The daily news is chilling; the litany of gun violence well known and starkly reflected in communities across the nation. In the first half of 2022, we have the unimaginable killing of elementary school-age children in Uvalde, Texas, the targeted shooting of Black Americans at a grocery store in Buffalo, killings in multiple houses of worship, and deadly mass shootings in just about any place where people gather in cities around the country. By now, the charts and trends are well understood.
While the killings are unacceptable no matter what you term them and are an unspeakable tragedy for the impacted families and communities, we have yet to acknowledge and clearly state: the senseless murder of Americans going about their daily lives should be addressed with the same focused and coordinated determination that our national security enterprise exhibits in preventing transnational and domestic terrorist attacks on the homeland. Let us not forget, the whole concept of homeland security gained prominence after 9/11 because of the need to protect Americans against the terror of attack as we went to work, traveled, and lived our lives.
It has been 10 years since the carnage at Sandy Hook elementary school. Following that mass shooting of 20 children and six adult staff members, we were part of the interagency team working at the White House, contributing to the President’s plan to protect our children and our communities by reducing gun violence. Sadly, a decade later, mass shootings have increased exponentially. We have reached a point where this epidemic needs to be addressed as a significant risk to the homeland.
In doing so, we call on the Administration and the Secretary of Homeland Security to raise the profile of gun violence and mass shootings as a homeland security issue – like we did for terrorism following 9/11 – and put plans in place to address it, and to make the requisite programmatic investments in solutions to reduce the risk to the homeland from such shootings.
When we worked at DHS, primarily as part of what is now the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), we viewed homeland security through a risk lens. And we developed models and concepts for identifying, assessing and mitigating risk from a range of hazards. Doing so was important because it provided a common language to talk about homeland security outcomes. By any accounting of the data, the outcomes associated with trends in mass shootings over the last 15 years have been negative. Risks are increasing. It is fair to say, therefore, that our risk mitigation solutions have proven inadequate.
So how do we change that? First it starts with an accounting that what has been done – much of it laudable – has not been sufficient to the challenge. While at DHS, we took part in efforts following a range of shootings from Sandy Hook to Las Vegas to Parkland. The Department helped increase community-level outreach and funding, enhance active-shooter training, increase information sharing between the public and private sectors about enhanced security protocols for infrastructure and soft-target protection, harden schools, and stimulate research and development against improvised explosive devices. All of these were necessary but not sufficient. It is time for DHS to do more.
Our agenda for doing so would include the following:
- Empower the Secretary as the domestic incident manager for protecting communities from mass shootings and lead national prevention and protection efforts in support of communities;
- Build off the lessons of 9/11 in addressing terrorism threats and apply them to the threat of domestic terror, to include enhanced community-level funding and partnerships and a public awareness campaign that updates the successful “see something, say something” approach;
- Add to or expand the success of the Office for Bombing Prevention within CISA to include work to address mass shootings and awareness programs about the danger of military-grade weapons as a weapon of destruction;
- Set up Joint Mass Shooting Task Forces, in partnership with the FBI and ATF, and modeled after the highly successful Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), with the objective of preventing and disrupting shootings by implementing the full range of resources available to identify, assist and investigate individuals on a pathway to violence;
- Build innovative approaches to identifying the linkage between mental health issues and pathways to violence and help communities and schools develop offramps akin to work that was done to counter Jihadi-inspired violent extremism;
- Think beyond our current federal policy and programs to identify gaps in our risk management approach to address the growing threat of mass shootings.
To do the above, DHS should invest in programs in CISA and the Office of Policy that are focused on community-level prevention and protection. FEMA is rightly focused on resilience and emergency management, but we need an effort from other parts of the Department focused on the prevention and protection elements of the cycle of preparedness which are most powerful against this threat. Doing so should, hopefully, return CISA to its balanced approach to cyber and physical security and also acknowledge and sustain the strategic thinking and innovation that has been done in the Policy Office of Threat and Violence Prevention.
As a country, we had success reducing the risk of Jihadi-fueled terrorism over the last 20 years and we must put that same energy toward the current epidemic of gun violence. Doing so will inevitably force DHS closer to the “third rails” of the gun control and mental health debates. We both have our views on those issues but, as security professionals, we are frankly more concerned with acknowledging that people with irrational beliefs who are prone to violence and who have access to weapons of destruction are a security risk. Not being able to acknowledge that unnecessarily limits the Department’s security risk management tool kit. Protecting the rights of lawful citizens is inherent to homeland security but so too is preventing terror and attack of those same citizens. DHS needs to lean into addressing that balance and not let the security imperative fall victim to a hands-off approach that has been put in place to avoid hard policy debates. We urge the Administration and Secretary Mayorkas to act now to address this urgent crisis.