In Granovetter’s threshold theory, now nearly 40 years old, each shooting raises the boiling point to reach those with higher thresholds of violence, making it more acceptable for people with higher thresholds of violence to join in. As people become desensitized to violence, it begets more of it.
It gets worse. As the temperature of violence rises, it reaches more people who would otherwise not join the fray. In other words, “…the longer a riot goes on, the less people who join it resemble the people who started it.” Put another way, the more mass shootings that occur, the more that others will believe they are acceptable and unless the shootings are stopped, then we should expect them to continue and even increase in frequency until the threshold reaches such a level that cannot be sustained by ordinary people of conscience.
As Gladwell wrote, Harris and Klebold in the Columbine massacre laid down the cultural script for future school mass shooters to emulate. Their names are frequently invoked by young copycat killers. By this logic, it may be that Dear was attempting to emulate Scott Roeder, who in 2009 murdered Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who provided abortions in Wichita, Kansas. Roeder had a history of psychiatric problems, and his crime is condemned by all people of conscience, regardless of their political leanings or personal views on abortion.
The Planned Parenthood shooting is but one violent tile in a bloody mosaic revealing itself in America, and the picture is looking increasingly grim.
Unfortunately, if we limit our perspective to politics, abortion rights, gun control or some other motivating issue for a political party’s base, then the riot will continue to play itself out for several more years, or even a decade, until we address the root cause in a way that honors American cultural values.
As I wrote in 2013, whether a mass shooting occurred at a school, workplace, church, theater, military facility, healthcare clinic or shopping mall – all places where these attacks have happened – they all lie at the nexus of guns and mental illness.
The Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs is not unique, and to those who know Robert Dear, although they are few in number because he apparently largely kept to himself, it was clear that something was wrong with him. At this time, we cannot say exactly what his diagnosis is because the investigation is ongoing, however, it is safe to say that that he is suffering from some sort of mental illness based on reports of his previous interactions with law enforcement and neighbors. Officially, Park County voter records show that Dear registered himself as “Unaffiliated,” neither a Republican nor Democrat.
The Left was quick to blame the venomous rhetoric employed by some of the most extreme anti-abortion activists, because they so desperately want to hang the albatross of “domestic terrorism” around the necks of the entire Republican Party in a guilt by association smear. That the Left is avoiding the contribution of mental illness to the violence is both unfortunate and dangerous. In their binary world of “guns bad, no-guns good,” mental illness simply does not enter the equation.
In a “press event” held on the steps of the Colorado capitol in Denver on Tuesday, December 1, 2015, far-left progressive activists from ProgressNow and NARAL mentioned that the Planned Parenthood mass shooting, like others, was committed by “…white men suffering from mental illness.” They then quickly jumped into standard left-wing talking points and the reflexive prescription of gun control. Not once did they mention the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of Colorado’s new gun control laws that they helped push through the Colorado Assembly in 2013 on a partisan basis.
My friend Richard Turnquist wrote a piece, Black Friday, describing how both the left and the right have used inflammatory rhetoric for political posturing, and we cannot ignore how extremist language contributes to a culture that reduces the threshold for violence.
That said, the Left wants to make this a fight about abortion and Planned Parenthood, an organization that is desperately attempting to rehabilitate its image, which has been damaged severely in the wake of the videos published by the right-wing Center for Medical Progress. They need to excite the base and win unaffiliated women to cast their vote for a likely nominee than even Democrats do not see as trustworthy or honest. Since most Coloradans believe abortion, although abhorrent, should be safe, legal and rare (the former position of Bill Clinton), it is understandable why the Left wants to goad the GOP into this fight, because it is one that Democrats can win with certain constituencies.
Additionally, Planned Parenthood is a strong donor to Democratic campaigns, and if funding is pulled, not only does the organization have fewer resources to help women (keep in mind that Planned Parenthood provides more than abortions, although they are a leading provider of them), but Democrats lose a steady source of recycled campaign cash. There are strong motivations for the Left to not just politicize the incident, but to capitalize on it by keeping wedge issues alive and demonizing Republican elected officials and candidates prior to next year’s election.
