Mark Follman on a disastrous summer for "good guys with guns"
"In fact, we're seeing more mass shootings at the same time that we're seeing more guns everywhere," he told me.
On the heels of a grim holiday weekend in the US for gun violence — lowlighted by a shooting during a July Fourth parade in suburban Illinois that killed at least seven people — I rang up Mark Follman, national affairs editor for Mother Jones, to get his big picture expert view of where we’re at.
Follman has written extensively about gun violence, both at Mother Jones but also in his recent Trigger Points, a book that goes deep on efforts to stop mass shootings before they happen. His research has led him to embrace a holistic approach to gun control that isn’t just about banning specific types of firearms, but also places importance on beefing up red flag laws that allow courts to take guns away from potential shooters before they strike. Incentivizing states to pass those types of laws was a key part of the bipartisan gun legislation that was recently signed into law by President Biden. Despite the widespread perception that the bill doesn’t do enough, Follman is optimistic it will actually mark a key inflection point in Congress tackling America’s gun violence problem.
But before we got to discussing the gun bill, we talked about how each of the three highly publicized mass shootings that have recently taken place in America — the ones in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park, respectively — undercut the GOP talking point about “good guys with guns,” not gun control, being the solution to gun violence.
“This spate of horrific attacks shows that ‘good guys with guns’ is not real — it’s a fantasy,” Follman told me.
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarify, follows.
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It’s been a very bad few weeks for the idea that good guys with guns stop gun violence. The Highland Park shooting, for instance, happened despite the presence of armed officers at the parade.
Yeah. These last three highly publicized mass shootings in particular show very starkly how wrong that idea is. There is no evidence to support the “good guy with a gun” notion in a broad sense, but look what happened recently. In Buffalo, you had an armed security guard who fired back at the shooter and was killed. In Uvalde, you had this tactical disaster unfold, where we’re talking about law enforcement — well-armed, even with training — who were unable to stop the gunman for a long period of time. Then with Highland Park, the perpetrator escapes and it takes law enforcement about eight hours to catch him.
This spate of horrific attacks shows that ‘good guys with guns’ is not real — it’s a fantasy. They don’t prevent mass shootings from happening. In fact, we're seeing more mass shootings at the same time that we're seeing more guns everywhere.
The fact that people keep lawfully obtaining these weapons where for one reason or another they can outgun heavily armed cops seems like a big problem.
I think that's absolutely right. That argument is effectively turning the issue into a nuclear arms race, and it's not just the weapons themselves. It's also, as we're seeing increasingly, the use of tactical gear, like we saw with the shooter in Buffalo. This is a growing issue, that mass shooters are learning from each other and emulating their predecessors more and more — wearing tactical gear to commit an attack and learning about the types of weapons they're using. It used to be that semiautomatic handguns were the prime weapon of mass shooters. In many cases, they still use them. But increasingly, these AR-15s — essentially weapons of war — have become the gun of choice for mass shooters. So this is a problem of escalation in multiple aspects that I think is very troubling.
Does all of this suggest that revisiting an assault weapons ban would be a good thing for Congress to do, if it really wanted to do something to quell gun violence?
Possibly, though I think you [can’t] discount how politically difficult that is. There are also definitional challenges with "assault weapons.” But from my perspective, what’s crucial is taking a more holistic approach to the problem in general and also to regulating firearms in particular — to have more policies added to the picture that do specific things to make access to these kinds of weapons more difficult, whether it's background checks, age limits, red flag laws, perhaps limiting what types of weapons are available. We're much further down the road in our understanding of these problems than when we had that assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. So I think there can be a much more research-informed approach to regulating firearms broadly, including the types of weapons that are available, who they're available to and how, and when.
It’s also worth noting that all these shootings are happening as we watched the Supreme Court just hand down a major decision that’s going to result in a lot more people carrying guns in public. So that just goes back to the point of more guns everywhere, more mass shootings. Clearly, the legal structure that we have in our country nationally, which is extremely patchwork, is ineffective. Good guys with guns are not going to stop this. We need a much more broad-based approach. It's part of what I'm arguing in my book — we need much more proactive prevention work in addition to policies that catch up to the state of play with weapons in the United States. We have a lot more AR-15s than we had even a few years ago. That has been the best selling type of firearm in recent years, and the number of them has grown into the millions.
