America recently has suffered through a spate of mass shootings. Most recently, a gunman fired on a crowd of people on the Fourth of July in Highland Park, Illinois. Seven were killed and more than 40 others were injured.
Across the country, concerned citizens ask, “Why?” Why does this keep happening and what can we do about it?
Amy Swearer, a legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation specializing in firearms and the Second Amendment, views it as a deeper issue involving the mental health of those who obtain weapons and go on to commit those crimes. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
“There is this social contagion effect where people who are disgruntled, who are not in a good state of mind, who feel rejected or outcasts want to make a name for themselves,” Swearer explains.
Swearer adds that, many times, even if the person legally obtains the weapons they use in a mass shooting, it’s generally because laws on the books weren’t enforced or disqualifying behavior slips through the cracks.
“The problem is either no one noticed or took official steps, or they hadn’t quite reached a point under existing laws where they could be charged with a disqualifying felony or involuntarily committed,” she says. “All of these gun laws are only as good as their enforcement. It’s the same thing with red flag laws.”
Swearer joins the show to discuss the most recent mass shooting and what laws could actually help stop these shootings.
Also on today’s show, we cover these stories:
- The man accused of killing seven people in Highland Park, Illinois, confesses to the crime and reveals that he had planned a second attack.
- Georgia Democrats may have violated state election laws by building a field office too close to a polling place.
- California Gov. Gavin Newsom vacations in Montana, even though his state bans state employees from traveling there on business.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Doug Blair: My guest today is Amy Swearer, a Heritage Foundation legal fellow specializing in firearms and the Second Amendment. Amy, welcome to the show.
Amy Swearer: Hey, thank you for having me.
Blair: Of course. I wish we could talk under better circumstances, but we just had another mass shooting here. This time was in Highland Park, near Chicago, Illinois. It seems like these things are starting to happen with alarming frequency. Big picture, what could some of the causes of these types of mass shootings be?
Swearer: First, I want to address the idea that these are happening far more frequently than they did in the past. I think when you look at the data, it’s not true.
What tends to happen is they tend to be cyclical. So you will see that there is what’s called a contagion effect, that you tend to see them bunched. And I think, unfortunately, we are in the midst of one of those cycles.
But when you look at overall, in mass public shootings like this, I think some of the feeling of why it feels like, “Oh, we haven’t seen this in a while,” is you saw a dip during 2020 and 2021 during COVID lockdowns, largely because people were not outside and gathering in these places, so you had other problems associated with that.
But I think it is a shock to the system because we went through this extended period of time of not seeing this, which, again, I think shows that there are other aspects to these shootings other than just guns and the proliferation of guns. But on the whole, I mean, not that average pace of mass shootings is good, obviously not, but this is not some off-the-charts scenario. I think it just feels like that.
But in terms of these underlying causes, again, there is this social contagion effect where people who are disgruntled, who are not in a good state of mind, who feel rejected or outcasts want to make a name for themselves. There’s a variety of internal brokenness that goes into this.
When they see others do it, it lowers the barrier in their own minds for them to, unfortunately, take that next step and plan these. And it becomes this almost cultish issue within their minds where they obsess over it.
But on the whole, that’s where you see these underlying issues. It’s not necessarily people who are diagnosably mentally ill, but people who are obviously not in a good place, who are mentally unwell, who see this as their way to either make a name for themselves—a lot of times, this was not the case in Highland Park, but a lot of times they are suicidal themselves. They want to go out with a bang. They feel aggrieved in some sense.
And unfortunately, I think a lot of those same factors seem to be at play in Highland Park, even as we’re still learning more information.
Blair: Now, speaking about this shooting in particular, there’s a lot of different things that I’m hoping you could help us understand. One of the things that we’re seeing is that police are reporting the shooter used a weapon that is “similar” to an AR-15 and was a high-powered rifle or something along those lines. Is there anything unique about the guns used in this particular attack that we don’t see with other mass shootings?
Swearer: No. And in fact, this just goes back to this longstanding theme of, anytime something like this happens, people find some way of trying to make it seem like this was some firearm that was so extraordinarily dangerous, no law-abiding citizen should own them.
