Robert Dear was obviously dangerous–once we saw what he did.

Robert Dear apparently shot several people in a politically motivated attack on a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic. After the fact, it’s painfully obvious that he was seriously troubled and not someone we should trust with a gun, let alone with a semi-automatic rifle. He was, as the Washington Post‘s Kevin Sullivan, Mary Jordan, and William Wan put it, alienated and adrift. He had assaulted his wife. He had bothered or creeped-out several neighbors. He was an angry and strange loner. He may have been a peeping tom. At some commonsense level, the man had serious issues.

Yet as far as I know, he satisfied no obvious criterion that would have made him a prohibited possessor of firearms virtually anywhere in the U.S. His wife didn’t press charges on the DV issues that might have blocked his access to a gun. To my knowledge, he was never convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor. He was never involuntarily committed or legally determined to pose a threat to himself or others.

An estimated 8.9 percent of American adults have serious anger issues and have access to guns. I wish I could propose some simple ingenious tweak. I’m not sure one can be found. As long as our gun safety policies permit anyone who avoids the narrow category of prohibited possessor to obtain powerful weaponry, it will be very difficult to prevent this sort of random atrocity.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

24 thoughts on “Robert Dear was obviously dangerous–once we saw what he did.”

  1. "Robert Dear apparently shot several people in a politically motivated attack on a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic."

    It is by no means clear that this was a "politically motivated attack." At this point very little is known about the shooter's motivations. At least some early reports from police on the scene suggested that the shooter had attempted to rob a nearby bank, that the robbery went awry, and that he "holed up" in the PP clinic as police closed in. Perhaps that's true. perhaps it's not. Again – at this point very little is known.

    But if this was a politically motivated attack it was a spectacularly unsuccessful one. Several people were trapped inside the PP clinic, but none of them were shot. Instead, the victims were police and bystanders outside the clinic. And the shooting seems to have started in a nearby parking lot before the shooter relocated to the clinic.

    1. We know from several sources, including the police and his ex-wife, that Dear was an anti-abortion, anti-government conservative. We have a source saying that he talked about "no more baby parts" as he entered the facility. Everyone who is parsing things so closely as to deny that we have a pretty good idea that this was politically motivated had better stay very quiet on everyone else's motives for committing violent acts. I strongly doubt that you are consistent about the level of skepticism you show in other cases.

      And, yes, he was probably mentally disturbed and this likely played a role in his actions. That does not obviate a political motive as well. If you insist that it does, you are, again, almost assuredly engaging in a double standard. I'd bet that the same thing could be said about most Islamic suicide bombers, but you (correctly) don't seem interested in excusing their additional political motives.

      1. A couple of responses:

        1) He may well have been an "anti-abortion, anti-government" conservative. But so are probably 20-30% of American adults. Its a category so broad as to be meaningless here. His ex-wife also reports that while he was opposed to legal abortion it wasn't an issue that he cared deeply about, and to date there hasn't been any evidence that has emerged linking him to any pro-life organizations or individual activists – of either the mainstream or fringe varieties.

        2) The report that he muttered the phrase "no more baby parts" came from unnamed sources close to the police and refers to his statements in an interview with police after being taken into custody. They do not refer to his actions or statements as he entered the PP facility. In any event we current have no context for the "no more baby parts" line and no official confirmation of the statement. The same source reported that he delivered a long, largely incoherent rambling series of statements in his discussion with the police, and that it was difficult if not impossible from his statements in that discussion to discern his motive.

        It is possible that he was politically motivated. It is possible that he was not but that he went on an unrelated political rant while in custody. And its possible that one of his police interviewers said something like "and are you sure you didn't go in there to shoot up the place because you heard that they were selling baby parts?" to which he replied in a stupor "no more baby parts." We simply so not know at this point. Heck – the guy was slurring his words in his booking hearing.

