Sustained effort needed to prevent mass shootings: ANALYSIS

PHOTO: People hold candles as they pray during a candlelight vigil at the Immanuel Church for victims of a shooting that left a total of 22 people dead at the Cielo Vista Mall WalMart in El Paso, Texas, August 5, 2019.PlayMark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH News headlines today: Aug. 16, 2019

Once again the nation’s attention has been drawn to mass killings that have become all too common in our society.

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Once again the needless deaths of innocent men, women and children have renewed calls by some for stricter gun control measures, increased resources for mental health and greater controls over the internet that are likely to go unheeded.

On the heels of El Paso, greater attention has correctly been focused on the hateful, polarized and often-times overtly racist nature of our political discourse. Greater attention has been focused on the use of social media to spread hateful rhetoric and the rising threat of domestic terrorism, in particular the threat posed by the spread of white supremacy. But it would be a mistake to think this is simply a problem of white supremacy.

While many of the recent attacks were committed by disaffected angry individuals motivated by white supremacist beliefs, others, such as the other recent shooting shooting in Dayton, Ohio, were conducted by disaffected people motivated by other ideological beliefs or perceived grievances.

Mass shootings did not begin during the Trump administration. We began to experience an increase in these attacks during the Obama administration. After the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the White House mobilized the entire federal government in an effort to address the growing threat. I know because I was there.

Through this effort we sought to better understand why we were seeing more of these attacks and to develop strategies to prevent or be better prepared to respond should they occur. It was a sustained and comprehensive effort led by Vice President Joe Biden but more importantly it had the attention of President Barack Obama. I know because I briefed him.

Some have argued that the Trump administration has not embarked in any such sustained effort. In fact, it appears resources and programs that could be used to address this threat have been diverted, focusing instead on immigration-related enforcement activities. Department of Homeland Security officials have apparently been told by the White House to focus almost exclusively on border security and immigration enforcement. During the Obama years, DHS focused considerable attention to expanding our nation's ability to deal with mass shootings. That level of attention may not be the same in the Trump administration.

Here is the challenge facing the White House. For more than three years, the administration has sought to convince the American people that one of the greatest threats facing the U.S. came from abroad -- from people seeking to come to the U.S. in pursuit of a safer and better life. But the problem for White House officials is that recent history has suggested that is not the case. Illegal immigrants did not shoot people in El Paso, Dayton, Gilroy, Virginia Beach, Las Vegas, Parkland, Poway, Pittsburgh and Sutherland Springs. No -- the people who allegedly committed these mass murders as well as almost all of the other mass shootings over the past three years -- regardless of the motive -- were U.S. citizens.

The nation needs a comprehensive, well-resourced and sustained effort to prevent these attacks or they will continue. This effort must be led by the White House and should empower Homeland Security and Department of Justice to direct adequate resources to address this threat. This effort must be based on an objective understanding of the threat -- one not influenced by political objectives. We need to improve our ability to identify and manage the threat posed by individuals whose behaviors indicate they present a high risk of conducting an attack. This includes expanding the availability of both in-patient and out-patient mental health services but also restricting their access to firearms through the national use of "red-flag laws."

These attacks can be prevented. But the current administration needs to have the will to do so.

John Cohen is an ABC News contributor and the former acting undersecretary for intelligence and counter-terrorism coordinator at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Over the past five years he has studied mass casualty attacks in the United States.