Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Can We Really Do About Gun Violence?

We have an opportunity here for genuine dialogue. Not just dialogue, but collective problem solving. We can never eliminate violence, but there are some answers to the questions that have been looming in so many of our minds since December 14th.

Question #1: How can anyone do something so horrible? This is a question whose answer will never fully satisfy us, no matter how deeply we pry into the specific details of this shooter's personal history. However, there have unfortunately been enough mass shootings that we can begin to see common threads in their histories.

From Slate's ongoing Gun-death tally
One of the guiding principles of community psychology is that the individual must be understood in context. Variations on the social ecological model abound, and I'll base my rundown of the factors on  a simplified version.

Individual level
  • Mental illness that is often untreated, undertreated, or misdiagnosed and mistreated. Most commonly, mass shooters have been suspected to have psychotic disorders, personality disorders such as narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder, and/or atypical depression, including suicidality with hostile intent.
  • Access to guns, training in how to use guns, and fascination with guns and violence. 
  • Gender = male.
Interpersonal level
  • Peer rejection. 
  • Family difficulties, sometimes including a history of child abuse and/or neglect. 
  • A precipitating event, usually involving loss, rejection, or humiliation, occurring shortly before the shooting.
 Community/Society levels (these are broadly shared, and subject to debate)
  • Glorification of violence in media and culture, and particularly the idea that gun violence is an effective means to solve problems. 
  • Norms of masculinity that promote aggression, especially the ideas that men are entitled to have power over others, and that aggressive acts can restore masculinity that has been threatened by rejection or humiliation. 
  • Promotion of fame as an ideal, and media coverage that reinforces and rewards violent behavior with fame. 
Looking at these factors, one can construct a loose narrative of a male shooter that has experienced a lifetime of psychological and interpersonal problems; experiences some kind of negative event such as losing a job, fighting with a family member, or being rejected by a potential love interest; is not able to effectively cope with this event; lives in a culture that promotes violence as a means to solving problems, restoring masculinity, and achieving fame; and has access to guns and knowledge of how to use them. It still doesn't exactly explain why on Earth a human being would shoot 20 children and several adults, because nothing ever will. But it takes a bit of the mystery out of how this kind of thing could have occurred.

There may be some shocking revelation that differentiates this most recent mass killer from all the others, but there has already been confirmation that at least some of these factors were in play, and there may be nothing more than that.

Now, to Question #2: What can we do about gun violence? This is a broader question than simply asking what we can do about mass shootings. The vast majority of gun violence does not occur in such dramatic events, and economic inequality plays a much larger role in other types of violence. However, we can start by asking what we can do specifically about mass shootings of this kind. How can we make sure that we are doing everything we can to try to prevent this from happening again?

Some ideas have already been bandied about, explicitly or otherwise, in the aftermath of this and other mass shootings. We can:
  • Arm guards and/or teachers at elementary schools.
  • Give children bulletproof backpacks.
  • Profile people who exhibit some of the characteristics listed above, such as mental illness or problems with peers, or other characteristics such as how they dress, and assume they are potential shooters.
  • Ban violent media of all kinds, or scapegoat particular musicians or movies.
  • Ban guns. Give everyone guns. Keep engaging in unproductive debates about gun control. 

These are stupid ideas.

Pardon my bluntness, but these things will not work. And I can spend the rest of this post dissecting what is wrong with each of these approaches, but I think most of us can agree that these approaches will not lead us anywhere.

So what may actually work? This is where we need to have some genuine dialogue and engage in some real problem solving. The factors that have been associated with mass shootings can point toward some of the ways we can address this, and it's best to address community problems and public health issues in multiple ways at once. So we may increase access to treatment for mental illnesses, implement anti-bullying programs in order to limit rejection of people based on mental illness or other factors, increase awareness of symptoms or warning factors that indicate that a violent event may occur, and collectively address violent media and gun control in ways that may actually be productive and not threaten anyone's 1st or 2nd amendment rights.