Instead of calling for more focus on mental illness, one of the roots of all mass shootings, the far-left prefers to brew a toxic political stew of religious intolerance (pro-life Catholics and Evangelical Christians), race (Dear is a white, middle-aged man), abortion (a re-invigoration of the so-called “War on Women”) and gun control (“Weapons of War” wielded by “Gun Nuts”). Cynically speaking, the Left could not have asked for a better (or worse) tragedy than the Planned Parenthood shooting, because if distorted the right way it touches on all the hot buttons of their identity politics-driven strategy to win the White House in 2016 with a flawed front-runner that would never have made it this far if she wasn’t the progressive heir apparent to Obama (Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are like 50 Shades of political Progressivism).
In all fairness, I am of the opinion that Dear probably did target Planned Parenthood, and time will tell if this was his real motivation, if he is even capable of rational thought.
That Planned Parenthood is a likely target is significant, but we know that clinics aren’t the only targets chosen by irrational gunmen.
America can’t afford to fight the fight the Left wants if it wants to make a difference in reducing and preventing future mass shootings, because it ignores the root cause of untreated mental illness and the availability of firearms to this population.
The Man Who Could Have Been Colorado’s Next Mass Shooter
We do not know what kind of gun (or guns) Dear used, nor do we know how he obtained them. Most likely, he has owned guns for some time and bought them legally, like most mass shooters. For now, this is pure speculation and the the details will emerge over time as the investigation is completed. But right now, other potential mass shooters are waiting in the wings ready to take their place on the national stage, and even they don’t know when they might act out in yet another violent frenzy.
Right now, how many people who have not been adjudicated mentally ill, but are clearly suffering from untreated mental illness, are flying below the radar of background checks because they do not have a criminal record that would otherwise prevent them from buying a gun? In addition, because we know that not all people suffering from mental illness are prone to violence, how many of them represent a real risk to themselves and others?
I wrote about such a risk in October 2013 in my blog post The Man Who Could Have Been Colorado’s Next Mass Shooter. In that post, I referenced a 9News story of a Highlands Ranch mom who turned in her son before he could become the state’s next mass murderer. In that article, Scott Glaser, the executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Colorado was quoted:
“Many times that’s the only way to get the attention someone needs is to run them through the police. The system is sometimes full. The system doesn’t have room. Sometimes they will try to treat them but release them before they received adequate or effective care.”
The television news magazine 60 Minutes aired an insightful piece on the intersection of untreated mental illness and violence. They offer this in the beginning of the segment:
“It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the fact that the majority of the people pulling the triggers have turned out to be severely mentally ill – not in control of their faculties – and not receiving treatment.”
We don’t know the details of Robert Dear’s illness, what diagnosis he might have, his family situation or whether he ever sought help, but it is clear the current system did not serve him or his victims well.
As the incidents of mass shooting rise, more people like Dear, Holmes, Harpham, Klebold, Harris, Roeder, Roof, Alexis, Harper-Mercer, Cho, Rodger, etc., will see mass murder as an acceptable way to act on their compulsions and/or obtain the things that their illness tells them they are missing (e.g., notoriety, attention from the opposite sex, fame, eliminating voices, etc.)
Obstacles to Stopping the Riot
The most obvious obstacle to change is politics. Both Republicans and Democrats have their reasons to avoid addressing mental illness.
The Left continues to push for more gun control, while they pay only lip service to mental illness, something that was made evidently clear in Tuesday’s left-wing press event. It is plain to voters that since 2013, Colorado has in place nearly every gun control law the Progressive left wants, and mass shootings continue to occur. Colorado Springs has experienced two mass shootings in only four weeks.