And from what it seems, it’s just not the case. Certainly not in any previous mass shootings. It doesn’t seem to be the case in this one. These are just semiautomatic firearms. They are commonly owned by tens of millions of Americans.
I suspect that the phrasing of “a gun like an AR-15” is simply because a lot of Americans understand what that type of firearm is.
In terms of whether or not it’s high-powered, I mean, it’s certainly possible that this gun was chambered in a different round than your standard AR-15. But from the looks of it, both in this one and certainly, again, standard throughout these mass shootings, it doesn’t seem to be anything that isn’t a common caliber.
We’re not talking about some true military weapon, some .50-caliber, fully automatic machine gun. These are standard civilian weapons. And unfortunately, here, it was used to great effect for evil, horrific reasons.
Blair: Every single part of this process, it seems like from the reporting, was that this was a weapon he obtained legally and that there’s even reporting that the shooter’s firearm owner’s identification card, which is something you have to have in Illinois to have a gun, was co-sponsored by his father, even though the shooter had expressed violent thoughts before. So at every step of the process, this was legally obtained. But I guess my question is, how does that happen? How does it get to that point?
Swearer: Yeah. This is an unfortunate reality with mass shooters in particular. So for the rest of violent crime, most of the time you’re dealing with individuals who were not in legal possession of their firearms. But with mass shooters, with perhaps one or two exceptions, the reality is they are able to legally obtain their guns often, and again, as is the case here, despite this longstanding behavior of showing themselves to be very clearly a danger to themselves or others.
The problem is either no one noticed that or took official steps, or they hadn’t quite reached a point under existing laws where they could be charged with a disqualifying felony or involuntarily committed.
And that’s this unfortunate reality, which again, raises this question of, how do we intervene in those situations? Because I think we all agree that there are concerning patterns of behavior in this individual’s history.
You brought up in Illinois, in order to even possess a gun, to buy or possess a gun, you need a firearm owner’s identification card, known as a FOID card. You cannot get those under the age of 21, unless you are sponsored by a parent or guardian, which is what happened here.
So it appears that the shooter now is 21, but he obtained a lot of these firearms under the age of 21 with a FOID card sponsored by a parent.
There’s still a lot of information coming out, but from what I have seen, between the FOID card and purchasing these guns, he passed something like five or six background checks in the last several years, which, again, given some of the earlier concerning behaviors, including an instance just six weeks prior to him getting that FOID card, it raises questions of why none of these behaviors were considered concerning enough for either him to receive help or for someone to say, “Hey, maybe this guy who we just seized a bunch of swords from because he’s dangerous, maybe that’s not the guy six weeks later that we allow his father to sponsor his FOID card.”
Blair: Right. Well, I mean, that brings up a really interesting point because Illinois has really strict gun laws already. And there’s red flag laws on the books as well. But it just doesn’t seem like anything happened. All of those checks failed. You mentioned that he had five. How do they get to that point where five background checks don’t quite pick that up?
Swearer: Yeah. So with respect to background checks, specifically, background checks are only as good as the information the background check services receive. … It’s not “The Matrix,” the pre-crime unit.
Blair: “Minority Report.”
Swearer: Yeah, “Minority Report.” The [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] is not some pre-crime unit where it can just unilaterally search through and determine who is or is not dangerous. It’s based on records that are submitted to NICS from state and local police. And so if there’s nothing in those records that are being submitted, well, of course, he’s going to pass a background check.
So the real question becomes, how does someone with this history—and I’m more than happy to go into some of this history—how does he get to a place where there’s nothing official on his record keeping him, even temporarily, from obtaining a firearm? And that becomes the real question. All of these gun laws are only as good as their enforcement. It’s the same thing with red flag laws.
If you have red flag laws and they are not—and that’s a whole other story about whether Illinois’ red flag law is good or constitutional, but they have one. And it would seem that this is an individual who, if anybody, should be red-flagged, but if it’s not happening, if those petitions are not being filed, they’re no good to anybody at that point.
You mentioned Illinois having pretty strict gun laws, and especially when you put Highland Park on top of that.