        We do seem to know that the initial call to the police referenced a shooting incident at a bank near the PP facility, that he began shooting in the parking lot, that he did not shoot anyone inside the PP facility (despite the fact that several people were trapped there during the incident). Again – if he was attempting to shoot up a PP clinic for political reasons he was really bad at it.

        Recall that there was a media firestorm a short while back about the "bombing of an NAACP office" in Colorado Springs. Until it was determined that the man who planted the bomb was motivated by anger at his tax accountant, whose office was right by the NAACP office.

        P.S. I don't think we've ever met or otherwise interacted. I'm not sure why you have such strongly held beliefs about how I would have interpreted other events.

        1. So what's your alternative hypothesis to a political motivation? That Dear just sort of accidentally ended up at a facility of an organization at the center of a loud political debate?

          It was not at the bank; that was false. And if your argument depends upon whether Dear started shooting in the Planned Parenthood parking lot vs. inside the building, that's a reed that's smaller than thin.

  2. Is there a phenomenon of some men becoming more violent as they age? This would contradict the general idea that ages 15-25 are the peak violent years.

    I wonder if there's a subcategory of men with severe anger issues that become aggravated by the feeling that their life is mostly over, it's been a terrible life, and they want to strike back.

  3. Setting aside the quite valid point Stephen raised, by some definition or other of "serious anger issues", 8.9% of American adults might have them, and access to guns. 3.7 million of them regularly carry guns in public. *And virtually none of those 22 million actually do anything wrong with them.*

    Which kind of raises questions about the accuracy of the "serious anger issues" diagnosis, doesn't it? You expect loose grenades to actually go off at a non-negligible rate, and yet the number of people being diagnosed by your link as "dangerous" is conspicuously orders of magnitude greater than the number actually doing something wrong with those guns. 0.007%, vs 8.9%, and that's for the nation as a whole, including urban murder hot spots. for the nation excluding places like Chicago or DC? More like 0.0007%.

    So, we're talking a false positive rate of 99.993% to 99.9993%, depending on which part of the country, and this is supposed to justify depriving people of a civil right? (I'm being generous here, pretending that all murders are committed by the proposed group of "serious anger issue" people.)

    In the US, owning a gun is a civil right. I realize a lot of people don't like that. Would like to change it, and in the meanwhile, are desperately groping around for some kind of work-around, so that they can treat a civil right they don't like, as though it *weren't* a civil right. Diagnosing as many people as 'mentally ill' as possible is a popular work-around.

    Nobody is fooled. It's just an excuse to violate a particularly hated civil right, as often as possible.

    1. *And virtually none of those 22 million actually do anything wrong with them.*

      How do we know this? And what is your definition of doing something "wrong?" Does it require criminal behavior reported by police, or might some other things – threats, intimidation, explicit or not, etc. – be included?

      1. How do we know this? Because the number of people designated as "dangerous gun owners" is thousands of times larger than the number of homicides, that's how we know it. Surely we could come up with criteria for identifying people at risk of committing crimes with firearms that have much better predictive power. Membership in inner-city gangs, for instance…

    2. A civil right that nobody in the world but Americans recognizes. So it's not a natural right. It used to be a civil right (except of course for Catholics) in Britain after the Glorious Revolution, but has sensibly been removed, without noticeable damage to British democracy. Meanwhile, the unpropertied and women have gained the vote. Yes, it is high time for a rethink. What is the value of this weird survival today? Please don't recycle the "resistance to tyranny" nonsense. Idaho survivalist militias would not survive a day in combat with any modern army, let alone the 82nd Airborne. The stated premise of the Second Amendment is simply untrue.

      1. It doesn't really matter if it's a civil right not recognized by other nations. It's a civil right recognized, explicitly, by the founding document of the US government. You don't like that? Fine. Until you've got enough people agreeing with you to get the 2nd amendment repealed, your not liking it is irrelevant.

