AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File
Source: AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File

We often think of the 20 first graders and 6 adults who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, as well as their loved ones, whose grief we can’t even imagine. 

Amazing, courageous parents who lost their beloved children in the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre have formed organizations helping to prevent other tragedies and to help grieving parents. Sandy Hook Promise’s Know the Signs Program and work advocating for gun safety are having an impact, and the Charlotte Helen Bacon Foundation (formerly Newtown Kindness) has initiatives honoring their daughter’s love of animals and supporting families who’ve lost a child.

News of recently released FBI documents about the shooter, Adam Lanza, brings back into the spotlight the warning signs of a dangerously troubled young man who also killed his mother and himself. The documents reveal reports of an online “friend” who knew of Lanza’s obsession with mass murders and respect for the perpetrators, and his depression, negative worldview, talk of death as an escape, and isolated, uncomfortable existence. Clustered together, this paints the portrait of many school shooters.

In most school shootings, one or more people see warning signs or know about the plan before it happens. The FBI documents reveal that Lanza’s plan to kill his mother and children at Sandy Hook Elementary was reported to authorities.

There were other common warning signs of danger to himself and others in this case:

  • Aggrieved entitlement.
  • Repetitive personal failures.
  • Unwillingness to recognize and accept the urgent need for mental health treatment.

The brain's ability to reason, control emotions, and make good decisions doesn't fully develop until at least age 25. When these warning signs in a young person like 20-year-old Lanza are combined with great interest in and easy access to firearms and ammunition, the concern is greater due to the increased ability to act on violent ideas.

If Lanza’s online friend had reported what she observed, and if there had been a better system of handling threats that were reported, Newtown’s horrific event may have been prevented. Even the slightest possibility of prevention means we need to report warning signs that someone may hurt others and figure out how to best handle these reports to protect public safety, just as we must do to prevent terrorist attacks. 

Most people with mental illness aren’t violent, including those with autism spectrum disorder (formerly Asperger’s syndrome), which reportedly included Lanza. And many mass shooters have no known mental illness diagnosis. That means that it’s important to be able to recognize signs of worsening mental function including those distinct from a diagnosis.  

If we as a society would commit to making mental health a top priority, equal in importance to preventing and treating cancer, and if we would commit to educating, reporting, and investigating warning signs that someone is at risk of self-harm or harming others, we could save lives and make our nation a safer, more peaceful place. 

What’s holding us back from doing these things? Fear? Stigma? Privacy? Limited authority and resources to intervene? An attitude of “it’s none of my business” and “I can’t tell someone else what to do?” Rights? Our children should have the right to grow up instead of getting murdered, and to get help for mental illness even when they don’t understand the need. 

To have an impact, we must take every threat to hurt self or others seriously: Silence can be deadly. At a minimum, law enforcement can do what are called “welfare checks” which affords the opportunity to alert those threatened and to make suggestions on how to avert possible danger. But we can and must protect our children by doing better than that, similar to how we treat possible terrorist plots, to protect us all.

Editors note: This post does not exclude reasonable gun control as an important factor in the national discussion.

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