I'm particularly fond of strengths-based approaches to violence prevention, and activities that not only decrease the chances of bad outcomes, but actually improve people's lives. For instance, an approach to threat assessment developed by researchers at the University of Virginia dedicated to preventing targeted acts of violence in schools focused on early action in addressing bullying and interpersonal conflicts. Schools that adopted this approach reported more positive perceptions of school climate from students, as well as increased willingness to seek help, decreased bullying, and fewer suspensions

As someone who has been personally affected by gun violence and who is professionally dedicated to violence prevention, I'm extremely disappointed to see that attempts to create meaningful change in response to the meaningless violence that has claimed so many lives has so quickly devolved into bitter partisan business as usual. The media is certainly to blame for much of this, as sensationalist headlines about Sandy Hook-deniers and anticipated staring contests between crime victims and Ted Nugent have received far more coverage than any kind of sensible discussion or attempts at compromise. But I also think that many of us have bought into this, and are using this issue as just one more way to villainize our political opponents.

This is not to say we should shy away from difficult and oftentimes controversial conversations. To those who say that laws specifically dealing with guns aren't needed, I will say: Yes, they are. If you think guns don't kill people, then I guess nuclear weapons don't kill people either, right? People do. But we want to minimize the amount of damage homicidal people can do, so we have laws about bombs and grenades and we should have laws about guns as well. Heck, we have laws about cars. Lots of them. And without them we'd all be dying from car accidents a lot more than we are now. So yes, we need laws about guns.

However, to those who think that these kinds of laws by themselves are enough to prevent gun violence, I will say: No, they will not. And I think you know it, too. And now that I've assured everyone that we're all pretty much equally wrong, can we please move on? More than anything, I implore you to keep thinking about this issue - not to let the headlines or pundits dictate what we think, or when it's okay to stop thinking about this because some other event has grabbed our attention. This is just too important.


Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues ( School Shooting Position Statement

Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment ( "Violence is Preventable"  and Call to Action on Gun Violence

Society for Community Research and Action ( SCRA's Rapid Response Action and Position Statement on Gun Violence

Want to contact Congress? Find your representative here or here 


Borum, R., Cornell, D. G., Modzeleski, W., & Jimerson, S. R. (2010). What can be done about school shootings? A review of the evidence. Educational Researcher, 39(1), 27–37. doi:10.3102/0013189X09357620

Cornell, D., Sheras, P., Gregory, A., & Fan, X. (2009). A retrospective study of school safety  conditions in high schools using the Virginia threat assessment guidelines versus alternative approaches. School Psychology Quarterly, 24(2), 119–129. doi:10.1037/a0016182

Kalish, R., & Kimmel, M. (2010). Suicide by mass murder: Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement, and rampage school shootings. Health Sociology Review, 19(4), 451–464. doi:10.5172/hesr.2010.19.4.451

Newman, K., & Fox, C. (2009). Repeat tragedy rampage shootings in American high school and college settings, 2002-2008. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(9), 1286–1308. doi:10.1177/0002764209332546

Wike, T. L., & Fraser, M. W. (2009). School shootings: Making sense of the senseless. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(3), 162–169.

Gina Cardazone
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

“Now I Belong”: A Video Ethnography on Adult Literacy Students

I graduated from DePaul in June 2012 with a B.A. in Community Psychology. Through my Field Work class, I’ve got the opportunity to meet Harold, a 71 year-old student at Literacy Chicago, a non-profit organization committed to improving quality of life by providing adult literacy and ESL instruction services.
In this short film, Harold and two other students told me how a community organization helped them overcome their daily challenges and achieve greater self-sufficiency.

*Now I Belong is an ethnographic short film that describes the challenges and the success stories of adult literacy learners. In the United States alone, over 30 million people are below basic literacy skills. As citizens of this society, students explain the difficulties they have had both at practical and psychosocial level. While they felt ashamed and had difficulties with performing even the basic tasks on their own; participating at a literacy program increased their self-esteem, their likelihood to find full-time employment and their active participation in their communities.

By Aysenur Coban

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Integrating citizen voices in community and economic revitalization.

Volume 2, Number 2 February, 2013

THEory into ACTion
A Bulletin of New Developments in Community Psychology Practice 

Integrating citizen voices in community and economic revitalization. 
Brittany Cofield-Poole and Dawn X. Henderson 

View details

Community psychology is working to integrate citizen voices in community and economic revitalization. Dr. Craig C. Brookins and two graduate students, Brittany Cofield-Poole and Amanda Matson, in the Psychology in the Public Interest Program at North Carolina State University are currently involved in a collaborative project, Uncovering Southwest Raleigh. The project seeks to engage and raise the voices of citizens from Southwest Raleigh to develop a comprehensive plan that will improve community and economic revitalization. The project emerged from dialogue between the City of Raleigh and faculty in the College of Design, Management, and Humanities and Social Science from North Carolina State University. It has multiple aims and goals that include developing strategies that will allow Southwest Raleigh citizens to “enhance and promote a healthy, creative and economically sustainable future for the district” (Uncovering Southwest Raleigh, 2012).

