It’s the Age of the Active Shooter and We Can’t Talk About It

Patrick Van Horne
Dec 9, 2015 · 12 min read

America is in the middle of what historians will one day call the “Age of the Active Shooter.” Despite empty words from public figures about how shootings have not become the new normal, the increasing frequency of attacks with mass casualties proves otherwise. A couple days after the San Bernandino shooting, NPR ran a story about how companies in the security industry that are providing “active shooter response training” are part of a growth industry. As disturbing as that is, it is unlikely that these attacks will slow down in the near future because Americans cannot even have an honest, intellectual and meaningful conversation about how to stop them from occurring. In response to the attacks that have occurred in the last decade, it has become clear that there are four topics that have the power to effectively derail any conversation about how America can ultimately get left of bang and prevent the next attack or shooting.

We Can’t Talk About Guns

The topic of guns is the first surefire way to immediately end any rational conversation about how to prevent violence. Whether you believe that we should erase firearms from the planet or think that the only way to keep people from being violent is to arm every person in America does not matter. The moment that you bring up either gun control or the 2nd Amendment is the moment when you lose 50% of the people you are talking to. Because the most vocal people in each group are the ones who have already made up their mind on the topic and will never even consider information contradictory to their views, the words used and emotions that present themselves when discussing the topic of guns eliminates any rationality whatsoever. Regardless of which view that you have, we cannot make progress towards stopping an attack when a conversation about the weapons being used to kill hundreds of Americans each year can’t even begin.

The real reason why my opinion and your opinion on guns are irrelevant to furthering the conversation about violence prevention is because the actions our country has taken in the last decade show that gun control is unacceptable to Americans. If there was going to be any event that made people find some common ground and move away from one of the two extremes on the issue of guns, it would have been the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 when 20 children were killed. While there were Executive Orders made about gun control after this Newtown shooting, no gun control legislation was passed by the people elected to represent all Americans. If the lives of 20 children are considered “the cost of living in a free society,” whether you like or agree with that statement or not, it seems that Americans has already made their decision. Bringing up your opinion on the role guns play in violence is only going to end the conversation because it is a debate that will not make progress towards finding a way out of this dark period.

We Can’t Talk About Religion

The second foolproof way to eliminate any pursuit of common ground or consensus when talking about preventing violence is to bring up the topic of religion.

For those of you who are focused solely on letting people know about the risk of violence in the name of Allah and are convinced that Muslims are the only dangerous people out in the world, you have Paris, you have the 2014 beheading at Vaughan Foods in Moore, Oklahoma, you have the shooting at the military recruiting station in Chattanooga, and you now have the shooting in San Bernandino to add to your list of seemingly unassailable examples to prove that your view is right.

But despite the fact that “Muslim Killers” got to the point of trending on Twitter the day after the San Bernandino shooting, any rational person knows that it isn’t just Muslims who are killing Americans. There was the Planned Parenthood shooting a week before San Bernandino in Colorado Springs, the shooting of news reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward in August, the Umpqua Community College shooting, the Charleston church shooting this past June, and the UC Santa Barbara shooting. None of the 29 people killed and 43 people injured in those attacks were targeted because of a Muslim ideology.

What frustrates me about conversations relating to the threat posed by extremist Muslims is that these extremists have declared war on the West. It is why we need to make a decision about what our strategy is going to be to defeat ISIS and finish the job on Al Qaeda. It is why books like Scott Mann’s Game Changers is an essential read for how we should proceed in our path to make them irrelevant. But the threat of Muslim extremists is only one of many components to the violence we have seen here at home, and using these events as a rallying cry for why “we need to wake up to the threat” is counterproductive because it is so clearly skewed to a singular view of the sources of the violence.

But as our politicians have started choosing which mass shootings warrant their “thoughts and prayers” based on their religion, choosing to highlight the religion of some attackers but not others does not progress any conversation about how to proceed in preventing violence. As the number of shootings continues to increase, the data points and concrete details that will be available for people to pick and choose from that support their personal view of the threats we face will increase as well. But only looking at attacks perpetrated by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or any other group based on religious segmentation, only highlights a single portion of the threats we are facing here in the U.S. instead of allowing us to look at the entire picture. Since violence has been committed in each different and diverse version of “God’s name,” choosing only one of these groups to blame collectively closes off the possibility of rational and progressive conversation relating to prevention.

