Editorial: Breaking the Causal Chain in School Violence
by Bob Reap
I offer the following as a blueprint for preventing school violence. The answer is simpler than you think. Arriving at the solution requires those of us who want to make a difference recognize that we can do something about it, and the rest who want to see a difference allow it to occur.
In my studies of the legal system we learned of a concept called the "causal chain." The causal chain includes all factors which lead up to certain event, usually a crime or "tort" (a civil transgression).
In a causal chain, there are two types of factors - cause in fact, and legal cause. Any factor which can be removed from a situation and prevent the occurrence is known as a cause in fact.
Examples of cause in fact in the Florida school shooting would be had the child been enrolled in another school, had the teacher called in sick, had the boy not been sent home, had the grandparent not have had an accessible handgun. If any one of these were not so, we could presume the shooting would not have occurred.
Cause in law in not so simple. This is a concept which states that although some course of action may have precipitated an event, from a societal standpoint it only makes sense to place the blame so far up the causal chain.
Since few would believe police officers should be weaponless, society would not want to say that the gun manufacturer should assume responsibility for the shooting, and ban all weapons.
Other factors are less easy to peg as "causal." For example, it's difficult to say whether a Marilyn Manson song actually "caused" the events that unfolded at Columbine, though we know the shooters played one of his songs repeatedly. They might have done the shooting even without this anthem.
Likewise it's difficult to blame the teacher for showing a film which may have influenced the child. Like the musician, it's possible these things were a causal factor, but these unintended consequences are not sufficient to lay blame for these unexpected events. In legal terms, these actions were not "foreseeable."
However, in hindsight there are often a number of factors which can be identified which both easily satisfy the definition of "foreseeable" and for which society has a greater interest in assigning responsibility to than accepting as a worthwhile sacrifice.
From a liability standpoint, we have to ask ourselves what is the value of certain actions compared to their foreseeable consequences. Two obvious issues for analysis involve assessing our freedom of expression (in the form of popular entertainment) against the inevitable copycat crimes, and the value of Second Amendment freedoms (right to bear arms) against the harm that occurs when these arms get in the wrong hands.
In the events that occurred Friday at the Florida school, and in all of the school shootings, we can identify a number of causes which are both causes in fact and legal causes. Removing any one of the causes in fact will break the causal chain and prevent the shooting. To actually succeed with the removal of these causes in fact, we need to recognize three mindsets which will always confound any progress in this area.
1) We need to recognize that only one cause in fact needs to be removed to prevent the shooting. Other causal chains might lead to a shooting anyway, but focusing on possibilities that did not occur instead of causal factors essentially defeats our ability to prevent the outcome which occurred.
2) Similarly, concluding that all of the causal factors need to be removed and therefore it is hopeless is both untrue and akin to giving up and accepting these shootings.
3) Last, when we attack attempts to correct one of the causal factors as either hopeless for one of the above reasons, or as wrong because it is not the most obvious causal factor, we are not merely accepting that which we can change, we are actually expending energies to maintain the status quo. By chiding those who seek to enact safer, more responsible gun laws, or those who seek responsible video game and television programming, or more responsible parenting, counseling, teaching, or campus safety, we fight to preserve every link on the causal chain. Those who feel threatened by any movement in changing these areas need to analyze why they are threatened, whether a change in these areas needs to necessarily come at a cost of freedoms we value, and if not - do not impede, and if so, seek to direct these changes to preserve the freedom in question.
Let me provide an example. In the US, one of the most powerful lobbies is the NRA. It's no secret that the NRA is quite responsive and effective at scuttling most attempts at restricting gun access, since these are viewed as infringements on Second Amendment rights. But it must be recognized that the closing loopholes in our nation's "gun freedoms" do not necessarily have to involve the Second Amendment. It cannot be argued that the Second Amendment protects the rights of felons to own or carry handguns, or six year old children. The Second Amendment also does not insulate one who negligently stores a weapon from civil or legal liability when that weapon is stolen and used in the commission of a violent crime.
When gun advocates recognize that the freedom for Americans to bear arms under the Second Amendment can be preserved while we reduce the likelihood of occurrences like this past week, we can together sensibly address a cause in fact that contributed to this most recent shooting. It takes little imagination to come up with safety measures and theories of liability which can actually prevent gun tragedies without involving Constitutional protections.
By the same measure, our First Amendment protections do not shield programmers and producers from liability for mass media entertainment which leads to foreseeable harms. Civil liability has been successfully assigned in the past for books and movies which inspire people to lie in roads between high-speed lanes, to set fires, and a number of other expectable outcomes. The first time it happens it might be argued that the harm is unforeseeable; the second time there has been ample warning to hold the producer accountable.
Even ignoring civil liability, there are a number of controls which the supervising adult can utilize which can reduce the likelihood of copycat events. The V-Chip is an example of voluntary restrictions which do not impact First Amendment freedoms. Boycotting of sponsors is another very effective measure.
Other protective measures can only be enacted at a cost to our freedoms. Searches and metal detectors, training teachers to recognize and report telltale signs, inspiring parents to more "invasive" parenting each reduce our freedoms in some way, but in some locations and situations, these might be indicated in some measure, they might be worth the intrusion. Our freedom to live peacefully must be superior to some privacy interests where the risk is calculably higher as it is in certain environments.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive listing of potential safeguards against school shootings. If you ask 100 parents or teachers what steps would most effectively prevent school violence, you'd have 100 different lists. It's up to us to identify what elements our lists have in common, and to stop reflexively stepping in the way of those who seek to take action once they have identified a priority.
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