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

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