I mean, in Illinois, you need a license to possess a gun. You need a different license to carry a gun that’s quite difficult and time-consuming and expensive to get. Open carry is generally prohibited. They have universal background checks. You can only get a gun under 21 if your parents sponsor you. Highland Park in particular, since 2013, has banned the possession of “assault” weapons, like the ones used within city limits. And just a whole lot of other things.
It’s not New York City, but it is a fairly substantially difficult process for all of these things. And again, I think that speaks to the unique aspect that is mass shootings, mass public shootings.
These individuals plan this out for weeks, months in advance. They’re often not, again, falling into those categories of prohibited persons, even though it’s concerning. And they’re very willing to think through this process to get around all of whatever gun laws you have in place. And it makes it very difficult for any gun law in that scenario—complete confiscation, nobody gets any.
It makes it very difficult when you have someone who can pass as a law-abiding citizen, if you will, it makes it difficult for those gun laws to stop them.
Blair: Speaking of gun regulation and gun laws, the president signed a gun package last month and it seems almost inevitable that in the aftermath of this shooting, we will see more calls for gun control, more calls for gun regulation. It sounds as if we have a bunch of laws on the books already that they’re just not being very well enforced.
Is there any way to, maybe this is redundant, but legally mandate that these laws become enforced or is this just a matter of, you got to enforce what’s on the books already?
Swearer: I mean, you have to enforce what’s on the books already, whether it’s for mass shooters, for people who are showing themselves to be dangerous and taking steps.
Again, this individual, just six weeks before he got his FOID card, police were called to his home because a family member said he was threatening to kill everyone. They confiscated a collection of swords. And if someone is that dangerous that you’re confiscating swords, maybe that’s the time to think through your other laws about getting him help.
But it is this, I’m not sure if irony is the word, but in Chicago, they’re dealing with a rogue prosecutor in general. … As I’ve testified to several times and as my colleagues Cully Stimson and Zack Smith have written about, getting prosecutors in Chicago to enforce any laws, including for much more common, everyday occurrences—gang fights, shootouts, robberies, those sorts of things—has been a very difficult process.
And so it’s not very shocking, but when you can’t get prosecutors to charge people for having shootouts in broad daylight in residential neighborhoods, it would seem to suggest you’re going to have problems with other things like that that fall off the radar.
Blair: Sure. Now, like I mentioned at the top, and you’ve even said it, it feels like these mass shootings are becoming more common. I guess the data doesn’t play out that way. But Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said following the shooting, “Let me be clear. There are mental health issues in every country in this world. There are not mass shootings on such a regular basis anywhere else.”
Now, we’ve even mentioned that in the news there was a story about a shooting in Virginia that was thwarted. But again, it doesn’t seem to happen in other countries, that they have these types of issues. In England, we don’t see this. In France, we don’t see this. So what is it about America that seems to be, like, we have this problem?
Swearer: I think there are a couple of things. I mean, first of all, we do have a Second Amendment that other countries do not. It raises unique parameters on what we can and can’t do.
Yeah, if you’re in an island country where you largely ban semiautomatic firearms for most people and can confiscate them, yeah, there’s a whole lot more you can do to ensure that none of your citizens have guns.
This idea that this happens nowhere else, simply not true. I can think of two mass public shootings in European countries within the last three weeks that we’ve seen despite their gun laws. And you can see the problem of mass attacks, like we saw in, I believe it was Nice [France] a couple years ago with 85 people killed in a truck attack.
So certainly, yes, there’s a problem with mental illness. There’s a problem with guns. But it’s much more complicated.
I mean, you look at states like Vermont, New Hampshire, states that have very lax, comparatively, gun laws, a whole lot of gun owners, but not seeing these mass attacks. To try to boil it down to this simple relationship is not true. You see that even in just the non-firearm homicide rates in the United States, which are much higher than other countries’ total homicide rates, firearms or no firearms.
China roundly bans guns for its civilian population. They have a tremendous problem with knife attacks in schools and in subway systems.
So I think there’s certainly a lot we can and should do in terms of mental health and in terms of intervention because, to some extent, this is a unique problem, given our unique Second Amendment. But our response cannot be the same, and it has to be based on a reality that this is much more complicated than these simple solutions.
