As if we needed another reminder of how vulnerable our communities are to targeted violence, the recent attack at Club Q in Colorado Springs once again makes us confront a horrific act of senseless violence. Our hearts, prayers, and thoughts are with the victims and their families and loved ones. This writing also comes on the ten year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, taking the lives of twenty children and six teachers.
Public health officials are just now beginning to understand the effect that mass shootings have on local communities. They don’t simply affect those directly involved in the attack but have psychological and mental impacts on the surrounding community, as well as those members of the groups attacked.
For members of the McCain Institute’s Preventing Targeted Violence team, these shootings hit close to home – not only geographically, but personally: Director Dr. Rachel Nielsen, a licensed psychologist based out of Denver, is actively involved in preventing extremism in Colorado; Senior Program Coordinator Neil Saul is a member of the LGBTQ+ community and lives in Washington, DC.
“For me personally, it’s disheartening to think that my own community could be next,” Neil commented. Four out of the top ten counties in the US with the highest white supremacy internet searches are inside the DC-Maryland-Virginia metro area. “DC is inherently a highly politically charged city where people come from across the US to protest and is also one of the highest concentrated cities for the LGBTQ+ community. It feels like it’s only a matter of time,” he continued. Shortly after the Club Q shooting, another mass shooting occurred at a Walmart in Chesapeake, VA, not far from DC.
2022 marked a year of important legislative shifts in the United States, including over 240 anti-LGBTQ bills in multiple states, which sent negative messages to the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. “Hurting one community hurts all communities,” explains Dr. Nielsen.
While the motive for the Club Q attack remains unclear at this time, and there are many other questions to be answered, one element that is crystal clear is the fact that, once again, we are painfully confronted with lessons that could have and should have been learned from similar previous attacks.
The Club Q attack shows us that red flag laws and following criminal history records are no panacea for preventing targeted violence. The alleged shooter evaded them, even after a bomb threat a year and a half ago. He was only 22. Too often, perpetrators of violent attacks have no criminal records, and police can only make an arrest when a law is broken or there’s an imminent threat. We also need a community-based approach.
In fact, the answer may lie much closer to home. Colorado state Rep. Tom Sullivan put it best, “We need heroes beforehand – parents, co-workers, friends who are seeing someone go down this path.” We need all community members to recognize their role in preventing violence.
Surprisingly, mass casualty attack research has shown that family, friends, or coworkers had knowledge of a lone actor at risk for or planning an attack in eighty percent of cases. So who tends to know? While it can be educators, coaches, peers, behavioral and mental health professionals, counselors, and, yes, law enforcement, in the vast majority of cases it is people in the person’s day-to-day life. Another study found that sixty-four percent of the people who knew of a person’s intention to attack others were friends and family members.
The same study identifies barriers that bystanders face when reporting potential acts of violence. Among these, notable barriers include fear of being incorrect, not knowing how to report and when, and low trust in law enforcement. Despite the increasing frequency and hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S., bystanders still don’t know where to turn to when their loved ones need help.
This is why the McCain Institute launched the SCREEN Hate initiative – to provide ‘intimate bystanders,’ or family and peers, with a place to turn when they are concerned about teens and young adults who may be radicalizing to violence online. The initiative aims to equip bystanders with the knowledge and tools they need to seek help before a young person turns to violence.
SCREEN Hate’s website provides a guide on the apps and platforms where hate-based messages are most likely to radicalize people online and how to start a conversation about online safety with teens and young adults. It also provides resources and connections that can help a loved one who needs support.
Now, more than ever, we must SCREEN Hate to protect teens and young adults online. It’s our job to help teens and young adults screen for hateful activity, both online and in our communities, and seek help when needed. Visit our website here.
Neil Saul is the senior program coordinator for the Preventing Targeted Violence program at the McCain Institute.
Dr. Rachel Nielsen is the director for the Preventing Targeted Violence program at the McCain Institute and is a licensed clinical psychologist in Denver, Colo.