        It's transparently obvious that this is just about inventing another excuse for violating a civil liberty you don't like. Don't expect people who do like the civil right to cooperate in the effort.

    3. Only to protect yourself and your family and your home. *In* your home. (And maybe then only if you can't safely withdraw. I think that's a local thing.)

      So try not to get carried away. I have never heard of any federal *right* to carry a gun anywhere else.

    4. It's fascinating to watch you adopt very different standards for white Americans than you do for Syrian Muslims.

      1. I think Syrian Muslims should enjoy every liberty that Americans of every color enjoy.

        In Syria, of course, not here. But they should have those same liberties.

  4. Possibly, just possibly he had no reason . im not saying he did not act on a reason, merely that the reason did not truly belong to him. It was not an issue he weighed in on. It wasnt something he was planning. It was a whim that overcame what rational self remained in his psychotic mind. We tend to think of psychosis akin to the d.t. halucinations of alcoholics, but thats only occasional. The euphoric psychoses of Bi-polars is often grounded in a functional mind. Except for the bit about…, except for that, its almost like being normal. His words after? In the trade its called hypothecation. Common with brain injury and memory loss too.

  5. What does "politically motivated" even mean ?

    If Dear thought abortion was murder – would that be "politically motivated" ?

    Most every killer has a reason – often a reason that is compelling to them.
    Those reasons often have a nexus with our political discourse.

    Whether the reason has something to do with islam or taxes, or abortion, or police militarization.

    In few instances does the "motivation" of the killer matter.

    Would we change the world to disuade the unibomber or Mr. Dear – and if we did, wouldn't that provide a new "political motivation" for someone else – or even for Mr. Dear.

    Murdering other people nearly always has a rationale. That does not make it rational.

    Politics had nothing meaningful to do with this. At best it selected Mr. Dear's target, would it have mattered if he had picked a different target ?

    1. Would it have mattered if he had picked another target? Maybe. We have literally no way of knowing. Maybe he gets into a car accident on his way to commit the crime if he is going elsewhere. Maybe at the alternative site, a police officer or security guard neutralizes him before he kills anyone. There are any number of possibilities.

      And the politics matters specifically because the rhetoric that abortion is murder justifies the targets in the mass shooter's mind. The premise that he would have been a mass shooter without his becoming convinced that there was an institution that "deserved it" strikes me as a very shaky one. Perhaps without a mass target he could justify, he would have murdered one person or committed suicide, both tragedies but neither an act of terrorism.

      Just saying.

    2. What does "politically motivated" even mean?

      It's a murder that's intended to advance a political agenda.

      If Dear thought abortion was murder – would that be "politically motivated" ?

      This question doesn't parse in any way that makes sense. It could be that you're asking if Dear's murders were politically motivated if Dear believed that abortion was murder, in which case the answer is "almost certainly yes." Or maybe you're asking if performing an abortion is a politically motivated murder? It is not. Granting, arguendo, that abortion is murder, it's still not a politically motivated murder because the doctor's motivation is providing appropriate medical care for his patient, and the procedure won't intimidate other potential victims.

      Most every killer has a reason – often a reason that is compelling to them.

      Very true.

      Those reasons often have a nexus with our political discourse.

      And when they do, we call the murders "politically motivated."

      In few instances does the "motivation" of the killer matter.

      Very true. Mostly, it only matters in the case of politically motivated murders.

      Would we change the world to dissuade the unabomber or Mr. Dear

      No.

      Murdering other people nearly always has a rationale. That does not make it rational.

      True, and I suppose pithy if you've got shamefully low standards, but entirely irrelevant to the point you're fumbling towards.

      Politics had nothing meaningful to do with this.

      Obviously false, and you should be embarrassed. When an anti-abortion wingnut shoots up a planned parenthood clinic and rants afterwards about "baby parts," politics has everything to do with it. This is a simple fact, and not a matter on which you're permitted to have a different opinion and be taken seriously.

