- Since the El Paso and Dayton shootings left 31 people dead on August 3 and 4, at least 28 people across the US have been arrested and accused of plotting or threatening mass shootings.
- The FBI said it saw a 70% surge in tips warning of mass shootings and other attacks just in the week after the back-to-back shootings.
- Experts say the arrests and tips are both a good and bad sign – they likely show that people feel comfortable and compelled to report their relatives or peers who make threats.
- But the arrests also show that the burden of preventing mass shootings is being placed almost entirely on law enforcement, rather than on lawmakers to enact policy solutions.
- “You can’t arrest your way out,” one expert told Insider, adding that people who make these threats will eventually be released from custody, and could be even angrier when they get out.
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In the weeks since two gunmen in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, slaughtered 31 people within 24 hours, dozens of people across the US have been accused of threatening deadly shooting sprees.
CNN reported last week that 28 people have been arrested since August 4. Among them are teenagers accused of posting violent threats on social media, grown men who authorities say possessed massive stockpiles of guns, and even a Florida mum who police say threatened to shoot up an elementary school because her children were being rezoned there.
Within a span of just four days, authorities in Ohio, Florida, and Connecticut arrested three men in their 20s who were each suspected of planning mass shootings.
The FBI reported a 70% surge in tips warning about mass shootings or other attacks in the week after El Paso and Dayton. The agency said it received more than 38,000 phone calls and online tips, up from 22,000 it typically receives in a week.
The spate of threats and arrests after the El Paso and Dayton shootings is typical, experts said, because mass shootings typically occur in clusters where copycats try to replicate the violence of their predecessors.
But they also warned that no such arrest can fully, permanently stop a person determined to inflict mass death – and the country is nowhere near close to attacking the root causes of these predominantly young men intent on committing massacres.
In the absence of policy solutions including gun control, more school resources, and widespread access to counseling, police forces across the country have stepped in to fill the void.
Police say the threats have ranged from mere jokes to meticulously planned plots
The arrests authorities have made in recent weeks had threats of varying severity. In Las Vegas, authorities arrested a 23-year-old man who prosecutors said possessed illegal guns and bomb-making materials, and who threatened to attack a synagogue and gay bar.
In Fresno, California, authorities arrested a 15-year-old girl who posted a Snapchat image of rifles with an emoji-laden warning, “Don’t come to school tomorrow.”
- A 20-year-old man was charged with making a terrorist threat after authorities said he walked into a Missouri Walmart toting a handgun and rifle and clad in body armour in what he called a “social experiment.”
- A Phoenix man was arrested after authorities said he threatened to bomb an Army recruitment centre.
- Long Beach police arrested a hotel cook with a massive stash of firearms on allegations that he was plotting to shoot up his colleagues and hotel guests.
- Maui authorities arrested an 18-year-old man and accused him of making a first-degree terroristic threat after he tweeted, “Feelin horny might shoot up a school idk yet.”
- A 19-year-old Chicago man was accused of posting threats on social media about killing people at a women’s reproductive health clinic.
- Federal prosecutors charged a Maryland man with making multiple Facebook threats to kill all Hispanic people in Miami.
- An Oklahoma police department announced they had arrested a man for threatening to kill local police officers and their families.
- A South Dakota man was arrested after threatening to “blow up various local and federal government entities” and posting a video of himself throwing rocks at the windshield of a sheriff’s deputy’s vehicle, authorities said.
- The FBI arrested a 38-year-old truck driver and said he had threatened to shoot up a church in Memphis, kill bystanders on the street, then take his own life.
- A Marine was accused of posting videos online that threatened the Ferris State University in Michigan, as well as local hospitals, a veterans’ affairs office, and military police.
- CNN has details on the other 16.
Police in Florida even released an arrest video to show the public they were combating the problem:
So many arrests are a good and a bad sign
Experts said these arrests are both a good and bad sign.
“The good part is you absolutely want people reporting when you see this type of thing. It’s great that individuals felt comfortable – people like grandmothers or other students – felt comfortable reporting them to authorities or to other adults,” Jillian Peterson, an assistant professor at Hamline University and co-founder of The Violence Project, told Insider.
She continued: “I think it’s the response we have to work on, really, as a society. We don’t have a great response plan. You can arrest, and in some cases that’s absolutely appropriate … however, that doesn’t get at the root of why this happened, and in many cases it can just make it worse. It adds fuel to the fire, it intensifies the grievance.”
In the case of the 15-year-old girl who posted on Snapchat, Peterson said the arrest may have done more harm than good. If she’s harshly punished, not only could the girl feel defensive or angry, but her relatives and friends may be less inclined to report similar threats in the future.
“So if my daughter posted something on social media and I knew that if I told someone about it she was going to be in a juvenile detention centre for the next four years, I might not want to say anything,” Peterson said. “We want to make it so people do threaten, [and] people are ready and willing to report when someone threatens.”
‘You can’t arrest your way out’
So far, the only way America has handled an epidemic of mass shootings is by arresting people, Peterson said.
These arrests can give the public some relief by temporarily removing suspected threats from society. But since authorities are intervening before a significant crime or murder has occurred, that person will likely be released from jail or prison, and back on the streets soon.
By the time they’re free – after likely experiencing little or no support like counseling – their anger may only have intensified after the punishment and humiliation of their arrest.
“You can’t arrest your way out,” Peterson said. “These individuals are actively suicidal. If you want to die, then things like threat of punishment are meaningless. None of that’s going to work if you plan to die.”
The problem with ‘spineless’ politicians and ignoring red flags
Instead of arresting everyone, the uniquely American nature of mass shootings requires a hard look at the ways society systematically enables or encourages violence.
One of the biggest issues is Americans’ easy access to high-powered firearms, James Garbarino told Insider. As a psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago, he has studied violence among children and teenage killers.
When it comes to limiting people’s access to such weapons, he said, the US lags far behind its western peers in how they’re working to prevent major massacres.
“I really would like to be optimistic. But in my calmer moments, I’m generally not, because there is such cultural inertia on this and there’s such spinelessness on part of the politicians,” Garbarino said.
He continued: “Often after these mass shootings they will interview neighbours of the person, and they will say things like, ‘He was such a normal guy – of course, he did have 17 guns in his house.’ Having 17 guns doesn’t even register as, ‘Wow, that’s a big red flag.'”
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