Reaching potential mass shooters before they pull the trigger has become the goal of a new initiative working to share a message of hope and deterrence.
It’s called Let’s Talk to Them. The organization started in 2020 following the back-to-back tragedies in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York. In those cases, both shooters bought their weapons after turning 18 and used social media as their sounding board.
The number of mass killings so far in 2023 number more than any other year at this point since 2006. As America struggles with this epidemic of violence as well as a surging mental health crisis, young people are often caught in the middle. It’s a morbid connection that suicide and homicide are the second and third leading causes of death for those between the ages of 10 to 24.
Given the staggering growth of these violent deaths, national leaders and experts often find themselves dealing with the aftermath rather than planning on prevention. One of the more frightening statistics is the number of deadly mass shootings carried out by someone 21 or younger. That’s become a focus for the Let’s Talk to Them initiative.
“So, Let’s Talk to Them is a new initiative that is attempting to reach potential mass shooters, individuals who might be ideating, or planning a mass shooting with a message of deterrence and redirection onto a better path,” said Jordan Estrada, acting director of the organization.
Estrada is certainly familiar with the issue as a first responder. He’s spent the last 15 years helping organizations put together active shooter response plans. Using that background and experience, he wants to focus on prevention by connecting potential killers with those willing and able to help.
“We believe that individuals who are both suicidal and have some deep-seated anger, maybe hatred, maybe vengeance – probably at some point will contemplate a mass shooting,” he explained. “And by contemplation, it could be a passing thought. It could be just a fantasy.”
Estrada believes people are looking for a mental health solution without necessarily knowing what that solution is. Ken Churchill, founder of TalentED Ventures is helping finance the initiative. Churchill believes in innovating pathways for societal health. In this case, he points out how big tech’s search engine optimization (SEO) on the topic of self-harm can provide help for anyone browsing the internet with self-destructive thoughts or questions – but nothing exists for people looking to commit mass violence.
“If somebody Google’s or searches for any word relating to suicide, they have a response of websites to click into and phone numbers to call 24 hours a day,” Churchill said.
Compare that to search results on a statement like, “I want to commit mass murder” – where there’s not one link to help. Instead, you can find step-by-step instructions on how to carry out a mass shooting in Google’s top three results.
“And while they’re searching for that, we could be searching for them,” Churchill said. “Try to create a connection, try to engage them, and give them thoughts about other paths.”
The team is better understanding the mindset of potential mass murders by working closely with someone who strongly considered shooting up a public venue, a man by the name of Aaron Stark.
“I was going to attack either my school or a mall food court,” Stark said during a Ted-X Talk. “It didn’t really matter to me which one. It wasn’t about the people. It was about the largest amount of damage in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of security.”
Stark is a mental health advocate, sharing his story of how he strongly considered mass murder until help from a friend stopped his plans. Today, Stark helps Estrada and Churchill try to better understand that mindset. The team is searching for and curating content, media, blogs, and videos that might speak to anyone contemplating mass violence.
“We want to make sure that it connects with the mindset of these individuals in a way that does not encourage or incite them to continue, but rather deescalates them, calms them down, gets them to pause, gets them to think,” Estrada said.
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The introduction page on the Let’s Talk to Them website shares their vision to help. However, an undisclosed dark web page is now fully operational, connecting potential mass shooters with redirection content and chat features.
“At this point, we are engaging with them and encouraging them to hit buttons on our website that make a phone call to 988, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, but it’s their choice to do the connection,” Churchill explained. “The second thing we have on the website is a live human 24-hour per day chat feature where specialists, particularly in suicide and other types of harm, these are Christian people, that they could choose to be in a chat with – it’s offered on our website.”
The organization says this isn’t about surveillance or espionage. Instead, the goal is to be a light shining into the dark corners of the web. Each situation varies, however, so police could potentially get involved. Estrada says the reason for his decision t help is because God’s love is for everyone, even some capable of committing mass violence.
“Not only are we trying to prevent this epic act from happening, but we’re also trying to reach out and save, redeem that individual themselves – with the belief that, every life is sacred,” he said.
Churchill echoed those sentiments saying, “Hope is a full-throated acknowledgment of the reality of sin and its effects in the world, in the view of a resurrected Christ. Let’s Talk to Them brings hope to people.”