Brookins, Cofield-Poole and Matson bring their knowledge and training in community psychology to the project and seek to 1) engage individual citizens from Southwest Raleigh; 2) capture their diverse voices; and 3) raise the voices of those least-heard through multiple methods. Brookins has served in the field of Community Psychology for more than twenty-years, including work across the continent of Africa, rites-of-passage programs for African American youth, and evaluation projects for numerous community-based intervention programs. His expertise accompanied by that of Cofield-Poole and Matson’s has lifted the importance of citizen participation, collaboration and focus on community strengths, and empowerment. Last year the team, along with a group of undergraduate students, conducted the first phase of data collection to include:

Brief Registration Survey: The survey was administered to about 130 citizens to obtain preliminary demographic data.
Clickers (Audience Response System Technology): Responses were collected and timed from participants who attended the community kick-off celebration. Participants used remote control devices and were able to see the range of responses and engage in dialogue about it immediately. The team used this technique to promote immediate feedback from participants that is not evident in paper-pencil surveys.
Focus Groups/Mapping: Participants were asked about their perception of Southwest Raleigh boundaries and where their neighborhoods were situated. This method allowed the team to delineate the difference between boundaries developed by the city versus those identified by the citizens. Participants were also asked to identify the three most important factors impacting their daily lives and five things they would showcase about their neighborhood.
Writing Wall: This technique was adopted from a community arts project started by Candy Chang, an artist that integrates street art in urban planning and activism. Participants were provided with a large empty writing space with the words “What I like most about Southwest Raleigh is...” and instructions to write in their response.

The project also plans to use visual voice, a participatory approach that will include youth and eventually senior citizens. By using this innovative and creative method youth serve as the driving force and researchers as the facilitators of the project. This method emerged from Photovoice and incorporates the use of digital images/video to obtain participant perceptions of community, assets and visions for the future (Wang & Burris, 1997). Integrating such an approach promotes meaningful input by the citizens who influence community structures, practices and sociocultural norms. Furthermore, this counters what Nelson and Prilleltensky (2005) describe as policies and programs that are “conceived in the absence of meaningful input from those most affected by them” (p. 55).

There are some preliminary lessons gathered from the project. For one, projects that are interdisciplinary can create tension associated with different perspectives and values. Brookins and his team appear to engage the most with the community, use more practical skills and work to ensure citizens perceive them as partners. Secondly, the team is brainstorming on ways to engage a more diverse pool of citizens. Unfortunately, the majority of citizens who showed up during the kick-off event were White, middle class, retired and highly educated.

 This project demonstrates how citizens are not used as "subjects of a study" but are actively engaged and working to revitalize their community. Furthermore, the skills community psychologists bring to the fold are essential in assisting citizens to develop a community vision for the future.

Nelson, G., & Prilleltensky, I. (Eds.). (2005). Community psychology: In pursuit of liberation and well-being. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Uncovering Southwest Raleigh (2012). Retrieved from

Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education and Behavior, 24 (3), 369 – 387. doi: 0.1177/109019819702400309

This is part of a series of bulletins highlighting the use of community psychology in practice. Comments, suggestions, and questions are welcome. Please direct them to Bill Berkowitz at

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

On the Art of Science

Image by Olya Belyaev-Glantsman~
Dr. Leonard Jason has been working in the field of Community Psychology for over 38 years. He recently wrote a blog titled "The Art of Science" for Oxford University Press, which is one of the most widely read academic blogs in the world with over 7,000 subscribers and an average of over 35,000 visits per month. In this provocative blog, Jason talks about the overlap between the fields of science and art, as both fields rely on imagination, creativity, and intuition. Jason believes that Community Psychologists are both adventurous scientists and artists trying to bring social justice to the world.

For the full version of his blog, please visit

Olya Belyaev-Glantsman~
Community Psychology Doctoral student
DePaul University