By Debra Pietrangelo & Diana Palmer, Submitted to The Chronicle
We are both mental health providers and are alarmed at the way mass shootings are being framed in our national dialogue.
As a diverse country, we may hold different beliefs and ideas about moving forward, but surely, we are all sick and tired of this violent cycle playing out over and over with no signs of improvement.
If we want that to change, we must be willing to look at our own culpability in perpetuating one-sided, flawed solutions.
Data-based Violence Project
As providers, we look to data and evidence-based research to make sense of things, and to understand our nation’s infuriating inertia on preventing mass shootings.
Our search led us to The Violence Project, a National Institute of Justice-funded nonprofit, nonpartisan research center dedicated to reducing violence in society.
We encourage everyone to read their 2021 book on this subject.
Start with statistics
Statistics from The Violence Project:
Mass shootings — killings of 4 or more people, outside of domestic instances, organized crime and gang violence — have become more common and more deadly.
• More than half of the 167 mass shootings since 1966 occurred after 2000.
• Such shootings claimed 8 lives per year in the 1970s, now up to 51 deaths per year between 2010 and 2019.
From their research, including interviews with mass shooters, and those who knew them before they committed their crimes, The Violence Project identified four things that nearly all mass shooters have in common:
1) Unresolved childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age.
2) An identifiable grievance or crisis point. This is often an angry and suicidal crisis. It involves a noticeable change from the person’s baseline behavior.
3) Online presence, researching other mass shooters, susceptibility to radicalization, and leakage — posting online or talking about their plans with other people.
4) The means to carry out an attack.
Flawed & incomplete
Many people try to frame mass shootings as only a mental health problem or only a gun violence problem.
We contend that either position is flawed and incomplete.
The American Psychological Association notes, “Although the United States makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, we are home to 31% of all mass shooters globally.
“…This difference is not explained by the rate of mental illness in the U.S.”
We also know that most people who have experienced trauma or are in crisis will never commit a mass shooting.
Can’t write off mental health
At the same time, it is not accurate to say, as some policy makers on the left do, that addressing mental health is a distraction from the solution.
The Violence Project and its related site, the Off-Ramp Project, list ways to address mental health in schools and other organizations.
They offer training to identify early warning signs, build a crisis team, and intervene appropriately. In many cases, they say, the intervention should be supportive rather than punitive.
All the mass shooters interviewed said they could have been stopped if they had been offered help.
‘Deaths of despair’ also up
The Violence Project also found that “deaths of despair” — such as drug overdoses and suicides — are on a similar upward trajectory in our country.
This indicates that effective mental health responses may help curb both mass shootings and other tragedies, and that removing the means to carry out harm is also warranted.
When the UK started requiring blister packaging, in smaller quantities, for over-the-counter analgesic drugs, they saw a reduction in suicide overdoses from these pills.
People usually choose to harm themselves or others in a temporary state of desperation. Having to pop individual pills out of blister packages that are acquired in small quantities over time forces the process to slow.
It creates more time for intervention.
Similarly, a person in crisis who faces a mandatory waiting period when trying to purchase a gun may no longer be in the same state of desperation once the waiting period ends.
Are they ‘monsters?’
It is over-simplistic and flawed to label mass shooters as “monsters,” outsiders who are not like us. Psychology would tell us that framing mass shootings as isolated events carried out by monstrous outliers is a defense mechanism.
The childhood girlfriend of a person who became a mass shooter told The Violence Project, “When you label them monsters, you erase the ability for anyone to think someone in their life could do this.”
Most shooters come from within our communities, our schools or organizations. If we pay attention to changes in behavior and respond appropriately, they can be offered support before they become desperate enough to engage in harm to others and themselves.
The metaphor used in the book is that of a balloon about to burst. If we can get to the person and let some of the air out, we can prevent them from bursting.
No root cause can justify or excuse violent acts, but mitigating root causes may reverse these alarming upward trends.
Blame vs. accountability
If we accept our vulnerability — that someone from our community could commit one of these acts — we feel less in control. We feel more in control when we have a simple person or policy to blame.
Dr. Brene Brown, an expert on shame and vulnerability, describes the need to blame someone for things that feel out of our control as a short-term remedy that temporarily makes us feel better.
However, she says, simply placing blame sidesteps accountability.
In the case of a mass shooting, if we can blame “the right” for refusing to address gun regulations, or “the left” for trying to take guns away from those who could protect us, we have a target for our anger. But we lose the ability to see the bigger picture, or accountability for our failure to work together to stop this.
Keeping ‘monsters’ at bay
When we’re scared, the rational part of our brain shuts down and survival instincts ramp up. Our brain prioritizes the quickest route to safety. If we can label the shooter as a monster, we can focus on how to keep monsters out of our buildings, falsely reassuring ourselves no harm will come to us.
We’ve spent billions of dollars trying to keep the monsters out by securing schools, arming resource officers, and engaging in active shooter drills.
We’ve normalized mass shootings in schools to the point that our kids have active shooter drills or lockdown/lockout drills like they have fire drills.
Learning to hide and be quiet so someone will not kill them at school is not a normal way for kids to grow up. Yet this is the American student experience.
Does police presence help?
In Uvalde, the district had greatly increased their school security spending.
Law enforcement miscalculated their response, and 2 teachers and 19 students died. They were not superheroes; they were humans who wanted to help and either miscalculated or were afraid.
This is not an anomaly.
In Parkland, the armed officer did not enter the school for 45 minutes, and 17 people were murdered.
The Violence Project found the rate of deaths was nearly three times higher in schools with an armed police officer.
Shooters may have elaborate plans for carrying out their crimes, but those rarely include an exit plan. They are usually in a suicidal state and may even choose locations with armed officers because they want to be killed
Our current laws are not working.
77% of mass shooters obtained their guns legally. 80% of teenage school shooters obtained their firearms from adults in their lives, many who had not properly stored their weapons.
Not one approach, alone
Securing schools alone is not and has not been the answer.
Securing schools and addressing mental health concerns are also not the complete answer.
The research is clear: We must prioritize early intervention and reduce the easy access to guns.
Universal background checks, permits to purchase, raising the age, red flag laws, proper storage enforcement — all have data-driven results.
‘Constitutional & necessary’
Common-sense gun regulations are both constitutionally sound and a necessary part of the solution.
In the landmark gun case, Heller, Justice Anton Scalia wrote that while his opinion guaranteed an individual right to self-defense that was “most acute” in the home, that right was not unlimited.
“…nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
Many conservative politicians misuse Heller to label gun regulations as unconstitutional.
Yet Justice Scalia was clear: The Second Amendment is not an all-or-nothing right. Believing that one must either support the Second Amendment and oppose regulations or be against the Second Amendment and want to regulate guns is false framing.
‘We are the adults’
We are taking the easy way out when we focus on only some of the evidence and data — the parts that support our political leanings, the elements that allow us to blame the other side.
But guess what?
We are the adults. We are supposed to protect our children and our communities, and we must face problems in their entirety rather than putting on blinders to block out the parts of the problem that make us uncomfortable.
Securing schools and mental health care are parts of the solution, but they alone are not the answer.
Gun regulations are a necessary part of the solution, but so is funding mental health.
Until we have the courage to consider comprehensive solutions that embrace the full complexity of mass shootings — quality mental health funding, security, online radicalization, and gun regulation — we will remain stagnated, failing to act with accountability, and waiting for news of the next mass casualties.
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