'No place is safe': What can be done to stop the country's gun violence: ANALYSIS

Every part of the public square has become the scene of an attack.

May 10, 2023, 12:09 PM

What we as a society have been doing is not working. We have more attacks, more deaths, more injuries and more trauma each year than the year prior.

No place is safe. Every part of the public square has become the scene of an attack of mass violence.

We are in the ninth year of a sharp uptick in domestic terrorist activity and mass attacks in public spaces. An average of 31 people were killed every year by terrorism from 2015-2021; before 2015, the average was three people a year.

The latest National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin assesses the threat environment as dynamic, complex and high. Targets could include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, U.S. critical infrastructure, the media and perceived ideological opponents.

While we don’t have data yet for 2022, early indicators are that the trend is continuing and possibly accelerating.

Texans cannot ignore this trend

My home state of Texas is not immune to this. Texas ranks second in mass shootings.

According to a Texas Tribune analysis, Texas has experienced nine mass shootings in public spaces over the last 14 years. Seven of those have occurred on Governor Greg Abbott's watch. One hundred people have died from gun-related mass attacks during his tenure.

Texas also ranks second in school shootings, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database.

If we want to stop this, we have to stop doing what we’ve been doing. Demonizing our opponents and fighting over solutions is not working.

PHOTO: FILE - Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shakes hands with members of the Texas National Guard as they prepare to deploy to the Texas-Mexico border in Austin, Texas, May 8, 2023.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shakes hands with members of the Texas National Guard as they prepare to deploy to the Texas-Mexico border in Austin, Texas, May 8, 2023.
Eric Gay/AP, FILE

What is needed stop this

Abbott is not wrong that we need better mental health solutions but that is not all we need. Leaders need to tell the truth even in complexity.

Research suggests where gun laws are looser, mass attacks are more prevalent. Ignoring guns as a key contributor to the problem and Abbott’s seeming inability to say so prevents Texas from finding the multifaceted solutions that are needed.

Studies and polls indicate Texans support gun safety measures that require owners to be responsible and vetted. Yet the State legislature over the past eight years has done the opposite.

Abbott attempted to rally support for an Extreme Risk Protection Orders -- also known as a Red Flag law -- in 2018 after the Sante Fe High School shooting. But Republicans in the State legislature balked at the idea.

This week a Texas House Committee on Community Safety approved a bill to raise the age from 18 to 21 to purchase an assault weapon in the state. The bill would be an important step toward enhancing public safety: Both the Buffalo, New York, and the Uvalde, Texas, shooters were 18.

It is well known in the counterterrorism community that extremists prey on the adolescent experience. The natural process a teen goes through in developing their identify and seeking belonging and significance, creates openings -- particularly online -- which extremists exploit. Any friction we can create to slow down a youth from obtaining high-powered weaponry creates more opportunities to detect concerning behavior and prevent an attack.

The Texas bill, however, was not added to the Texas House calendar. That makes it extremely unlikely comprehensive gun reform will be possible in Texas this session.

PHOTO: Cars are still in the parking lot of the Allen Premium Outlets mall, May 7, 2023 in Allen, Texas.
Cars are still in the parking lot of the Allen Premium Outlets mall, May 7, 2023 in Allen, Texas.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In response to this weekend’s mass shooting in Allen, Abbott pointed out that our society is saturated in anger and fear and that there are no quick fixes. Yet, it is largely the leaders of his party which is trafficking in the language of "existential threats." (The left does this as well, but in smaller numbers and usually within norms that condemn violence.) For nearly 30 years the right has perfected its outrage machine. Outrage drives votes and raises money for candidates (and makes money for those in the media). If we want to reduce violence, we have to set aside contempt for the other side and start treating those with whom we disagree as fellow human beings.

Prevention and mental health

For 20 years, academics have been studying why people join terrorist groups and, more recently, why people commit mass attacks.

There is no single formula that can explain why one person will be drawn to commit acts of violence and another one will not. We do know that most mass attackers have experienced some combination of the following: trauma, disruption and loss; uncertainty; experiences of betrayal or humiliation; a lack of belonging; and loss of significance.

The evidence-base is pretty deep at this point. We can leverage the evidence to build systems that can identify individuals who have become radicalized and get them help before they start planning an attack.

One of the things we’ve learned is that it is significantly easier to build resiliency to radicalization or to intervene early in the radicalization process than to try to de-radicalize someone.

If we want to reduce the number of acts of violence we’re enduring, the key is investment in prevention methods.

Ideologies create a permission structure or moral justification for violence. But ideologies are not the underlying driver behind the increase in mass attacks and violent extremism. Psycho-social factors are creating the cognitive opening for such ideologies. Prevention needs to be focusing on those upstream psycho-social factors, not just countering ideology.

To those supportive of gun safety measures, I know calls for more mental health support sound like a dog whistle at this point. But please do not turn a blind eye to the need for solutions beyond guns. As a counterterrorism professional, I have seen many ways to commit mass murder. Making high-powered guns more difficult to obtain helps but extremists will continue to innovate their methods for destruction.

We need to recognize that our exponential increase in violence is indicative of a desperately sick society. Extremism and mass violence is merely one of the manifestations of this sickness. A comprehensive prevention system addresses the upstream affects leading to this sickness and provides mechanisms to help identify, intervene and provide help to persons of concern considering violence -- well before they cross a criminal threshold.

We have evidence-based solutions that are being piloted across the country. They are small but they are working. Governors should lead these efforts. They need to be rapidly scaled in order for us to make a dent in this problem over the next 10 years. Today it feels that no place is safe. It does not have to be this way forever. We do not have time to waste. Lives are on the line.

Former DHS Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Neumann is an ABC News contributor and native of the Dallas suburbs.