‘There are almost always warning signs’: an activist says acts of mass violence can be prevented

Ekn December, Mark Barden will mark the 10th anniversary of the day that changed his life forever when a gunman entered his son Daniel’s Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and opened fire, om heeltyd sensitief vir ander mense se gevoelens te wees, kan moeilik en stresvol wees 26 people including Daniel and 19 other six- and seven-year-old children.

Before he reaches that grim milestone, Barden has work to do. He has to get through the trauma of knowing that it has all happened again – another gunman carrying exactly the same assault-style weapon of war, entering a supermarket this time, senselessly opening fire.

Since news emerged of the mass shooting last Saturday in Buffalo, New York, that left 10 people dead, most of the Black, Barden has been thinking about it constantly. “I think of the families dealing with the fact that their loved one has been violently taken from them as they were grocery shopping,” het hy aan die Guardian gesê. “I think about the journey they are now on for the rest of their lives – as I am.”

Barden’s thinking doesn’t stop there. Since Daniel was ripped from him on 14 Desember 2012, he has embarked on a decade of dialogue and discovery.

He is co-founder and CEO of Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing gun violence so that others do not have to suffer the agony that he – and now the Buffalo families – must endure.

With his advocate’s hat on, he thinks: how can it be possible that almost a decade after his son was murdered another such tragedy could have happened? Why were the warning signs not heeded?

“There are almost always warning signs before an act like this," hy het gesê. “Consistently we see that prior to one of these horrific atrocities, there are warning signs – and folks have to understand that, so they can take steps to prevent it.”

Certainly, there appear to have been plenty of warning signs before Buffalo. The alleged shooter was investigated less than a year ago by state police who took him to hospital for a mental health evaluation after he threatened a “murder/suicide” in his high school.

According to die Washington Post, he later bragged online that he had persuaded the police to release him by telling them he was joking. The Post reported that the suspect also made comments several months ago on the online platform Discord stating his intention to carry out an attack on those he called “replacers” – Black people whom he falsely accused of taking power from white Americans.

Yet when the alleged Buffalo gunman came to buy his weapon of war from a firearms dealer near his home, nothing came up about him on the federal database used for background checks. The sale went ahead.

Why weren’t those apparently clear signals picked up? “When someone talks about a mass shooting and a suicide, that needs to be taken seriously,” Barden said.

One of the paradoxes of the Buffalo shooting is that New York state has one of the strongest so-called extreme risk protection laws in the country. Also known as “red flag laws”, they now exist in 19 state, allowing police or family members to sound the alarm about individuals who may be a danger to themselves or others and to confiscate their guns.

Rob Wilcox, federal legal director of Everytown for Gun Safety, said that though we are still learning the facts about Buffalo it was evident that there had been a breakdown – not in the law, but in its implementation. “These extreme risk laws are tools, and tools aren’t effective when they are left in the toolbox.”

Wilcox points to other tools languishing in their boxes. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which plays a critical role in applying gun controls across the country, has been adrift without a permanent leader since 2015.

Wilcox said the vacancy – Joe Biden is on his second attempt to have an ATF chief confirmed by Congress – was a sign of the lasting disruptive power of the gun lobby in Washington. It had “set up this agency to fail and has intentionally undermined it for 20 jare”.

Gun manufacturers also need to be held accountable, Wilcox argued. The alleged Buffalo shooter carried out his carnage using a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic rifle, the same model that killed Daniel Barden in Newtown.

Weereens, New York has some of the toughest laws strictly limiting the capacity of gun magazines to 10 rounds. But the alleged Buffalo shooter still managed to modify his Bushmaster with relative ease so that he could fire 30 bullets before reloading.

Barden has strong words about that: “When my little seven-year-old son Daniel was shot to death in his first-grade classroom, that individual had a military-style assault rifle using a high-capacity magazine that was able to fire 154 bullets in around four minutes. That weapon was intentionally designed to kill as many people in as short a time as possible on the battlefield, and that’s the same kind of ordinance that people are still able to purchase in this country today.”

The wider question about Buffalo’s missed warning signs is how a culture of white supremacy that appears to have motivated the alleged shooter has been permitted to thrive and proliferate over decades. Kathleen Belew, an associate history professor at the University of Chicago and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, tracks it back to the end of the Vietnam war, when neo-Nazis, tax resisters, skinheads and militia groups all began to coalesce around the idea of white power.

She sees it as a movement that through its networks has left plenty of footprints. “You can trace members of the movement through intermarriages, weapons, money, ideas, images – all of those are flowing with surprising frequency between groups that we thought of as disparate.”

From the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 deur die 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that killed 11 people in Pittsburgh the following year, all the way to Buffalo, the trail of blood is long and voluminous. And yet until recently the FBI and other federal agencies directed much more effort into tackling leftist and Black groups than white supremacists who are far more dangerous.

For Belew, recent statements from top government officials that white nationalism is now the largest domestic terrorism threat in the US are too little, too late. “There’s no way to read this other than it being several decades late. Two years of attention is not enough to face down a movement with decades of organizing.”

As the anniversary of his son’s death looms, all these glaring weaknesses leave Barden all the more determined to strive for a better country. “We are in dire straits in the United States," hy het gesê.

He is playing the long game, hy het gesê, working through Sandy Hook Promise to instill in children a culture change. “We teach kids to value one another, to be upstanders for each other.”

That’s an ambitious project, but over time he believes it will be worth it. Then he adds: “It’s just unfortunate that in the interim we have to watch people die while grocery shopping.”

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