We Talk About “Them” Incorrectly

After an attack, it is completely reasonable to look for an adversary to focus your anger on as the people who have caused the pain in that instance. While it serves as a motivating factor to take action, it also leads to an “us vs. them” conversation that often does more harm than good.

To explain this, think about what happened after 9/11. On September 11, 2001, America was attacked by outsiders, by people not “from here” who were not “one of us.” As a result, you saw American flags flying from every car driving down the street as we prepared our military to deploy and go get “them.” Being attacked by outsiders brought us together as a country. However, every time that we have a tragedy perpetrated by an insider as opposed to an outsider, it doesn’t bring us closer together. It divides us.

“Insider” attacks divide us because, as we seek to establish who “they” are, we do it incorrectly. In just the last ten years, we have had white Americans kill black Americans. We’ve had black Americans kill white Americans. We’ve had cops unjustifiably kill citizens and have had cops get unjustifiably killed. Shooters have been adults and they have been children. They’ve been Christian and Jewish and Muslim. They have had mental health disorders and they have had no history of mental illness whatsoever. What this partial, yet diverse, list of demographic divisions shows is that killers can come from any segment of society.

With each shooting, as we try to define “them” by some demographic characteristic, the “us vs. them” conversation gets worse and alienates more and more of the population. As we vilify “them,” the divisions get deeper and deeper because, instead of defining “them” as the assholes who have violent intentions and who think they have the right to take someone’s life, we ignorantly define ”them” by skin color, age, religion, job, or language, thus continuing to divide the pie up into smaller and smaller segments. This is an incredibly dangerous trend because, for every violent person in one of those demographic segments listed above, there are countless others in that same group who would never hurt or harm anyone at all. But as entire segments of the population get demonized for the actions of one person, it is completely normal for them to in turn want to protect their own against the “outsiders” attacking them, just like America did after 9/11. So when we incorrectly categorize “them” as anything other than simply violent predators, we force groups to protect their own instead of protecting their whole communities against those violent people.

We Can’t Talk About Politics

It is unfortunate that most Americans, including me, have become so cynical about our elected representatives that the prospect of our government solving the problem of widespread violence isn’t even a remote possibility to me. What is ironic is that when you talk about “government,” this is probably the one thing that most people can find common ground on as it doesn’t take much effort to become infuriated at politicians who tweet their sympathies but then go back to focusing on how to get reelected or how they can use the most recent shooting to further their political agenda or demonize their opponent.

But when the conversation goes from “government” to “politics,” that common ground gets shattered and the “us vs. them” conversation gets sent into overdrive. Every problem is the other party’s fault. We ignorantly spout information we heard or read about from our favorite 24-hours news organization that may or may not even be factually correct or even relevant to the conversation. What is unfortunate too is that, in the pursuit to be seen as being consistent, the views of the other party are immediately dismissed before the strength of the argument is even considered. It is as if acknowledging the other party’s perspective would reveal a chink in your armor that would cause a person’s entire world to come crashing down. As the polarized talk louder, you can watch the moderates in the crowd just walk away from the conversation and stay silent, removing the people who would have the ability to find shared views from the conversation and thus removing the possibility for compromise from the conversation.

In an age when incremental progress to reduce exposure to a risk doesn’t sync with our short attention spans and search for “life hacks,” we simply can’t rely on politicians as they search for unicorn solutions that will propel them into the spotlight. Saying that discussions about politics are conversation stoppers isn’t just cynicism, it is practical. You are always right and the person who opposes your view is always wrong. While criticizing politicians is easy, it doesn’t get us any closer to seeing the way out of the problem either. Any “solution” that the government comes up with will take a long time to implement and won’t account for the risk we face in the near term from people looking to commit the next mass killing.