And yet I can’t even remember the last time there was a mass shooting where the shooter didn’t legally obtain the weapon. That seems like a pretty strong refutation of the idea you often hear from Republicans about gun control laws supposedly being ineffective, because bad guys would get them anyway.
Yeah, and I think those political arguments are also intended to distract and to maintain the status quo, to try to pin it all in a single policy. If it's just about assault weapons, but you don't have background checks or age limits or red flag laws — it's all of these tools taken together to have truly more effective policy.
So to dismiss it as all a matter of one type of gun or mental illness or psychiatric drugs or online medicalization — no, it's all of these things taken together. But at the heart of the matter, of course, is easy access to very powerful guns in many places all throughout the country.
You recently wrote about new research showing red flag laws may have prevented dozens of mass shootings.
Illinois has a red flag law, but it is rarely used. How in theory might a law of this sort prevented the Highland Park shooting?
I think the investigation is likely to reveal there was a trail of warning behaviors. That's the case in virtually every mass shooting of this kind. If we assume there were warning signs well in advance and leading up to this attack, then potentially people around the perpetrator would've been able to notice them. And if they were aware of the possibility of using a red flag law, then in theory it could have been used to go to court and prohibit the individual from having firearms.
One of the issues that you've already flagged here with this policy is that it is underused and not well understood and well known, including among law enforcement and the civil procedure system. Red flag laws in most cases are initiated by law enforcement and in some cases by family members and others around an individual, depending on what state you're in and what the policy is. But theoretically, the initial research is showing that when these laws are used — primarily the research that I wrote about in California — it shows that a lot of threat cases where this has been used have resulted in nonviolent outcomes. And that's very promising in terms of the possible effect, especially if this is scaled nationally.
You’ve probably seen that the suspected Highland Park shooter posted disturbing, violent videos on YouTube, one of which depicted shooting someone with a long gun.
Is the basic idea that red flag laws enable acquaintances of the shooter to go to law enforcement and say, hey, this guy is posting disturbing stuff and shouldn’t have guns?
Online postings in and of themselves may not tell you anything about a person. But as with every other mass shooting of this kind, we now know that the suspected Highland Park shooter had a long history of disturbing behavior and gave off warning signs that were noticeable to people around him. This is precisely the kind of situation where a red flag law — if understood and well-utilized within a community — could help prevent the kind of catastrophe that occurred at the July Fourth parade. Growing research shows that the use of this civil court process can be effective for removing firearms from a person who is turning dangerous.
On the subject of red flag laws, I know incentivizing states to adopt them is one of the key components of the bipartisan gun legislation that President Biden recently signed into law. But at the same time, you’ve probably noticed that the bill has been heavily criticized by progressives for not doing enough.
What’s your take on how significant this bill is?
It's significant in a couple ways. One is that it will likely support the continued growth of red flag laws throughout the states, in terms of funding and awareness and potential implementation of the policy. But that said, it's going to be up to the states to do it, and so there will still be challenges that we're familiar with in terms of the polarized politics of the gun issue. There may be states that won't do it, or won't take the money for that purpose.
More broadly speaking, I think the gun bill that passed Congress, while falling far short of what a majority believes is needed for more effective gun regulations in the country — to reduce the problem of gun violence more broadly, including mass shootings specifically — is still very significant and important in my view, because it puts out to pasture the narrative that we've been hearing about for so long about nothing ever changing at the federal level, that Congress won't do anything to fix this problem. That's no longer true. This is major legislation that has passed, and I think it opens the door for continued steps to deal with the gun violence epidemic.
I've also written recently that the narrative and the framing that we have around mass shootings and around gun violence in the country broadly, in my view, has become part of the problem— that we're stuck in this eternal theme of nothing ever changes, that it's hopeless, that there's nothing we can really do about it. That, in and of itself, perpetuates the problem and has specific implications for mass shooters too. We know from case evidence that they're paying attention to these themes and looking for justification and validation of their attacks. I think that that feeds into it, that kind of nihilism, so it's important from that perspective too.
I think one of the things that contributes to that nihilism is this cycle of shootings happening, then Republicans trotting out tired nonsensical talking points to try to shift the problem from guns to anything and everything else. You probably saw this week that Marjorie Taylor Greene was trying to blame the Highland Park shooting on antidepressants, but of course countries with higher rates of antidepressant consumption don’t have the types of gun violence problems that we have.
