This column tops the list of those topics I’d hoped never to address again. But after a weekend in which over 30 people were killed in acts of mass violence by two separate shooters in two very different communities, it is not possible to remain silent. We must find ways to address the issue of gun violence in our communities and in our country.
Like most complex and seemingly insurmountable problems, there is no one simple solution. However — and this is significant — we are not helpless in the face of gun violence. Although no one of us can solve this problem, each one of us has a role to play. But first it is important to do as much as possible to understand the roots of gun violence in America. Who are the shooters? What do they have in common? Are there patterns we can find that will help us unravel this horrible tapestry of violence?
As part of an academic community, I look at the data. And a recent op-ed in the LA Times by Jillian Peterson and James Densley, co-investigators in a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Grant, provides some significant insights into the epidemic of mass shootings in our country. As part of their grant, Peterson and Densley reviewed every mass shooting (four or more people in a public place) since 1966 and every shooting incident in schools, workplaces and places of worship since 1999. They looked at personal histories, interviewed survivors, first responders and incarcerated perpetrators. They reviewed media reports, trial transcripts, social media posts, manifestos and medical records. They found that there are commonalities among mass shooters — commonalities that we ignore at our peril.
The first commonality noted by Peterson and Densley is that nearly all mass shooters had experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. This confirms the findings of the CDC-Kaiser study on Adverse Childhood Experiences. The ACE study found that children who experience trauma ranging from abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), to neglect, to witnessing domestic violence or exposure to household drug abuse or mental illness, are significantly more likely to experience negative health impacts (psychological and physical), or become victims or perpetrators of violence as adults. So one way to address gun violence is to pay attention to the needs of the children in our communities. Take a workshop on the recognition and prevention of child sexual abuse; support, financially and by volunteering, organizations that work with kids at risk; learn the signs of children at risk for abuse and neglect and report it if you suspect there is a problem.
A second commonality is that most shooters had experienced a significant crisis point in the weeks and months before the shooting. For some it was the loss of a job, for others the end of a relationship or a rejection. Nearly every shooter, however, communicated in some way to others that they were in crisis, either through significant changes in behavior, suicidal thoughts and comments or specific threats. All of us have crisis points in our lives, the differences between those of us who get help and those who don’t is often that people around us are paying attention and know what to do. If you aren’t sure how to recognize that someone you know is in trouble, there are crisis hotlines to call and courses offered locally on Mental Health First Aid and Resilience to give you the tools to be helpful.
According to Peterson and Densley, a third commonality is that “most of the shooters had studied the actions of other shooters and sought validation for their motives.” There have always been people in crisis, they point out, but in a 24-hour news cycle and a time of hyper-partisan rhetoric when those who differ from us are vilified and dehumanized, shooters often find justification for their actions. While it is early to know the motivations of the most recent shooters, it seems clear that this was the case in the El Paso massacre with the shooter looking online for validation of his feelings about Hispanics and echoing the racist language that has come from Washington. The response to this commonality must be multifaceted. There is something to be said for refusing to name the shooters, thereby denying them their time in the spotlight. But a more proactive response might be to become actively engaged in organizations designed to build bridges in the community. Organizations actively working to decrease racism, gender bias and homophobia build community health and strength and can be an antidote to the hate that seems to be growing daily.
Finally, the shooters studied all had means and opportunity, specifically access to areas where lots of people gathered and easy access to firearms. While there is little to be done about public gatherings — they are an important part of our culture and community building — it is time to get serious about gun control and reform. We can have universal background checks, age restrictions, red-flag laws and permit to purchasing licensing laws without doing damage to the Second Amendment. Call your state and federal senators and representatives and tell them how you feel about this issue. Do your homework. There are organizations active in our community that will help you understand the nuances of gun reform and work with you to effect change.
Not everyone who has experienced childhood trauma, wrestles with mental illness, owns a gun, or even spews hateful words will become a mass shooter. Most, in fact, will not. But if ever we are to address this issue in our society, we must look at the commonalities, look for the patterns, or we will have no alternative but to throw our hands up in despair as we try to assign blame. It is our responsibility as citizens — as human beings — to ask ourselves how we can address those things that create the circumstances for mass shootings? Knowing what we know, how shall we act to prevent gun violence in our communities? Sending a tweet, sharing a post on social media, or even sending thoughts and prayers may make us feel better but it doesn’t make change. Making real and lasting change takes work, it takes time, it takes critical thinking, and it takes all of us.
Resources to address gun violence
Groups/programs addressing early childhood trauma:
- Stewards of Children (prevention and recognition of child sexual abuse), contact the Centre County YMCA, https://www.ymcaofcentrecounty.org/
- Centre Safe (formerly the Centre County Women’s Resource Center), domestic and sexual violence services, violence prevention programs, programs for mandated reporters, https://www.centresafe.org
- Centre County Youth Service Bureau, services for kids and prevention programs, https://ccysb.com/
- Children & Youth Services, to report suspected child abuse, programs for mandated reporters, 355-6755
- PA ChildLine, to report suspected child abuse, 1-800-932-0313
Groups addressing mental health concerns:
- The Jana Marie Foundation, offering workshops on Mental Health First Aid and Resilience, 954-5920, janamariefoundation.org
- Centre Co. Can Help, crisis & emergency services, 1-800-643-5432
- Centre Helps, crisis and support services, (800)-494-2500 or 237-5855, www.centrehelps.org/
Groups building community:
- Community Diversity Group, building an inclusive community in Centre County, http://communitydiversitygroup.squarespace.com/
- Centre LGBTQA Support Network, programming and support for the LGBTQA community, email@example.com
- Interfaith Initiative Centre County, building a healthy interfaith community, firstname.lastname@example.org
Groups addressing gun reform: