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On April 27 in Poway, Calif., a young man with an AR-15 rifle entered a synagogue during a Passover service and began shooting. He wounded three people and killed one before two attendees at the service rushed him. Later, authorities identified the alleged shooter as a lifelong church member, the son of an Orthodox Presbyterian elder, who was homeschooled until ninth grade. How could this happen?
The details were no sooner out than predictable comments appeared on news websites: Obviously, the shooter was “schooled in hate” (because Christians are haters, don’t you know). Obviously, he was drawn to extreme right-wing websites, where his twisted white-supremacist views could slowly heat to boiling. He hated Muslims and Jews and was inspired by the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand, because this is Trump’s America. Case closed.
But wait: Only three days later another young man walked into a classroom in Kennedy Hall at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. There he opened fire with a handgun, killing two and wounding four more. This time there was no discernible motive: no dark-web posting trail or Facebook rant, just a disturbed individual. What pushed him over the edge?
And then: Only a week later, two armed teens entered the STEM School at Highlands Ranch, Colo., and started shooting, killing one and wounding eight. Both were students at the school, one 18 and the other only 16. The younger teen was apparently female transitioning to male, and the other had posted some anti-Christian and anti-Trump Facebook screeds, but those factors don’t add up to a reason for storming their school. Some parents had earlier complained about the academic pressures, culture clashes, and bullying at Highlands Ranch STEM, any one of which could have triggered a pair of high-strung kids. But no one knows.
The case isn’t closed. Where the human heart is concerned, it never is.
These alleged killers came from different backgrounds, held different ideologies (or none), dealt with different internal pressures. They held in common their youth, and their human nature. Most teens have been lied to about both.
As youth, they are told that they’re perfect “just as they are”—and responsible for correcting the mistakes the grownups have made. They are told that they have all the answers but need their elders to supply the right questions. They are told that the world is at their feet and they can be anything they want, but they’d better be socially responsible because the world is a hot mess.
As to their human nature, they are seldom told that they, like the rest of us, are fundamentally flawed, that the seed of wickedness has already sprouted, that “following your heart” is the world’s worst advice because the heart is deceitful above all things. “Original sin” is a deceptively simple explanation that can sound too pat. It may not explain everything, but it explains a lot.
The Poway shooter undoubtedly received that message from his family and church but didn’t internalize it, or else allowed the thorns and thistles of extremist rhetoric to choke the truth. The others probably never heard it, because it’s not a popular doctrine these days. Pointing to some outside, amorphous “culture” (guns, hate, victimism, alarmism) lets us off the hook, while the heart remains a mystery.
But it’s not a lost cause. One positive takeaway from these mass-shooting incidents is that three of the four fatalities were people who interfered with the shooter before he could do his worst: Kendrick Castillo in Colorado, Riley Howell at UNC, and Lori Gilbert Kaye in Poway. They model what writer David French calls the “Hero Solution,” where one or more individuals boldly rush the shooter and bring him down, even at the cost of their own lives. Let their names and faces be seen in the media, not the miserable perpetrators.
But also teach the kids, as the Lord taught Cain, that sin is crouching at the door—their door, not the next guy’s. They may stand a better chance of heroism if they understand their capacity for villainy.