Along similar lines, Fox News on Tuesday night went full Reefer Madness in order to shift blame.
All it takes is a Google search and some basic logic to debunk the idea that our gun violence problem is primarily rooted in video games or mental health issues, and yet reciting stuff like this has become a ritual for Republicans following mass shootings. From your expert standpoint, do these attempts to change the topic seem just as ridiculous as they do to me?
We always see people in the aftermath of these major traumatic attacks using simplistic explanations to either support their ideological or political views of guns, or to distract from the debate that is more really central to solving the problem, namely gun regulations, but also broader-based policy solutions that are getting more attention, including red flag laws.
So blaming it all on antidepressants — that's an old canard with mass shootings. There's no scientific evidence supporting that, and more broadly in the same territory, blaming mental illness, which I've written about a lot, as the primary cause of mass shootings is fundamentally wrong. It's not supported by evidence and it's used to distract from issues like access to firearms, which of course is intrinsic to the problem, especially as we have record numbers of guns in the country.
Do you see the willingness that a number of Republicans recently demonstrated to beef up red flag laws as a first step toward them being willing to address access to guns?
Yes. I would say some Republicans are open to it, and I think the funding of red flag laws in the bill opens the door to regulation of firearms, because you're talking about a policy that is designed to remove firearms from people determined to be dangerous to themselves or to others by a court or judge, so that is a restriction on guns. But the extreme political ideology that has been orthodoxy for so long in the Republican Party, that you can't do anything to regulate guns — that [the supposed right for individuals to have guns] is sacrosanct — the bipartisan gun bill changes that. The notion that we can’t do anything has now been disproven through an act of Congress for the first time in more than two decades, and I think that's very significant in terms of what it could be followed by and opens the door to.
You recently published a book called Trigger Points, which is about specialized teams of experts who are working, with some success, to prevent mass shootings.
What are some of the key takeaways from your research?
One is that behavioral threat assessment as a prevention method holds great promise in terms of mass shootings in particular, because what we know from studying these cases is that they are planned attacks preceded by what are often identifiable warning signs. This goes to what we were discussing about red flag laws, but there’s also a whole range of behaviors and circumstances that offer opportunity to intervene.
In communities where there are robust threat assessment programs like the kind that I write about in the book — one of the main examples being in a school system in Salem, Oregon — you have a lot of cases that are successfully handled primarily behind the scenes, out of public view, where you're talking about at-risk individuals who are showing signs of developing violent ideas, of potentially planning for violence, of taking steps to carry out violence, where constructive interventions have taken place and where that person is managed over a period of time through the threat assessment process and steered away from what's called "the pathway to violence" in the field, which is an escalating behavioral process that leads up to every single one of these attacks — school shootings, mass shootings — by steering people away from that and getting them into a better place by giving them essentially the help that they need.
That can involve mental health, but it's not exclusively about mental health. As I was saying earlier, it can't all be dumped on the mental health profession to fix this problem. We’re also talking about people who need educational support, work support, they have rough home situations — there are all kinds of constructive interventions that go on at the hands of threat assessment teams. There are many cases where individuals who were setting up for some pretty scary circumstances, who looked quite clearly to be planning targeted violence, planned attacks, were steered away from that over time. I came to see this method as an additional tool that's potentially very effective and powerful on a national scale to help us reduce the problem of mass shootings and gun violence more broadly. It's also helpful with suicide prevention. You probably know there is a very strong overlap between suicidal and homicidal behavior that has a nexus in mass shootings. The majority of mass shooters are suicidal.
What do you see as the next legislative frontier for gun control proponents?
We know there's strong bipartisan public support for more stringent background checks. I think that's an area that Congress probably now has greater potential to do something about. It's still going to be very tough politically, but perhaps not quite as tough as it was before because, again, we now have this precedent of progress, of bipartisan progress on regulating firearms in ways that most Americans see as not only reasonable but important.
This may also be true increasingly with the idea of raising the age limit of purchasing certain kinds of firearms, which was on the table initially with the gun bill and didn't really get through. They passed a policy to have more extensive background checks for buyers ages 18 to 21, but I think that probably opens the door to more possibility of raising the age limit to 21. Again, that's a long shot nationally, but as a policy idea, I think it will have more traction going forward, certainly at the state level, if not with Congress.
Thanks for reading this edition of Public Notice. I’ll be back with more Friday.