Health Editor’s Note: It seems as though mass shootings happen every few weeks in schools, churches, at malls, etc. I think that sometimes it might be very apparent that someone who becomes a shooter can be targeted and thus stopped before killing. This article gives an example of one instance when a shooter could be recognized and stopped. Unfortunately, many shooters would slip through the cracks because they are no so obviously transparent in their actions.The greater question here is why this is happening? Distractions? ….Carol
Can Mass Shootings Be Prevented?
Yes, if enough people share information about problem behaviors
By Joyce Frieden, New Editor, MedPage Today
AUSTIN, Texas — Although it’s helpful to learn more about the motivations behind mass shootings, it’s even better to try to prevent them before they happen, James Knoll, MD, said here.
Finding out more about mass shooters’ reasons and mental illnesses “has gotten us [only] so far,” Knoll, director of forensic psychiatry at SUNY Upstate in Syracuse, New York, said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL). “What about looking at it from those shootings able to be prevented or disrupted?”
Knoll presented a case he was involved with in which a potential mass shooting was disrupted. The suspect, Xiaoteng Zhan, was a Chinese national in the U.S. on a student visa, and he was attending Syracuse University. Zhan went to a gun store and asked to purchase an AR-15 assault rifle — something he could legally do because he had taken a hunter safety course the day before and purchased a hunting license.
The gun store owner, however, thought that Zhan seemed a bit “hinky” and engaged him in conversation. “He was asking about high-capacity weapons … but he didn’t seem very familiar with firearms, and when asked about why he wanted to use them, he was not really forthcoming,” Knoll said the store owner reported. Also, Zhan said he belonged to a shooting club at the university that the store owner knew didn’t exist.
The store owner eventually allowed Zhan to fill out the paperwork but declined to sell him a gun; “he thought [Zhan’s] behavior was suspicious and generally made him uncomfortable,” Knoll continued. The owner actually thought Zhan might be one of the “secret shoppers” that law enforcement sends in to gun stores periodically. He recorded Zhan’s license plate and contacted the local sheriff’s office about his concerns. All of this was occurring during spring break, and at a time when local high school students were planning to participate in a nationwide “walkout” in response to the mass shooting at Parkland High School in Florida.
Law enforcement authorities also researched Zhan’s history. He had previously been a student at Northeastern University, in Boston, and had approached a teacher there about how to get guns, Knoll said. That teacher was so concerned he emailed his supervisor. Eventually the Northeastern University police were contacted, but they did not find anything about which to be concerned.
Syracuse law enforcement found out that Zhan had sought psychiatric care at two facilities — one at Northeastern in 2015 and one at Syracuse in 2018. Records showed a history of alcohol abuse, depression, and suicidal thinking; Zhan also had been concerned that he would act out violently.
In the meantime, said Knoll, an alarm had gone off in Zhan’s apartment, so police were able to do a “safety check,” during which they saw “a lot of ammunition and things that concerned them.” Zhan was not there; he had gone to Mexico on spring break with some other students who ended up emailing the university saying they were concerned about Zhan. He appeared depressed, was drinking heavily and talking about killing himself, and had gotten a knife and cut himself with it, they said.
Authorities eventually got a search warrant for Zhan’s residence and his car, and they found a lot of high-powered optic scopes and a plethora of paper targets. He also had a lot of firearms and a flash drive with photos of guns he was thinking about buying. When Zhan returned from Mexico, he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and then deported to China.
“What can we learn from this?” Knoll said. The things that went right in this situation, he continued, included “leakage” of Zhan’s strange behaviors as well as collaboration across professional disciplines; there was also some luck in the fact that it was spring break and that the alarm went off.
As for where to go from here, “socio-cultural problems require socio-cultural solutions,” Knoll said — things like laws focusing on behaviors, not psychiatric diagnoses, and paying lots of attention to third-party reporting. And “since many of these are associated with suicide, what about suicide prevention initiatives? What about mental hygiene awareness in classes and teaching [students] about conflict resolution?”
During a question-and-answer session, Knoll was asked what might have happened to Zhan had he not been deported. “The short answer is, he would have been evaluated; it depends on the results of the evaluation whether he would be involuntarily hospitalized,” Knoll said. “I don’t know if he would be charged with anything; that would be a legal issue.”