Even now, to just say, “Well, let’s ban guns.” How do you go about confiscating 400 million firearms? We are not in a similar situation. It’s much more complex than that. And we need to understand that for purposes of policy.
Blair: Speaking of policy, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a pattern of young men within a certain age bracket who tend to commit these crimes. Obviously, this is what happened in Highland Park. He fit that demo. Does that information impact, maybe, what policy is the most effective in dealing with these types of issues?
Swearer: Yeah. Again, I think this falls into another one of those categories of “facts” that people think they know. But the reality is, when you look at the average age of mass shooters across the board, it’s actually much higher. The last time I checked, I think it was something like 35. You get a lot of workplace. You look at Las Vegas in 2017, for example, I believe he was in his 50s. Same thing for Virginia Beach a couple years ago.
I think you have seen maybe perhaps an increase in very successful, very high-profile, young adults falling into this category. I think some of that is this propensity, if you will, for them to just in general, that age group to become more disaffected and … their brains are not fully developed to that capacity yet.
But in terms of policy, whatever you think of 18- to 21-year-olds being treated as full-fledged adults, they are. We allow them to sign legally binding contracts. We will draft them into wars, send them to foreign countries, put a fully automatic machine gun in their hands, and tell them to die for their country. We put them on juries. We execute them for crimes against the state.
We can have conversations about whether they should be treated that way, but they are. And they have a right, just as any other law-abiding adult, to keep and bear arms and to defend themselves. And the overwhelming majority of them, just like the overwhelming majority of gun owners generally, will never be a danger to themselves or others.
This is, at its core, about pinpointing people who are dangerous and having targeted interventions. And just generally raising healthy adults, young adults, who are not disaffected, who are less likely to become engaged in these violent ideologies. It’s about, at the end of the day, you cannot make this broad assumption about all young adults based on a small minority of them.
Blair: As we begin to wrap-up here, I like that you mentioned that the mass majority of these gun owners don’t do this. Obviously, there’s 400 million firearms in the country, and most people who own a gun, aren’t going to go out—
Swearer: If most of them were a problem, you would know.
Blair: Right, right. Exactly. And to that point, how should lawful gun owners respond to incidents like these? Obviously, the push will be from the government. The Biden administration’s made it perfectly clear that they don’t really believe in a strong Second Amendment. But what is the best way to balance these tragedies out with the very real implication that they will be used to grab guns?
Swearer: Well, I think the first thing is, start from a place of compassion. I know it’s very easy, you know as lawful gun owners the attacks are are coming, but you still need to start from a place of compassion. These are tragic. This is horrific. I cannot fathom being in a scenario like that. And I think we need to start from there, start from a place of compassion and understanding.
And at the same time, we need to know the facts. We need to know how to explain that this is not us. We had so many opportunities for intervention. And to be able to distinguish good and bad policies.
But I think, on top of all of that, we, as law-abiding, responsible gun owners, need to—the way I like to put it is we need to be the gun owners that the Second Amendment presumes we are, responsible, well trained, looking out for each other. Whether it’s being able to know that if we were in a scenario where we had to defend ourselves or others, that we could do so in an effective, responsible, lawful way or whether it’s talking about our own mental health.
Two-thirds of gun deaths every year are suicides. Again, most of those by lawful gun owners. We have a plan for every other violent contingency. What do we do when the threat is ourselves or someone in our family? What do we do if it’s our son, or husband, or child who is showing signs of being a danger to themselves or others? How do we address that? How do we keep ourselves and those around us responsible so that we are not becoming the dangers?
And I think we start there. We lock ourselves down, if you will, as responsible gun owners. And then we go on about the policy battles, again, while also having that compassion for the fact that these are devastating events, and that we are, at the end of the day, on the same team about this.
We are all on the same team that this never should’ve happened. And it’s about finding those effective solutions that stop bad individuals from doing bad things without inhibiting the ability of good people to keep and bear arms.
Blair: That was Amy Swearer, a Heritage Foundation legal fellow specializing in firearms and the Second Amendment. Amy, thank you so much for your time.
Swearer: Thank you for having me.
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