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No obvious answers to mass shootings

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This chart shows a breakdown of how much money North Dakota political candidates received from gun rights lobbyist groups for the 2014 and 2016 election cycles as well as the total amounts donated by those same lobbyists groups during the previous two election cycles. The numbers are based on data released by the Federal Election Commission on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. 2 / 3
This chart is a representation of how much money Minnesota's political candidates have received from gun rights lobbyists in the previous two election cycles. The numbers provided are based on data released by the Federal Election Commission on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Minnesota 3 / 3

GRAND FORKS — Questions linger in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shootings, many of which may take months for law enforcement to investigate and answer.

But there are two questions that Americans ask every time there is a large loss of life: Why do mass shootings keep happening and how do we prevent them?

The questions have gone mostly unsolved, or at least the moves made to solve them have not stopped assailants from carrying out mass shootings. Some are quick to call for gun control, while others say the country is in dire need of mental health reform.

Those suggestions may be part of the answer, but solving the problem should include cultural and philosophical changes, said University of North Dakota philosophy professor Jack Russell Weinstein.

"Phrases like mental health and words like evil aren't helpful," he said. "They are ways of listing things we can't do anything about.

"Instead, we have to talk about things that are in society's control and government control," he said. "We have to use words and phrases that emphasize the things we can do rather than the things we can't."

Local start

The conversation can start locally among neighbors, Weinstein said. It starts with people trying to be empathetic toward each other, a skill that has been lost in society.

How people typically discuss mass shootings is a cultural problem in which people try to protect their own brands instead of trying to see others' points of view.

He touched on people scorning those who politicize shootings.

"Politics is life," he said. "Politics decides who lives and dies. ... We have to make this political because politics is the art of the city ... the art of the community."

People also should be aware that no one tells the whole story, he said.

"We only tell the part of the story that fits our conclusion," he said.

In light of the Vegas shootings, Grand Forks City Council member Bret Weber mentioned North Dakota's constitutional concealed carry law that went into effect Aug. 1.

"I thought we could at least have a discussion about that," he said during a council meeting on Monday, Oct. 2.

He said he wanted to know if the council was willing to have a conversation about what the city could do in regard to gun laws. The city didn't act on the proposal.

Weber later said the conversation was not a direct response to Las Vegas but that he had been trying to have a discussion since the law went into effect. He said the shooting presented an opportunity to mention it.

Weber brought up questions of whether guns are allowed in City Hall or on public property like the Greenway, or if the city has the authority to control that.

When asked if there is something that can be done at the local level to prevent mass shootings, Weber said he hasn't studied the issue and couldn't answer with an informed perspective.

"I'm not a gun expert, not a law enforcement expert, so I was just asking is there was any interest in having this conversation," he said. "We shouldn't be afraid of having conversations about tough issues."

What can be done?

Safety in Grand Forks is relatively high compared with the rest of the country, said Danny Weigel, a UND Police sergeant who was elected to the City Council last year. In his experience, people he interacts with while on duty inform him they are carrying a concealed weapon.

"When you look at gun control, I think the larger focus has to be on mental health," he said.

Weigel said he is not against having a conversation at the local level.

"I'm not completely sold on how much of an impact it would have on a statewide level," he said.

There are more facts to learn about Vegas, said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., but he isn't sure there was much on a federal level that could have been done to stop the shooter short of taking away everyone's guns.

"In that case, just criminals would have guns, and that is just not our culture," Cramer said.

He also said society should look at addressing mental health as related to shootings. It's good to reflect on the instances, but people can't spend their wholes lives doing that, Cramer added.

"There are going to be more people killed in a car accident today than there were in this shooting," he said. "That doesn't make it any less tragic, but I do think perspective is important."

Happened here before

Grand Forks is not unfamiliar with gunmen, though not on the scale of other recent mass shootings.

In the early hours of May 26, 2015, Marcell Travon Willis, a 21-year-old airman stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, walked into the Walmart in south Grand Forks with a handgun he legally purchased, according to police reports. He shot two store employees—killing one and injuring the other—before killing himself.

Police could not determine a motive behind the shooting, though autopsy reports indicated Willis, originally from Tennessee, was intoxicated during the shooting. It didn't appear he was being treated for a mental illness. There was little information to indicate he would carry out the acts prior to the attack.

Weigel said officers in Grand Forks train extensively for handling such situations.

"I'm not sure there is a 100 percent way to absolutely just stop that," he said of incidents similar to the Walmart shooting. "I think if we had the 100 percent solution to stop those things, we would have been able to stop them by now."

It's good to talk about mental illness, gun laws and other issues that could help explain mass shootings, Weinstein said. Society needs to use language that makes room for prevention. That includes education in humanitarianism and to hold people accountable to their words, he added.

People also have to have the conversations in good faith.

"Again, this is an unsatisfying answer because it is abstract," he said. "But we can't do the other stuff until we make the cultural and philosophical shift."