by Dianna Bellerose
- What is your point of view on gun violence and gun laws?
I doubt any reasonable person would question that it’s wrong. The only good purpose for a gun is if you are defending yourself from a physical threat that you can’t reasonably resolve without a weapon; e.g. assault, threatened assault, or threatened murder, by someone who is bigger, stronger, holding/reaching for a weapon, and/or who exerts a sufficient enough power over you that you feel helpless to stop him/her otherwise, as is the case in many instances of abuse.
Within the boundaries of self-defense, I support having guns in schools. However, I believe those guns should only be in the hands of trained and approved individuals; e.g. teachers, administrators, and SROs who have passed background checks and don’t have any red flags against them. In an ideal world, I might also include responsible, mentally-balanced teens; but, in an ideal world, all of this would be moot because we wouldn’t have school shootings. Likewise, I support the notion of improved background checks; but, I believe that’s the limit to how effective gun laws can be.
The reason goes back to what motivates the shooter in any scenario. The problem of gun violence, in schools or anywhere else, doesn’t begin with guns. A gun, locked and in its holster, doesn’t fire itself. It takes a person, and that person has to have a motive. This motive may be self-defense/defense of someone else, desperation in the face of poverty, or participation in a gang. Then, there are those who use a gun for no other reason than because they want to. It’s a preferred and elevating part of exerting control over someone else. It serves the purpose of making the person less likely to fight back unless s/he also has a gun, in which case the first person is that much less likely to attack the second person to begin with. Then, of course, there is the matter of mental illness; there are those who should not pass a background check because they lack the capacity to fully establish and express when it is/isn’t appropriate to use a gun, or because they are otherwise violent to such a degree that a reasonable person would hesitate to give him/her a gun.
Take a stalker, for instance. S/he may be able to tell you the right answers; but, when it comes down to it, s/he has a higher likelihood of shooting his/her victim, to then rationalize that it was deserved, often for a completely irrational reason. Taking all of this into account, there is the concern of what eliminating guns would actually accomplish. “The majority of murders throughout the Americas are committed with guns…Gun restriction proponents point to the case in Brazil, where gun access was restricted and the murder rate dropped. Proponents of gun ownership point to the case in Venezuela, where gun access was denied, guns were taken away, and the murder rate increased.” 4 In two countries, access to guns is restricted/denied. In one, murder goes up. In the other, murder goes down. Therefore, the solution must be based on something other than the availability of guns, which is why we must look at other societal factors, i.e. motives.
2. What do you think triggered Nikolas Cruz’s rage? Do you feel that his pain has been accumulating for years because of constant bullying?
I don’t think it was triggered, in a recent sense, so much as that it’s been building since as early as a 3rd-4th grade. In 4th grade, he was killing and physically abusing small animals. Just about everyone in the area allegedly had issues with him–issues that included theft, harassment, vandalism, and peeping into bedroom windows. 1 There were at least 36 calls to 911 in 6 years–an average of 1 every other month, though, realistically, it was probably more than once per month, with quiet periods while he was getting psychological help. Yet, he was never arrested and was cleared as being “no threat to anyone or himself.” 2 Let that soak in for a moment–this young man had been abusing/killing small animals, had become a menace to his neighborhood, and had been involved in 36 calls to 911. Yet, he was deemed to not be a threat–and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
He was very clearly mentally ill. He had a history of violence/abuse. He was even suspended multiple times, then expelled from this same high school. ‘His therapist and the deputies on scene concluded that there were “no signs of mental illness or criminal activity.”‘ 2 Yet, at that time, he had been cutting his own arms, allegedly to get attention, and had mentioned wanting to buy a firearm. You don’t self-mutilate unless you’re suffering from a mental illness. Usually, that illness is depression, which he was believed to have had. He is also believed to have had brain development issues and trouble with impulse control. 5 The risk he posed was so well-known that other students “jokingly” referred to him as “the one who would shoot up the school.” 3 Meanwhile, the school had already disallowed him from having a backpack on campus due to the belief that he might bring a weapon to school.
I believe bullying was part of it. It certainly didn’t help. However, whether it was constant isn’t something that has yet been established. What has been established is that “often complained about bullying on campus.”
