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Shooting deaths demand more than grief


Numbness, grief and anger are natural reactions to the horror inflicted upon Umpqua Community College last week, but they are inadequate to describe the depth of feeling or the ultimate response that must come from this massacre of innocent people.

The mass shooting near Roseburg was the fourth time in the past 17 years that a young man, armed to the teeth, opened fire in a public setting in Oregon. Thurston High School, Clackamas Town Center, Reynolds High School and Umpqua Community College now share a terrible commonality in their respective histories. What Oregonians must ask, however, is whether they are willing to accept mass shootings as a routine part of this state’s life — something that occurs on an occasional basis and must be tolerated rather than prevented.

We do not believe this state’s residents are so inured to massacres. They fully understand that no one — no parent, sibling or child — should have to endure the news that loved ones of the dead and wounded received on Thursday in Douglas County. Yet, after Thurston, Clackamas and Reynolds, what of true significance has been done to prevent the next shooting?

Base new policies on the evidence

This issue must move beyond politics. The conversation must not simply devolve into an emotional debate about gun control, but instead focus on a broad range of factors associated with mass shootings. If Oregon can develop evidence-based policies, standards and practices that make mass shootings less likely to occur, then it also might stem the tide of everyday gun violence that claims a larger and steady toll each week in this state.

It should not go unnoticed that on the very next night following the Douglas County shootings, three men were killed and another injured in separate shootings outside Portland bars. And the night after that, two women were hospitalized following a gang-related shooting at a Portland hotel.

Typical gun deaths — homicides and suicides — are a regular entry on local police logs, but they do not attract the same attention as random public shootings. People are understandably more unnerved when students or shoppers are going about their normal business and are attacked for no reason. In Douglas County, the deaths of nine innocent people and the wounding of nine others will leave the community coping for decades with unfathomable personal losses.

It’s another deep scar on an entire state’s psyche, and it requires a response from those in a position to make future occurrences less likely.

The toxic ingredients leading to mass shootings are well known. Usually, they involve an alienated man or male teenager who is obsessed with, and has access to, firearms. These individuals are motivated by personal problems that take them to the brink of desperation. They crave the attention they will receive from the media.

These men — who can be of all ages, although school shooters are younger — exhibit certain behaviors before acting. They plan their attacks and may tell others of their plans.

Policies, practices and laws intended to prevent public shootings must include the goal of keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of individuals bent on some perverted form of revenge. Background checks for gun purchases failed to flag the Roseburg shooter, even though he had been kicked out of the U.S. Army after just one month of training and may have been labeled as emotionally challenged in high school.

The shooter or his relatives purchased 14 guns legally, which suggests that the national database for background checks needs better systems for tracking people who’ve been identified as potentially mentally unstable. The mental health database could be improved by requiring mandatory reporting from anyone in authority — teachers, counselors, army superiors and the like.

Other warning signs could include the purchase of several weapons within a condensed period of time. People who want to make multiple purchases should be subjected to an additional layer of review.

Beyond background checks, steps can be taken to harden security at public buildings, including schools. People can become even more educated and aware of the warning signs individuals exhibit prior to carrying out a mass shooting — and they should not be afraid to speak up when they detect those signs.

People also can educate themselves about ways to make the purchase, storage and use of firearms less dangerous. It’s time to start treating guns in the same manner as cars — a useful but potentially deadly product that ought to be subjected to basic safety standards.

Study the facts and act

No positive steps can be taken without potentially threatening someone’s liberty. Whether it’s the inconvenience of more aggressive background checks or the intrusion of additional security at public buildings, there always will be reasons not to act. That’s why law and policy changes must be based on the vast body of evidence that’s been accumulated about public shootings and other forms of gun violence.

In the immediate aftermath of the Umpqua Community College shootings last week, Gov. Kate Brown said it was a time to grieve, not talk about legislation. Fair enough. However, the families of the victims — as well as all other Oregonians — deserve to know what will be done to stop the next senseless killings. Brown should appoint a bipartisan group of legislators to study the facts about public shootings and bring forward proposals for making them less common.

It’s not possible to anticipate and prevent all potential dangers, but it is wholly irrational for the state’s residents to shrug their collective shoulders and just wait for the next Umpqua, Reynolds, Clackamas or Thurston shooting to occur.