Yesterday, a former Marines sharpshooter shot and killed four people, including a 3-month-old boy and his mother, in Lakeland, Florida. He also killed the family’s dog and the boy’s grandmother (in a separate building). Bryan J. Riley also wounded an 11-year-old girl and engaged in a gunfight with law enforcement officers before he was finally apprehended.
There’s no clear connection between Riley and the victims, according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
Religion, however, may have played a key role in the attack.
Sheriff Judd said the first indication that something was amiss came around 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, when a woman called the authorities to say that a suspicious man was sitting in a parked vehicle in the neighborhood.
She told them of a frightening encounter with the man, who she said had told her that “God sent me here to speak with one of your daughters.”
Mr. Riley’s girlfriend told the authorities that he had worked in security at a church in Orlando and began having delusions, the sheriff said.
“He came home and said God spoke to him and now he can talk directly to God,” the sheriff said, citing the account Mr. Riley’s girlfriend had given investigators.
Judd said that Riley had a history of PTSD, but without more reporting and understanding of what happens, it would be irresponsible to pin his crimes solely on mental illness. That’s the lazy way out. Plenty of people struggle with mental illness who don’t do what Riley did; the question is what led him to commit a mass shooting. And while he said he can “talk directly to God,” it would also be irresponsible to solely blame religion for the same reason.
We don’t know what prompted the attack. That said, mental illness, religious delusions, and easy access to weapons is a dangerous combination.
If the name of the sheriff sounds familiar, by the way, it’s because he’s a Christian Nationalist. Grady Judd has spent years using his title to promote Christianity. In 2010, he removed basketball hoops from the county jail and gave them to churches. In 2015, while dressed in his uniform, he gave a sermon at a church titled, “Wouldn’t the World be Better if Everyone Behaved Like a Christian?” In that talk, he mentioned how he created “faith-based dorms” in prison to help convert inmates to Christianity. In 2018 he said he wouldn’t deport undocumented people if they were “God-fearing.”
While Judd is incidental to what happened yesterday — and I’m not suggesting he did anything improper — his history came to mind when he pointed out that Riley suffered from PTSD, as if that was a potential explanation for what he did. It’s not like Judd would ever suggest faith made someone’s condition worse. It’s just something to keep an eye on as this case continues and we learn more about Riley’s supposed conversations with God.
(Portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to everyone for the link)