3. Why is it so important for families and school officials to pay closer attention to students, namely those who are being bullied and others who show signs of related mental illnesses?
There are many reasons–all of which boil down to the right of all students to a safe and equal education and the right of employees to a safe work environment. However, for the purposes of this interview, I’ll limit my response to school shootings. In approximately 3/4 of school shootings, the shooter was a victim of peer abuse. The remaining 1/4 of cases may also have involved abuse; but, it’s unrecognized and, thus, isn’t certain. However, in all cases, mental illness is involved. It may/may not have been a pre-existing condition; but, I believe it’s reasonable to say that a sufficiently high enough degree of mental illness had developed by the time of the shooting to keep the person from thinking as clearly as you and I are right now.
Peer abuse is a matter of life and death. In addition to the high percentage of victims among school shooters, it increases the chances of committing suicide by 500%. Likewise, there is the increased likelihood of developing eating disorders, developing other minor/major health conditions, dropping out of school, committing lesser crimes, later on, inability to maintain relationships after being abused, etc. However, it must also be acknowledged that peer abuse isn’t enough in itself to bring on a shooting. It must also involve a degree of mental illness. Sometimes, the person is born with that factor. Sometimes, it’s created, in large part, by the people in his/her life. Nikolas Cruz’ issues were noticed and acknowledged before the shooting. Yet, he was not stopped and, in fact, was mocked by other students, while, allegedly, his being bullied was ignored by teachers.
Jim Lewis, the family’s lawyer, was quoted as saying that the shooting “was the first indication they had of the depth of violence inside Nikolas Cruz.” This might be true for the family he was staying with at the time of the shooting; but, when he was younger, his mother knew. The neighbors and school knew/should have known. He didn’t come out of the blue–a straight-A student with no history of trouble–and bring a gun to school. Nikolas Cruz was deeply troubled and just about everyone knew it, and/or had sufficient reason that they should have known it.
4. Do you think that if the school and others had been paying more attention to what is going on in his life this would have never happened? Is he the only person to be blamed for this tragic event?
Yes and no, respectively. However, it doesn’t appear to have been an issue of paying attention, so much as of taking it seriously. In and out of schools, I believe people have a long-standing habit of not taking teens seriously until one is holding a gun. Then, he’s “evil,” “psychotic,” “cowardly,” “the only one to blame,” etc. The district office was quoted as saying that they had received no warnings/threats of the shooting before it happened 5; yet, the evidence is clear that there were plenty of warnings/threats. He got suspended, further restricted, and then expelled. Then, he was transferred to another school in the county for unspecified issues that arose.7 For a while, he was receiving psychiatric treatment for those indicators–sessions which were paid for and arranged by his mother and which ended when she died this past November.6 It seems rather obvious that they were warned; but, they didn’t take it seriously, whether because he was a teenager or because they didn’t specifically receive a phone call, email, tacked-up flyer, etc., right before the shooting, saying what was was going to happen, where, and when. Undoubtedly, many will say I’m being unfair; but, I don’t know how many times a school has to hear that someone is a threat for them to believe it. Why do you have to hear the specific words “I’m going to bring a gun and kill as many people as possible, on Valentines Day at _____ time” to take the threat seriously?
To their credit, the school did expel him. However, I was under the apparently mistaken impression that you’re supposed to call the police and file a report when you expel someone for violence or threats of violence. Doing so would, I think, have gone on his criminal record, which would have kept him, at least, from purchasing the rifle legally. Between that and more mental health help along the way, this might have been avoided. Of course, I realize that it’s not a certainty, being a matter of severe mental illness; but, with his very long history of violence and mental illness, much more could/should have been done. Yet, people are saying that it came out of left field–that no one saw it coming. Whether in ignorance or intentionally, he was overlooked. Now, he’s in jail for 17 counts of murder and as many as 17 families will never see their loved ones again.
Mandy Trouten has 13+ years of experience as an anti-abuse advocate on the subject of peer abuse in schools. She is also the author of two published books and a co-author on a school disciplinary procedure, centered on how to better address/end peer abuse.