Can We Stop the Shootings if We Don’t Understand the Shooters?

The number of shootings and killings by gunfire in Chicago has reached a level not seen for two decades.  The latest high profile killing has brought this sad fact to the nation’s attention again. In this case the victim was Nykea Aldridge, a 32-year-old mother of four and, of national significance, the cousin of newly acquired Chicago Bull Dwyane Wade.

Two young Black men were arrested and charged with the murder of Ms. Aldridge.  The 26- and 22-year-old siblings were described as “known gang members.”  Both had been recently released on parole – in one case, two weeks earlier –both having served half of their sentences of six and eight years, respectively, for crimes involving the use of guns.

As is so often the case, Ms. Aldridge was not the target of the shooting.

Now we resume the heretofore fruitless quest for solutions to the escalating tide of “gang-related” killings in Chicago. The Mayor, Superintendent of Police, and others – including Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump – have weighed in on possible solutions to the problem.  The causes and solutions of gun violence in this city have been discussed on local and national radio talk shows and in journal articles.

Everyone knows the answer.  The answer is getting the known gang members with violent records off the streets: putting them in prison and keeping them there for their full sentences. The answer is adding tough penalties for illegal possession or use of a firearm. The answer is a more intensive police presence in the neighborhoods where gang violence is prevalent.

The answer is reinvestment in Black communities, creating job opportunities for residents and especially for young people. The answer is improving the quality of “inner city” schools, putting their funding on an equal level with that of affluent schools.  The answer is job training to prepare Black youth for well paying jobs in the new economy. The answer is creating a relationship of trust between the police and Black communities.

These answers assume that we know both the causes of violent actions committed by young Black men and the solutions that will cause these actions to cease. However, some of these answers are based on shaky assumptions and are, thus, not likely to be effective. Of course, public safety will be enhanced if the most dangerous gangsters are removed from the streets. But first they must be charged with specific crimes, tried, and sentenced. The low rate at which gun crimes are solved offers little expectation that shooters will be apprehended. And unless the conviction is for murder or attempted murder, the sentence, even if served in its entirety, will probably result in the release of the shooter in his prime, permanently enmeshed in the gang structure and more hardened in the criminal mentality.

The operation of prisons in the US is shameful. Our prisons offer little opportunity for rehabilitation. They are warehouses for humans in which corruption and brutality are routine. Inmates are able to operate criminal enterprises with impunity. And recidivism is programmed in, as former convicts are barred from jobs, educational funds, housing, and other sources of stability (if not by law, by practice). Persons convicted of crimes involving firearms will be placed in these same prisons and exposed to the same circumstances.

Proposed solutions based on rebuilding Black communities, investing in jobs and education, are desirable in themselves, even if these communities were not under constant threat of armed violence. But these solutions are not easy to implement. There is the problem of political will. How likely are elected officials and social elites to allocate large sums of money and to focus public resources at all levels on the needs of powerless people?  How willing will they be to induce or coerce corporations to engage with Black communities?

And everyone must be willing to encourage and assist members of the affected communities to fully participate in the decisions that will affect them and their children. Paternalism and corruption, the undoing of many well-intended initiatives, remain threats to any future effort at rebuilding communities. And although it may be difficult to accept, the gangs themselves must be brought “to the table” as “stakeholders” if a resolution of violent conflicts is to be part of such an initiative. Finally, it is only when such positive steps as these are taken that a large-scale police presence –  as community partners  rather than an occupying armed force –  can be accepted.

The alleged killers are now in custody. In that context, I want to raise an issue that is generally overlooked: no one is in a better position to inform us about the factors that lead to gun deaths than the very people who cause gun deaths. The fact is that we know very little about the individuals who commit gun violence. I contend that we cannot stop the violence until we understand the perpetrators of the violence. And we are fundamentally ignorant about the motivations of the shooters, their worldview, and their self perception.

We have a good deal of data that describe the problem quantitatively, in the aggregate. The police have good information about the number of gangs, the number of gang members, and their geographical distribution. Authorities also know who the gang members are. But what we know about them beyond the most generalized and aggregate information is pitifully little. I contend that much of what we need to know can only be obtained through one-on-one interaction with the perpetrators of violent acts. Some data, of course, are objective and must be obtained through tests and measurements. But other, perhaps more important, information requires conversations with the people we need to understand. Some of the information we need is obvious. Some only comes to mind when we think imaginatively about the possible causes of extreme moral anomalies.

The shooters almost certainly fit the demographic profile of young people who commit violent crimes. The problem is that the majority of youth who fit this profile don’t become hardened criminals.  There is also a generalized psychosocial profile of youth who commit crimes. And yet many youth transcend and live with the psychological conditions that correlate with criminality.

So what makes these young men – the shooters – different? Is it only their socioeconomic situation? Is it their unique interactions with family, school, and other institutions in their environment? Is it their history of physical abuse? Have they been affected  by lead or other toxic substances in their environment? Do they have diminished mental capacity? A history of mental illness? Cognitive disabilities? Some of this information is available through interviews with the shooters and their family members. Some is available through academic and medical records. And some is available through various types of tests.

But I’m also interested in their understanding of their actions and the moral implications of those actions. Do they feel remorse about the killing of an unintended victim? How do they feel about the killing of another person generally? What value do they put on human lives inside and outside of their circle of close relationships? What value do they put on their own lives? What views do they hold regarding the “big” questions – the existence of God, the destiny of the human soul, what constitutes right or wrong, justice, and the like?

I don’t minimize the difficulty of getting the needed information. Cost presents a huge obstacle: the cost of people, equipment, and computing. There are legitimate safeguards of civil liberty that must be observed. The best time and place to interview shooters is when they have been arrested and are in the custody of law enforcement. But if they haven’t been tried and their cases are not yet resolved, any information they give to non-lawyers is inherently prejudicial to their defenses.

I am convinced that we need a massive rebuilding of impoverished communities. But I am also convinced that we must develop a broad and deep understanding of the young men who commit violent crimes. With such knowledge, we can hope to more precisely focus the resources that are needed to prevent other young men from joining the ranks of urban gang warriors. Perhaps we can even alter the behavior and values of the men who have already gone down the path of violence.


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