Barr calls for counseling, intervention to prevent mass shootings

Some 341 people have been killed in mass shootings in the US so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive

    US Attorney General William Barr attending a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]
    US Attorney General William Barr attending a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

    United States Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday announced a new effort to prevent mass shootings through court-ordered counselling and supervision of potentially violent individuals.

    The effort, announced in a memo to federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials, follows dozens of deadly mass shootings in the US this year, including a massacre of 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and another just one day later in Dayton, Ohio, in which nine people were killed.

    The FBI was given expanded powers after the September 11, 2001 attacks. But it has at times struggled to track home-grown threats and was criticised for not doing more after receiving warnings about a gunman who was later responsible for the February 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

    Politicians are considering whether new laws are needed to help investigate those who are motivated by white supremacy, anti-Semitism and other extreme ideologies that are protected by the US Constitution's free-speech safeguards.

    Others, such as the gunman who killed 59 people in Las Vegas in October 2017, do not appear to have any ideological affiliation.

    Barr said a training conference at FBI headquarters in December will consider new ideas to face threats such as enlisting psychologists and community groups.

    In one successful case, Barr said, the FBI worked with parents and social-service workers to get court-ordered supervision and mental health treatment for a young person who was the subject of a threat investigation.

    Barr's announcement came on the same day that a handful of Republican senators led by Texas Republican John Cornyn unveiled proposed legislation that aims to prevent mass shootings through collaboration with online platforms, expanded mental health treatment, stepped-up investigations of unlicenced firearms dealers and greater use of the death penalty.

    Encroaching on civil liberties

    Michael German, a former FBI agent now with the Brennan Center for Justice, said Barr's proposal risks encroaching on civil liberties and stigmatising mental illness, he said.

    "While studying gun violence and exploring all options to reduce it are important Justice Department functions, promoting simplistic but false profiles for law enforcement won't solve any problems and will only lead to abuse," he said in an email.

    Some 341 people have been killed in mass shootings so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a group that tracks such incidents. That is a fraction of the 30,000 to 40,000 people who have been killed by gun violence in recent years, according to the group.

    FBI data show that hate crimes that target victims based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity have risen from 5,850 reported incidents in 2015 to 7,175 in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

    The US Homeland Security Department, created in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, unveiled a new strategy last month to better counter homegrown threats as well as those originating overseas -singling out white supremacy, in particular.

    The FBI has already taken some steps towards potentially utilising social media and earlier this year requested bids for a contractor to help detect national security threats by trawling through social media sites.

    The Justice Department's internal watchdog is currently reviewing the agency's efforts to identify homegrown terrorism threats.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency