Two days before the execution of assassin Mark Stroman – who killed two people and wounded a third in a shooting in which he said he wanted to “cleanse” the US of Islam after the September 11, 2001 attacks – British journalist Alex Hannaford managed to interview him.
“We were doing the last interview. He was very sorry and he said to me, ‘Look, I have nothing to lose by telling you I’m sorry for what I did. I’m going to be executed in a few days, but I want people to know that if there’s anything I can still do with my life is tell them it’s not worth it, that I was wrong. I was filled with hate,'” Hannaford told BBC News Mundo (the BBC’s Spanish-language news service).
For nearly 20 years, the journalist dedicated himself to visiting prisons and death rows in Texas, looking for stories that reflected the injustices of the American prison system. In addition, he was interested in the topic of gun ownership.
Mark Stroman murdered two people believing they were Muslims just days after the September 11, 2001 attacks — Photo: Texas Correctional Department via BBC
Living in Texas, Hannaford had to regularly cover gun ownership control, something that inevitably led to mass shootings.
“I was thinking about the attacks that took place and I thought, ‘We should look into what could have caused these shooters to stop, in the moments before they committed the crimes.'”
With that idea in mind, Hannaford tried to contact 50 people who were serving time or who had been sentenced to death for carrying out mass shootings. Twelve responded, a considerable number considering that most cases end with the killer’s death.
And from his conversations, the journalist concludes that there is no single way to solve the problem of firearm attacks, because it is not a single-cause problem.
Furthermore, he says it would be more productive to try to understand why these mass murders happen, than to continue “dehumanizing” the killers and dismissing the possibility that they contributed to the discussion.
This is a summary of Alex Hannaford’s interview with BBC News Mundo:
Journalist Alex Hannaford has been interviewing people in prison for over 20 years — Photo: Mike Lawrie/BBC
BBC: How to interview a mass murderer without making the mistake of giving a voice to a person who takes innocent lives?
Alex Hannaford: I lived in Texas for 20 years, covering the border and death penalty cases. I focused on investigating wrong and exaggerated sentences. And during those 20 years, one of the themes I’ve observed most consistently has been guns.
I approached the subject from different angles and perspectives, and that’s how the idea of interviewing the perpetrators of the mass attacks came to me.
Every time there’s one of these cases, the same questions come up and the answers are very polarized: Republicans say it’s a mental health issue, while for the left the problem is guns.
And I always thought the truth was somewhere in between. It was then that I thought, “What could have stopped these people just before they committed such an act?”
I was well aware of the controversy it was going to cause (the article on the subject he wrote for GQ magazine in the UK) because there is a growing movement — particularly on social media — that seeks not to name these killers, and I understand.
But for journalists it is different. And when the story was published, I thought I was going to get a negative reaction from these people, but I wasn’t. I think because I included the doubts they had on the subject in the article.
Also, in the case of some of the people I interviewed, the incidents happened many years ago and I think they took the time to think about what they did, and in some cases they were able to articulate their feelings about it very deeply.
BBC: Did you receive criticism from some of the victims’ relatives when they learned that you were going to talk to the murderers of their loved ones?
Hannaford: I will tell you one of the cases.
One of the people I interviewed was Paul Devoe, who is on death row in Texas.
There was a request linked to his case from the Texas Department of Corrections saying that if there were requests for an interview, the family wanted to be notified.
I received an email from a man claiming to be the son of one of Paul Devoe’s victims and who wanted more information about the story I was writing. I called him on the way to the prison for the interview and explained that I didn’t intend to put his father’s killer on a pedestal, but to ask him what could have stopped his actions.
Paul Devoe is on death row for the murder of 5 people in Texas – Photo: Texas Correctional Department via BBC
And he replied that he was really grateful that I was doing this.
Also, he told me he always wanted to know if Devoe had any remorse for what he did. So I asked him, and he said yes.
Later, the victim’s relative told me that this was the first time, nearly ten years after the crime, that he had heard, even if from someone else, that the killer was sorry.
BBC: On what points did these people agree when you asked what had stopped them from killing so many people?
Hannaford: Many agreed that access to weapons was very easy.
I heard stories that they knew their uncle had a gun and they knew where it was, they knew it was within reach. And when the moment came when his vision blurred and they knew how crazy they were about to commit, the gun was the easy part.
They also agreed that it was a mental health issue and that they had been in this spiral for a long time. This is not something that happens overnight for a mentally ill person: it is a slow spiral, a steady descent into this state, and they had no help available.
BBC: And what measures do you think, based on what these killers have told you, would be effective in starting to control this type of incident?
Hannaford: For me, there are two ways to do this: I think red flag laws have proven to be quite effective in the states that are implementing them.
Red flag laws allow family members of someone who is at risk of harming another person — or themselves — with a gun to ask the police to take away their weapon.
The police go to a judge the same day, argue that it’s necessary to take the gun away from that person because they could hurt someone or themselves, and they can take the gun away.
And there’s something interesting about that. One of the side effects of the red flag laws that I don’t think anyone expected was that it affected the number of suicides in these areas to the point where it had a real impact on reducing suicide rates.
BBC: What other measures?
Hannaford: I think one step I’ve always found very easy to implement is forcing people who have guns to keep them in locked places.
In other words, if we require a citizen to lock up their gun and it is stolen, we are not violating the Second Amendment to the Constitution (which protects the right of American citizens to own guns) because no one is saying that possession is prohibited.
We’re simply saying that if you have a gun, it has to be locked at all times.
One of the most effective measures to control mass armed attacks would be to keep weapons under lock and key, argues the journalist — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
In the UK, my dad has shotguns that he uses for sport shooting — he’s been doing this for over 30 years — and there, for that, a police officer from the local jurisdiction has to come to his house, check the documentation and inspect the safe. where it is stored.
In addition, they ensure that the safe is attached to the wall, that you only keep one key to open it, and that it is stored somewhere known only to the owner.
BBC: What do you think you learned from talking to these killers?
Hannaford: Paul Devoe is a good example to answer for you, as he talked about the amount of booze and methamphetamine he consumed before carrying out the shooting. So he doesn’t even remember the car ride after the incident (Devoe killed his ex-girlfriend and her family members in Texas, then killed a woman in Pennsylvania to steal her car, and was arrested in New York three days later).
So one can imagine what happened to him. And I’m not making excuses. I’m not religious, but have you ever heard that expression ‘by the grace of God I am what I am’? This means that someone might find themselves in the same situation.
And not because I could do something like that, it’s more the feeling of listening to these people and understanding what they’re saying. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after years of interviewing people in prison and on death row, it’s that it’s people like you and me.
Perhaps this is the most terrifying part: they are not monsters.
The first time I visited a death row in Texas, in 2003, I was very scared. I’ve never been in a prison, let alone death row. And I was asking myself, ‘Am I going to meet monsters?’ because it’s so easy to dehumanize them for what they’ve done.
But the truth is, when you sit in front of them, you feel like they’re normal people you could be having a beer with on the street. But they are telling you the worst thing they did on the worst day of their lives.
And I’m not excusing you from responsibility.
I’m not saying they shouldn’t be where they are, but sometimes it’s very easy to dehumanize them, and I think it would be better for everyone if we sat down with them and asked why they did what they did.
BBC: Your research was published in 2018, a year marked by high-profile shootings such as the one in Parkland, Florida, and the one on the Pittsburgh synagogue.
This year 21 people, most of them children, lost their lives in Uvalde, Texas, prompting both parties in the US Congress to pass a law that restricts, albeit tentatively, the carrying of weapons. Does that change anything we’ve seen so far?
Hannaford: No, not at all.
For Hannaford, it takes more than the bipartisan gun control law passed in June to contain the attacks – Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Nothing is going to change because they didn’t really do anything to really face the situation. These youths still have access to the weapons they use for these mass attacks: the AR-15s.
I don’t think the problem is that the US has a monopoly on people willing to commit these kinds of acts. I think these people are everywhere. So I can only say that the problem has to be the weapons.
And mental health too, because these people aren’t getting the help they need. In the American health care system, mental health is expensive, only those with a certain income have access.
And you know what? The United States prioritizes the rights of the individual over collective rights, so there will always be people, especially in the southern states, who value the rights of a person who carries guns more than those of a father like me, who doesn’t want to see his daughter. grow up in a place where guns proliferate.
No, I don’t think it will change anything…
– This text was published in https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-62933187