Your fearful observer awoke one morning last week wondering when it will happen in Missouri.
It was the morning after the latest school shooting, this one in Florida, the seventh school shooting incident in the first forty-five days of the year. As of the morning after the latest shooting, twenty people had been killed and thirty-four others had been wounded in those seven incidents.
Since the pace of school shootings began to pick up nationally in the 1980s there have been more than 350 school shootings in this country.
Three hundred. And fifty. Plus.
The escalation of shootings at schools is stunning. Wikipedia has compiled a list of incidents at schools going back to Greencastle, Pennsylvania’s Enoch Brown School massacre in 1764, although that doesn’t quite fit today’s description of a school shooting because it was part of an Indian uprising against the British. Only one of the ten people killed was shot. The others were killed with “melee weapons,” as they are called.
The chart says there were twenty-eight incidents in the nineteenth century. The number jumped to 226 in the Twentieth Century (141 of them in the last three decades including the first mass shooting, 1999’s Littleton Colorado incident that killed fifteen—including the two suicidal shooters—and wounded twenty-one).
In the first seventeen years and two months of the Twenty-First Century there already have been 212 incidents that have made this list.
The Wikipedia list shows nine such shootings in Missouri since 1980. Eleven deaths, including four of the shooters. Seven injuries. Not all of the incidents are what we might think of as school shootings, namely students killing students. The killing of three monks at Conception Abbey is on the list, for example. Some involved only adults. Missouri’s most recent incident was three years ago when a man was wounded in a school parking lot shooting, apparently by another adult. The most recent student incident was in Joplin in 2006 when a student failed to kill a principal when his gun failed.
We hope we never have one of those horrific incidents in Missouri. But we are sure we are not the only person in Missouri living in dread that it could happen here.
What is there to do about it? Opinions are strong on this issue and we will not wade into it here. Our focus will be on an important factor that can get lost in the discussion of school shootings and what should be done beyond the increasingly stale phrase “thoughts and prayers.”
The Associated Press the morning after the Florida incident described the suspect as, “An orphaned 19-year old with a troubled past and an AR-15 rifle…” and reported, “Students who knew him described him as a volatile teenager whose strange behavior had caused others to end friendships with him.”
Sooner or later someone is going to ask—some probably have by now—“Why didn’t somebody do something to head him off?” And some will wonder why he didn’t get help with mental health issues, sentiments frequently heard after incidents such as these.
Unanswerable questions. A similar question might be, “How many school shooting incidents did NOT take place because our mental health people turned their clients in a better direction?”
Many years ago, one of my sometime-colleagues who sat next to me while we covered the legislature turned out to have murdered his wife a couple of years earlier. Who among us can honestly say that we can determine that the person next to us is so unstable that he or she is or can become a killer?
Can we, however, reduce the chances that something terrible might happen if we put more resources into a system that works to reduce those chances?
We wrote a column last year about a courageous and striking book we had read called, “No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America.” I suggested that anyone in the legislature who deals with health and mental health funding should have this book on their must-read list. With the General Assembly in session, now—particularly as we ask questions in the wake of the Florida school shooting—it is time to renew that suggestion, not just for those dealing with mental health funding but for all of our lawmakers.
Discussions are underway at the Capitol of further reductions in the state’s ability to finance vital programs and services at a time when the organization, Mental Health America, has published its 2017 report on the state of mental health in this country. It ranks each state and territory on fifteen categories to arrive at a ranking that “indicates lower prevalence of mental illness and higher access to care.”
Missouri’s overall ranking was 31st. Seven criteria used to rank services to adults placed Missouri 36th. We were 24th in the “youth” category.
The study found that we are 23rd in the prevalence of mental illness. But when it comes to access to mental health care, we are only 36th.
If one of these unspeakable tragedies caused by someone of noticeable “strange behavior” happens in our state, as has happened in Florida, how will we think about that 36th place ranking? And should this situation, this possibility, this circumstance be part of those discussions?
We pray that Missourians never have to confront those questions. Or the people of any other state.
Let all of us pray.