The pursuit of more gun control is a Quixotic quest. It is simply impossible to institute private firearm confiscation in America, the ultimate objective of the Progressive left, like that has occurred in Australia and the United Kingdom. As a practical matter, with an estimated 300 million private firearms in circulation in America, guns are “in the water” so to speak, and there is no realistic way to collect them all without violating the Constitution and risking massive citizen opposition. Mass shootings and gun-related violence, by the way, continue to occur in both Australia and the U.K.
We have tried gun control, now it is time to try the one thing we haven’t – reforming and improving the mental health system.
In addition to their obsession for gun control, many on the Left make the legitimate point that not everyone suffering from mental illness represents a violent risk, a view I recognized earlier. Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY) wrote about the risks of equating mental illness with violence, but he ignores the stark reality that the people who have committed mass shootings all suffer from it. This is an uncomfortable truth that we have to come to grips with if we are to make a positive change, and compromise will be required to move forward.
On the Right, and to a lesser extent the Left, no one wants to talk about infringing on civil rights and involuntary commitments of people to mental health facilities. That conjures up visions of the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and bad-smelling institutions where the mentally ill are drugged into submission, potentially abused and warehoused until they are released or die. We must seek a better solution, and we can do better than the past.
In addition, focusing on mental health defuses key wedge issues that both the Left and the Right leverage to get their bases to the polls, or to mark their mail-in ballots, as the case may be. Mental health isn’t sexy, and those suffering from untreated mental illness are not a big enough voting block to merit sufficient attention by the political classes on either side of the bloody mosaic. It is telling that the Left laid first blame on the GOP, even before the identity of Dear or his victims were known, illustrating how important they believe the wedge issues of abortion and guns are to their electoral success.
It may be that neither major political party is ready for compromise during an election year, and if that is the case, then expect more deadly throes of irrational violence.
There are those who are trying to do something to get those suffering from untreated mental illness the help they need. Not only would doing so reduce the potential risk of future mass shootings, but would also improve the quality of life for those suffering from mental illness and their families.
Further study is needed, but one politician is trying to make a difference. Congressman Tim Murphy PhD (R-PA) has introduced House Bill H.R. 3717, Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, to address and improve the nation’s mental health system.
I am pleased that my Congressman, Mike Coffman (R-CO) has signed on as a co-sponsor. That Coffman is the only Congressional representative in Colorado to do so, the Left’s charges that he incited Dear to mass murder appear both ignorant and cynically partisan. It is notable that Representative Tonko (D-NY) has not signed on. I call upon the rest of the Colorado delegation to sign on as co-sponsors. Let’s lead the nation on this, as on many other issues.
Unfortunately, the prospects for H.R. 3717 look dim. The Wall Street Journal opined on the bill in the wake of the Black Friday mass murder. Despite Murphy’s compromises to make his bill more palatable to a bipartisan audience, raw politics are getting in the way, as noted by the WSJ:
“Democrats once seemed interested in a bipartisan bill, but of late the Left has decided that mental illness is a diversion from its gun-control agenda.”
The sudden drop in Democrat support comes from Barack Obama’s unwise decision to keep promoting the red herring of gun control during the 2016 elections. Indeed, the President said he intends to make gun control his top issue in his final year in office, and focusing on mental health would certainly dilute the potency of this wedge issue for the current front-runner.
Readers know that I can not be mistaken for being Barack Obama’s biggest supporter, but the President is right when he said “enough is enough” in reaction to the Black Friday shooting. Where we differ is what we advocate doing about it. Do we continue to pursue more of the same that hasn’t worked, like gun control, or do we try something new?
Let’s wash from the mosaic of America the blood spilled by irrational gunmen and begin anew. I encourage both Democrats and Republicans to elevate their vision above the partisan morass and bickering that has become a daily staple of political discourse today. I ask them to put partisanship aside and not just “do something,” but do the right thing when it comes to reducing the probability of future murder sprees and work together to reform the mental health system in Colorado and the nation.