NJ Mall Shooting Proves Public Violence Is About Mental Health, Not Gun Control

Another night, another breathless live account of a lone gunman loose in a highly-populated public area.

Unlike the many terrifying episodes of the past couple of years, however, Monday night's incident at Garden State Plaza doesn't lend itself to the agenda of anti-gun advocates, and it exposes how gun control does not address the source of the problem: America's failure to properly address mental health.

Shoppers and employees at Garden State Plaza—a large complex in Paramus, NJ—found themselves locked in the mall after a succession of shots rang through the outside of Nordstrom's, with many reporting up to six shots, aimed generally at the ceiling but potentially at security cameras. Bergen County sent in a SWAT team to check the mall store by store, ensuring that the gunman could not pretend to be a shopper and sneak out. The gunman, 20-year-old Richard Shoop, was found in the early morning hours in a part of the mall not typically frequented by shoppers, dead by his own hand. He was found with a rifle redesigned to look like an AK-47 and several rounds of ammunition.

The story stands out among the ever-increasing tragedies in which young men acting alone open fire on a public area for many reasons. For one, authorities note that it appears Shoop had no interest in harming others. While motives remain unclear, some reports indicate Shoop had a history of drug use. Those who knew him casually had an exceptionally positive impression of him. According to his brother, Kevin Shoop, he left his family a goodbye note. A friend notes he received a text from Shoop in which he asked to talk the night before.

The picture that surfaces of Shoop is a complex, unique one. Yet it does not particularly lend itself to the type of gun control advocacy preferred by the likes of Piers Morgan and Michael Bloomberg because it is so different, but because it is so similar, and the links between Shoop and the other modern villains of our time—Adam Lanza, Aaron Alexis, James Holmes—have little to do with how they acquired their weapons.

The aforementioned reports from friends and family indicate that Shoop was clearly disturbed, seeking an end to his life as he knew it. His brother, Kevin, who owned the rifle in question and had it stolen by his brother, noted in a press conference that the letter Richard Shoop left said goodbye in a way that could have meant anything from leaving town to going to jail to, yes, suicide. Keeping Shoop away from guns would not have saved him if his death wish remained unaddressed, but perhaps a quicker reaction time from those to which he was trying to reach out could have helped. 

When approached from the angle of a gun control advocate, who is out only to keep guns out of as many hands as possible rather than keep people from wanting to commit mass shootings, one has to ask: if Shoop was not able to harm anyone else, and did not seem interested in harming anyone else, is his behavior acceptable? Does the lack of apparent desire to kill anyone else make it more important for us as a society to reach out to potential Adam Lanzas or James Holmeses than to potential Richard Shoops? 

Of course, saving innocents is paramount in any operation regarding public safety, but the safest possible approach, for innocents and otherwise, is to address the problem at its source—not play whack-a-mole with shooting sprees as they happen.

The mental health issue arises routinely when mass shootings occur. The arguments made after the Washington Navy Yard shooting, for example, highlight both the need to keep track of mental health patients when they attempt to buy a gun and give them the care they often might not believe they need. After this most recent incident, Governor Chris Christie was quick to address the problemPopular opinion also shows a desire to address the problem, and so far, every shooting incident has put us one step closer to a bipartisan consensus that mental health reform will go far in preventing these shootings. 

And with this incident—the tragedy with the lowest body count of the lot by far—a unique opportunity arises to discrediting the trend of political thought that blames the problem on the inanimate gun and not the living, breathing human being, often desperate for help, pulling the trigger.


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