After every horrific shooting, it is human nature to search for clues that might explain what happened, and how to keep it from happening again. Unfortunately, every case offers a few promising leads that seem to be contradicted by the next case. In the 1990s we had city shootings that generated concern about the stress of “urban war zones,” followed by rural school shootings attributed to the pressures on boys raised in small towns. The 1999 shooting at suburban Columbine High School convinced many people that the underlying problem was bullying.
Last year, Adam Lanza’s attack of Sandy Hook Elementary School aroused concern about school safety, and inspired calls to place armed guards in elementary schools. Santa Barbara shooter Elliott Rodger was interviewed by law enforcement officers who mistakenly concluded that he was not dangerous, prompting nationwide calls for better police training.
If we have learned anything, it should be that there is no simple solution to the problem of mass shootings and that we should be wary of quick-fix ideas. It is time to step back and look more objectively at the larger patterns and trends:
1. Yes, gun violence is ubiquitous in the United States.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 81,300 nonfatal injuries and 31,672 deaths every year involving guns. That works out to about 308 shootings and 86 deaths every day. The cases we hear about in the news are highly selective and not representative.
2. But gun violence is not increasing.
We often see reports claiming that gun violence is increasing, but national trends show otherwise. FBI crime statistics show that gun violence was far higher 20 years ago. A few extra cases in a short timeframe are likely to be chance fluctuations or copycat effects.
3. School shootings are statistically rare.
With an average of 300 shootings every day, it should be no surprise that a few of them occur in or near schools. According to FBI crime statistics, most homicides, including most multi-victim homicides, occur in homes, not schools. There are more mass shootings in restaurants than in schools, but no one has called for waitpersons to carry guns. Children are almost 100 times more likely to be murdered outside of school than at school, which makes massive expenditures for school building security seem like a misallocation of tax dollars.
4. Gun violence is not due to mental illness.
It seems intuitive that anyone who commits a mass shooting must be mentally ill, but this is a misuse of the term “mental illness.” Mental illness is a term reserved for the most severe mental disorders where the person has severe symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations. Decades of mental health research show that only a small proportion of persons with mental illness commit violent acts, and together they account for only a fraction of violent crime. Some mass shooters have had a mental illness. Most do not.
5. Gun violence could be further reduced.
Almost every modern nation in the world has far lower rates of gun violence than the U.S. For example, gun homicides are seven times higher in the U.S. than in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Other democratic nations with gun safety laws do not experience our levels of gun violence.
But the political debate over gun rights has made it appear impossible to regulate firearms without sacrificing the Second Amendment. And the connection between guns and violence is not as simple as “guns cause crime” or “guns make us safer.” There is scientific evidence, however, that some policies, such as restricting high risk individuals (such as felons and spouse abusers) from access to firearms, will reduce (but not eliminate) rates of violent crime.
6. Prevention does not require prediction.
There is a mistaken belief that we must be able to predict violence in order to prevent it. On the contrary, we can prevent problems without prediction if we take a public health approach. Public health programs have dramatically reduced lung cancer by preventing smoking. Automobile accidents are curtailed by traffic regulations, safer cars, and driver training. Real violence prevention cannot wait until there is a gunman at the door, but must start before problems escalate into violence. For examples, there are numerous controlled studies demonstrating that school-based counseling and violence prevention programs are effective at teaching students how to resolve conflicts and problems without resorting to violence. Prevention must begin early to be most effective.
7. Locking people up is not the answer.
We need a sea change in our approach to threats of violence. The police are hamstrung by an antiquated model which requires them to either arrest someone for a crime or determine that they are mentally ill and imminently about to harm someone. Most cases do not fit into either pigeonhole. Locking people up in a jail or a hospital to prevent violence is not the answer.
In case after case of mass shootings, we learn later that family members, friends, and even mental health professionals were concerned that someone needed help. Predicting violence is difficult, but identifying that someone needs assistance is not so difficult. This is where we need to readjust our focus and concentrate on helping people in distress. This approach requires not only a change in police policy but community mental health services that are oriented around prevention.
Although we will never eliminate violence, effective prevention programs can do much to reduce its prevalence. We do not read in the news media about the people who threatened violence but were helped. Prevention is invisible to the public when it succeeds. In fact, there have been many successful cases, and we have likely prevented far more shootings than have occurred. We need more widespread use of a threat assessment approach in which we investigate threats more carefully and provide help for persons who are so distressed that they are threatening violence. We need mental health services more focused on anger and alienation, in addition to the traditional problems of anxiety and depression.
Finally, we need to improve the quality as well as the quantity of mental health services and focus on helping the larger population of people in distress rather than those fitting a narrow definition of mental illness.