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  • Reverend James Squire

Shootings, Reasonable Person Standard, Accountability

First, two cautionary tales to back up my recommendation to address shootings. Our efforts to date have failed. We need a reasonable person standard and a change in accountability to move forward.

When I was counseling a woman in a counseling center outside of Chester, she had a psychotic break in front of me. She had a history of violence and threatened me as she walked around me with her hands hidden by a cape. She left. I called the local psychiatric facility and they asked the two questions that are still asked today to get help for someone in emotional distress. Has she hurt you? Has she hurt herself? No, sorry we can’t help. I knew she had young children at home. I called the police and warned them to go to the home and be prepared for her to attack them. They did, and she did attack them as I thought she would. She could now be hospitalized. So much for the mental health system. Thus far that system hasn’t helped stop shootings to any degree.

Second, someone threatened my life and the life of another teacher. They were over 18 and far away in college. I called the FBI on a Monday morning to add this to their case file. Keep in mind the time that this threat came. It was when the Virginia Tech killings occurred so law enforcement was supposedly on high alert. The person who made the threat had a history of violence. Unlike the father in the Highland Park shooting, the mother of this person did everything that she could to help me get some mental health aid for her son. She was committed to protecting me and the other faculty member. Long story short, her son was 18 so his college wouldn’t release any information about him. We just wanted to know that he was still in the state where he was attending college. Finally, the police went to his apartment. He was there, and “he seemed fine.” Nothing else was done.

Four days later on a Thursday, I heard from the FBI who asked how the situation was working out and if it was resolved. I thought of this incident when the gymnasts accused the FBI of “just looking away.” 18 is the age where the system ties your hands from getting help for someone.

As I thought about the Highland Park Shooting, the Uvalde School Shooting, the recent assassination of the former Japanese Prime Minister, and my own experience, I think that we are putting our emphasis for a solution in places such as gun control and improving mental health at the risk of an approach that should also be considered as an important corollary to these actions.

Our current approach to end shootings with gun laws and mental health laws seems reasonable but may not succeed if we don’t address the reasonable nature of what should be added. It is because in the Greek understanding of Eros that when passion enters, reason leaves. I am talking about a different kind of reason when we are in the grip of dealing with all the passion and emotion that describes the aftermath of a shooting. The shootings have occurred based on people not picking up on the signals that a person is troubled, and a failure of the various networks such as red flag laws, legal authorities, and current systems in place to do background checks. Every one of these shootings have these two failures. We know this because hindsight is 20/20 vision. Hindsight provides the answer for what is needed. It helps us to see what additional reason and law is required.

In the first two personal anecdotes, it is clear that the system didn’t help me. It didn’t protect Prime Minister Abe in Japan either with the tightest gun control laws in a country of millions where only one person has died from a shooting. There was a breakdown of security. In Uvalde those who were there to protect were absent in action as well. In each of those situations it was clear that we should have addressed the personal threat before the shooting. No one was surprised that the history of the perpetrator in Uvalde had a history of violence.

In the recent shooting at Highland Park, it was so clear that the person was dangerous. The police were called to his home many times. He threatened to kill “everyone.” His father signed off on the purchase of the gun.

What if we adopt the ethical notion of the reasonable person standard and put teeth into it like the drunk driving laws where if you have a party for underaged people and they get hurt leaving your party or hurt someone else, you the parent are responsible. That radically changed the irresponsible actions of parents. It worked!

What would happen if all the systems and people who knew about the history of a shooter like a school, parents, police, or FBI and had to LEGALLY ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION and was required to act. I am proposing an extended Good Samaritan Law with a twist. If you know someone who MAY BE A DANGER you must act or be legally responsible for your failure to act. Sure, people may abuse this approach in the beginning to get someone in trouble, but that person would be legally liable as well. Is it perfect? No! Would it change the culture? You betcha!

This could also be carried over to the police killing of a person who is stopped for a traffic violation as occurred recently. Even though that person had a gun, was there any attempt to dealt with the person without shooting him 60 times? Is that reasonable? The police union says it is. I say that it isn’t.

We already have a system to look at shootings, but they are cumbersome. The law should INCLUDE THE REASONABLE PERSON STANDARD. Does the father deserve to be punished for helping his son secure a weapon? He says no! I say reasonable people would say yes. Should the police who shot the person during a traffic stop, shoot him 60 times, gun or no gun, be accountable? The police union says, No! (Get rid of the unions having power over this aspect of policing. They are the problem.) Would it change the behavior of police if they knew they were legally responsible to err on the side of what is reasonable? You betcha!

Should the FBI have been more responsive and responsible in my situation? You betcha! In that case did the parent do everything that she knew to do to protect me and another faculty member? The reasonable person standard would say, You betcha! Does the 18 years age rule for acting on getting mental health help someone? No! YOU ARE LEGALLY RESPONSIBLE IF YOU DON’T ACT TO ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION! Would that change our “shooting culture.” I believe so! The reasonable person standard should have people very worried that THEY MISSED SOMETHING FOR WHICH THEY MAY HAVE TO TAKE LEGAL RESPONSBILITY. FOCUS ON WHO MISSED WHAT! Right now, we are an apathetic nation except for the extremes. We need to be more wakeful to moments at the mental health, gun laws, police, community, and family level that will curtail mass shootings.

To change the words of an old country western song, “we have been looking for possible shootings in all the wrong places. We are a nation living in fear. Let’s have fear work for us and be fearful that we may have missed something to prevent a shooting because the law will hold us accountable. We always feel a shooting will occur somewhere else. We now know differently.

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