Why We Should Try

I don’t list out these four conversation-ending topics out of pure pessimism. The fact that we can’t talk about guns, shouldn’t focus solely on religion, can’t look at the issue purely from an “us vs. them” perspective, can’t rely on politicians to do anything meaningful, and will never find the silver bullets, doesn’t mean that we can’t search for a solution. These items are just parts of the landscape that have to be understood so that they can be navigated around so that we can have productive conversations without falling into their traps.

There are logical reasons why America needs to get out of the Age of the Active Shooter as quickly as possible beyond the obvious desire to prevent the unnecessary loss of life. As a capitalistic society, a certain level of stability is required to grow and create opportunities for advancement. For the same reason why most of you aren’t considering opening up a new small business in Syria is the same reason why many businesses avoided expanding into or shut down in Baltimore in the wake of the riots this past year. When there is violence, there is a risk to investment. If the economy faces a downturn because the risk of violence continues to rise, the frustration and disenfranchisement experienced during periods of rising unemployment will only further undermine our country’s resiliency.

At our core we want to find a way out of this problem. We want to feel safe. We don’t want to have a fear of going to work, to school, to the mall, to places of worship, or to a sports game or a concert. Finding a way out requires that we have the right conversations and it requires that we identify the right people who can solve this problem.

The Productive Conversation

When it comes to finding violence prevention solutions, there are steps that can be taken right now. The easiest one is to simply start a conversation with your neighbor. Do you actually know your neighbors? Have you had them over for dinner so that you can get to know them? Have you started conversations with them not just to get something from them, but so that you could find ways where you might be able to help them out with a challenge they are dealing with?

It doesn’t matter what neighborhood or apartment complex you live in. It doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is. Coming together as a community is how we have protected ourselves from predators for at least the last twelve thousand years.[i] Our ancestors learned that as individuals, we were easy prey, but as a tribe, we could collectively become strong and protect the group from predators. While it isn’t the easy road, the effective long-term solution to violence is to improve our community ties before bad things happen.

We see time and again how communities rally in the wake of an attack, but rebuilding and strengthening bonds and relationships between neighbors can also be the way to recognize predators before an attack occurs. Having a strong community makes it harder for an attacker to hide within the crowd because there are people who will be looking to include them in the group’s activities. It makes it harder for the attacker to become isolated, which is what can sometimes drive people online, thus creating greater opportunities for radicalization. When you are a part of a community, it is harder to kill “them” when “they” have a name. Radicalization requires the suspension of critical thinking, which gets harder to do when you are around a diverse group of people and naturally seeing different perspectives through conversation. Within a community, there is a vested interest amongst members to protect others, which means they will be likely to report something that seems off instead of saying “it doesn’t impact me” and going about their day.

Getting to know your neighbors doesn’t mean you are having conversations with them with the intent to spy on them by any means. Strengthening your community means being invested in people because you care about them and want to help them. Is it easy to do? Not really. I’ve moved around every few years since going to college, and if I’ve learned anything, it is that it takes a lot of work to get to know neighbors. It is easier to turn your face towards your phone screen than start an actual conversation. It is easy to brush off an attempt by someone else to start a conversation with a one-word answer and go back to the silence of your own thoughts. However, as the risk of shootings continues to rise, we need to look past the easy answers. The Band-Aids aren’t staying on. There aren’t any life hacks, shortcuts, or workarounds. Protecting ourselves requires that the communities we live in come together to keep the predators out.

Getting to know those people who live next to you with the intention of being there to help them when they need it isn’t a complex solution that requires a twelve-point plan, national legislation or an app. It is something that can be done right now by you. To quote Charlie Munger, it is about “taking something simple, and taking it seriously.” I know there are people who simply won’t want to make the effort, but ensuring our own safety requires that we are held accountable for our own actions as we try to prevent these attacks. While this isn’t the absolute solution, and there do need to be more sweeping measures taken to stop the bleeding, having conversations with people to build community is the first step that we can take to begin to identify those people who have violent intent and are the predators hiding within our neighborhoods.

[i] http://www.pnas.org/content/105/46/17665.full

Patrick Van Horne is the co-author of Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life. He is also the co-founder and CEO of The CP Journal and served as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps. You can sign up for his weekly newsletter, The Weekly Profile, by clicking here.

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