What Are We Prepared to Do?

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There are so many troubling details about the lives of Payton Gendron and Salvador Ramos one hardly knows where to begin.

As for Gendron, who killed ten and injured three in a racist motivated attack at a Buffalo supermarket, it seems clear that he was radicalized by his exposure to extremist online sites, such as 4Chan, an online message board known for its racist and anti-Semitic views. It is also clear that Gendron suffered from significant mental health issues. His diary is replete with references to his concerns that he is mentally ill and that he feels he must choose between carrying out the racist attack he had planned for months or killing himself. His behaviors were also red flags for mental health issues, including attending school one day dressed in full hazmat gear. What is also clear, sadly, is that Gendron’s parents seemed not too involved in the young man’s life, not aware of his struggles, or at least not aware of his bizarre and illegal activities. In one February 2022 post, Gendron wrote: “My parents know little about me, they don’t know about the hundreds of silver ounces I’ve had, or the hundreds of dollars I’ve spent on ammo. They don’t know that I spent close to $1000 on random military s–t. They don’t even know I own a shotgun or an AR-15, or illegal magazines.” In still another, Gendron writes almost plaintively: “Promise me if you have a child you will be there and you will be close, be a friend to your child and make sure they know that you will always help them. Talk about their problems and ways to solve it and NEVER make them feel bad for coming to you.” 

Salvador Ramos was also clearly troubled. He was living with his grandparents at the time of his attack on Robb Elementary School, where he killed 19 children and two teachers. Ramos’ mother was not able to manage him and, it seems, she had her own struggles with drug addiction. His grandfather, Ronaldo Reyes, reports that he did not see much of his grandson, leaving for work early in the morning and not getting home until late. He insists that he did not know that Ramos owned the two semi-automatic rifles he purchased legally after turning eighteen. Reyes is a convicted felon, so it would be illegal for him to live in the home with those guns. He says that, had he known his grandson owned the guns, he would have reported it. Ramos seems to have been a loner who kept to himself at work, but he did have some friends. A red flag that would indicate mental health problems was that Ramos showed up to meet a friend with cuts all over his face, initially claiming that he was attacked by a cat. Shortly after, Ramos admitted to his friend that he had cut up his own face for “fun.” This is not normal behavior. This ought to have signaled to his mother or his grandparents that there were serious issues that needed attention. It appears that those issues were not addressed. Ramos also posted on his Facebook account that he intended to shoot his grandmother, that he did shoot his grandmother, and that he was planning to shoot up an elementary school. These announcements were all posted over a 30-minute timespan just prior to the events, so it’s likely either no one saw them or anyone who did could not be expected to notify authorities in time.

So, here we have two young men, both 18 years old, both from homes where parents are absent or not involved and aware of what is going on in the lives of their very troubled child. Any assessment of the root causes of these tragedies must begin with that fact. There were signs, but those signs were either not seen or ignored by the adults who ought to have seen them and ought to have acted. There were adults in these young men’s lives, but those adults seem not to have been very involved or attached or attentive to their children.

These tragedies have raised the debate, once again, about gun control. I don’t have much to add to that debate. Obviously, Payton Gendron wasn’t terribly concerned about following gun control laws, since the magazines he possessed were illegal and he knew they were. I doubt Ramos cared too much about gun control laws, either. The bottom line is, if someone wants to get hold of a gun, legally or illegally, and they’re determined enough to do it, they likely won’t have much trouble doing it. That isn’t to say it ought to be easy for them. If they’re not so determined, putting up a few obstacles might dissuade someone. Gendron himself wrote of his hesitance in wanting to carry out his attack. Had it been not as easy as it obviously was to obtain his weapons, he may have paused or taken out his anger on himself (tragic, yes, but at least he’s not making others pay for his anger). As for Ramos, it makes no sense to me that an eighteen-year-old can purchase two semi-automatic rifles over the course of three or four days, plus all the ammo he purchased. Yes, criminals will do all they can to obtain guns illegally, but it makes no sense that it should be so easy to legally purchase such weapons.

The U. S. Catholic bishops have spoken about gun control before. The position of the bishops’ conference is support for a ban on assault weapons (whatever that means), universal background checks (wait, we still don’t have that?), a federal gun trafficking bill, regulations on sales of handguns (in Texas, there is nothing limiting the sale of a handgun from one individual to the next), improved mental health interventions and means for ascertaining the mental health status of a potential gun purchaser, and for society to take an honest look at the amount and ease with which young people and all people have access to violent images and experiences. All of these measures are simply common sense.

But before those measures can be adopted, because many of them require legislation, and that’s a long, arduous process, there are things that can be done at the local level without legislation and without the involvement of the federal or state governments.

In a column I posted here back in February 2018, I referenced studies on what works to reduce gun violence and what doesn’t work. Back then, the research demonstrated that strategies that actually work include:

  • More intensive probation strategies: increased contact with police, probation officers and social workers.
  • Changes in policing strategies, such increased patrols in hot spots.
  • Programs featuring cooperation between law enforcement, community leaders, and researchers, such as Project Safe Neighborhoods.

Others are recommending that schools and churches not be kept as “soft targets.” In other words, communities should take steps to make it more difficult to enter a school or church, and that there ought to be designated personnel trained to confront active shooters and training for staff and students on how to respond to an active shooter. Some recommend metal detectors, though that would hardly have stopped Ramos, who managed to enter the school despite law enforcement officers shooting at him in an effort to stop his progress even before he entered the school. A simple measure would be locked doors that require someone buzz a person in before they can enter the school. Limiting entry to a school or church to one entry point, and an armed guard stationed at that entry is a sensible policy. Some recommend training teacher volunteers who are willing to be armed and prepared to respond to the presence of an active shooter (they would not be identified except in the event of the emergency). That’s not unreasonable.

There seems to be, then, a three-point strategy for providing more protection for our society:

First, parents, friends and others in the lives of troubled individuals need to be involved in their lives and pay attention to the red flags that almost inevitably pop up prior to the troubled individual taking action. This is particularly important for parents, especially the parents or grandparents or other caregivers in the lives of young men without fathers – fully 96% of those responsible for mass shootings grow up in homes without a father. We ignore this factor to our detriment.

Second, the adoption of local strategies like those above that have been proven to reduce violence with guns in communities. Yes, we ought to have sensible gun control at the state and federal levels, but these local strategies can be adopted before the state and federal governments get their acts together, and they’ve been shown to work.

Third, make schools and churches harder targets. Adopt measures that make it more difficult to enter a school, and more difficult to do much damage once a shooter has entered a school or church. Again, no community need await the actions of the state or federal governments to adopt these measures.

We can offer our prayers and support for the people of Buffalo and Uvalde. But as Bishop Mark Brennan of Wheeling-Charleston, WV said, we “must now do more than offer prayers and support.” The situation is not hopeless. There are things that can be done, measures that have proven effective. At this point, it’s only a matter of will.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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