      At best it selected Mr. Dear's target, would it have mattered if he had picked a different target ?

      The concept you're failing to grasp is that at political murder (or you could call it a hate crime) is distinguished from other murders in that it does (much lesser) harm to additional victims. I'm not surprised you aren't grasping this–you're displaying tribal markers of an ideology that's firmly committed to not understanding this concept, but if you're still with me, here's how it works:

      If I go out on the street today and murder a few people random, I've murdered some people, and victimized many. My targets have lost their lives. The people who loved them have lost people dear to them. Much harm is done. Additionally, everyone in the country is harmed to the very tiny extent that my small contribution to the murder rate heightens their sense of being threatened by similarly random violence.

      One little murder spree is just a drop in the bucket, of course, and there's a few hundred million of us in this country, so that effect is small. Lots of people just like you were murdered last weekend, I'm sure, in circumstances such that it could have been you.

      But suppose instead of going out and killing at random, I've got a specific grudge. Let's suppose that, for some idiosyncratic reason, I've got a bug up about left-handed short-haul truck drivers. Me and an extremely committed network of similarly enraged groups routinely harass such people, and have got some smallish media outlets that promote our obsession, and we're numerous enough that a major political party broadly endorses our resentments, while mostly trying to distance itself from our more violent rhetoric.

      And in that context, I go murder a few left-handed short-haul truck drivers. Again, I've created a bunch of victims. My targets have lost their lives. The people who loved them have lost them. But that third category of victims–the people who feel intimidated–that group is suddenly much more directly injured. If you're a left-handed short-haul trucker, this isn't just some ambient threat from a rise in the murder rate. This is someone out to get people like you. There's lots more like them, who might be gunning for you, and there's millions who will cheer when you're dead and hail your killer as a hero. You've got good reason to fear. You might even fear that the justice system won't take you seriously because, for whatever reason, police tend to be part of the political coalition that includes the most virulent haters of left-handed short-haul truckers.

      Anyway, that's why politically motivated murders, or hate crimes, get extra attention: Because there are extra victims, and that effect is sharper when the community being intimidated is smaller.

      1. It's possible that this shooting was politically motivated. That no more implies that opponents of abortion must stop criticizing Planned Parenthood, than the 2012 attack on the FRC means that the SPLC has to stop calling everybody Morris Dees disagrees with a "hate group".

        There are a number of nutcases out there, who respond to politics with violence, instead of political activity. They exist all across the political spectrum, and their existence isn't an excuse to censor political speech.

        It would be nice if we could identify these nutcases before they go off. But doing anything based on identifying somebody as a nutcase is going to require criteria that don't identify 9% of the population as nutcases. That's not a fine tuned criteria, that's a joke.

        1. SPLC calls hate groups hate groups. Your fellow travelers deliberately incite violence against health care workers, and then cheer when that violence takes place. If you want to pretend that you can't see the difference, you should understand that nobody is fooled, and nobody thinks you're even fooling yourself.

          1. The SPLC calls anybody they disagree with a hate group. For God's sake, look at their own website. "Hatewatch monitors and exposes the activities of the American radical right."

            They don't even pretend that their definition of "hate" isn't political.

      2. Thank you Ron for saying all of this. I don’t know how much more proof Stephen needs but when that last piece of evidence surfaces, I hope he’ll have the decency to come back here and make amends.

        I always felt safe 40+ years ago when I was a regular at PP but I’ve taken to wondering if I would now. A small advantage of being a gray-haired old lady with private health insurance is that I don’t have to test that out.

  6. I'm fascinated to read some of these comments in the context of Thaler and Sunstein. Of course it's going to be the really crazy ones who take violent action (first). Absent organized battles in wars, that's pretty much a tautology, because where else would outliers be if not at the edges of the gamut. But to my mind, that misses the point. You don't have to move the median or tighten the distribution very far to make a difference in the frequency of low-probability events.

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