Mass shootings and other forms of violence—especially gun violence–have become “normal” in the United States. Somehow we have become so numb to the drone of the news telling us the latest about who shot whom today that it hardly registers as being significant. Sure, after each new tragedy there will be news coverage, some comments made about the perpetrator’s mental health, perhaps a bill or two introduced in Congress pertaining to gun control measures, but they don’t pass, nothing changes, and the carnage continues. We can count on more of the same in the future. That’s because we are doing little to change the course of events, and almost everything we can to promote violence. We make it easy for those bent on killing to carry out their agenda, and our lawmakers are apparently uninterested in doing much of anything about it. If nothing changes, well, then nothing will change.
Research into gun violence has been seriously curtailed since 1996, when the National Rifle Association (NRA) accused the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of trying to pursue a gun control agenda, and Congress began blocking funding for research into gun violence. So although we do have the benefit of past research on the individual, social, and environmental factors that promote violence, and although some research continues into specific types of aggression such as domestic violence, youth violence, and workplace violence, the surge in mass shootings in recent years has resulted in very little new knowledge about how and why these tragedies occur, and even less about how to prevent them from occurring. Additionally, we do not seem to be using even past research to move us towards increased safety.
What We Do Know
Although the public discourse often focuses on mental illness as a simplified explanation of what causes violence, there is no easy way to identify who will and who will not commit a violent crime. However we do have information about risk factors—that is various personal, social, and environmental factors that may predispose someone to resort to violence. Painting in very broad brush strokes, individuals who are more likely to commit violent crimes tend to be young, male, have a history of aggressive behavior, have a history of being victimized themselves, engage in alcohol or drug abuse, be socially isolated or have poor social relationships, and may have untreated mental health problems, especially certain personality disorders or disorders that foster paranoid ideation. They may be more likely than the general population to have experienced frequent hunger as a child, and to have abused their female partners in adulthood. Risk increases when these individuals experience a setback that is experienced as a blow to their ego, and when they have access to weapons. Those who act out violently because of some perceived injustice may find inspiration in the media when acts of violence are reported and perpetrators—even deceased ones—have an opportunity to serve as role models.
What seems most striking to me about the risk factors we are aware of is that in nearly every case, something can be done to reduce that risk. As long as the human race exists there will be young males. We don’t want to change that. Yet each and every one of the other risk factors can be addressed in some way, despite the lack of a definitive “cure” for violent behavior.
So although we cannot select the next mass murderer out of a crowd—and asking mental health professionals to do so would be unrealistic—we do have information about predisposing factors, and with effort we can reduce risk in the general population and improve our ability to intervene in the lives of troubled individuals before it becomes too late. We can undoubtedly also get better at keeping firearms out of the hands of very high risk individuals such as convicted felons, domestic abusers, those with a history of violent behavior or ties to violent groups, those with untreated addictions or with certain high risk mental disorders. We may also be able to improve our ability to spot trouble and address it more effectively by making research into this problem a national priority, and by learning from other advanced nations who have lowered their gun violence through legislative and social policy changes.
Instead, each time we cut funding for mental health care, addiction treatment, domestic violence, or other social programs we neglect to address the problem. Each time we turn our backs on the poor, eliminate or cut back food programs or jobs programs, or isolate or denigrate individuals who don’t look like us or act like us we neglect to address the problem. Each time we make guns more readily available, skip background checks, and fail to address the epidemic of gun violence in any meaningful way we neglect to address the problem. Each time we suppress research into gun violence or dismiss potentially successful policies that are working in other nations as somehow being not applicable to us, we are sticking our heads in the sand and neglecting to address the problem. Each time we fail to take reasonable steps to address problems that we know increase the likelihood of violence, and each time we stubbornly refuse to consider alternatives or to learn from our past mistakes, then we promote violence through our negligence. Enough is known that we can take meaningful steps towards combating gun violence. Our failure to do so has become a national disgrace. Isn’t it time to do something different?
Important Note: This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care. Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different. If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.