The Steps We Can Take to Reduce Mass Shootings in America

OOn October 1, 2015, a gunman killed his professor at Umpqua Community College, Oregon. Eight students were also shot to death. President Barack Obama was frustrated that Congress had not passed new gun safety laws three years prior to the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut. “Somehow this has become routine. It is routine to report. My response here at this podium ends up being routine, the conversation in the aftermath of it … We have become numb to this.”

Fast forward seven years and amid a recent spate of horrific mass shootings—at a Buffalo supermarket, a Texas elementary school, and a Tulsa hospital—it feels like little has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse—mass shootings are more frequent and deadlier than ever.

It’s hard not to feel numb. When comparable nations have suffered deadly mass shootings—Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand, Switzerland—they respond with new laws curtailing firearm access and they rarely experience another mass shooting. We Americans wait patiently for the right time to take action, but it never happens. Mass shootings go on unabated in America.

In frustration at waiting for Congress’ courage and conviction to take action, five years ago we began investigating the lives of mass-shooters. Our goal was to gather the data that could change the exhausting routine President Obama called out—even if only incrementally, step-by-step. The 2021 book contains our findings. The Violence Project: Stopping Mass Shooting Epidemics.

To our genuine surprise, talking to mass shooters in prison and people who knew them, people who planned a shooting but never went through with it, victims’ families, shooting survivors, and first responders gave us reason to hope. As citizens concerned, there are many things that we can do now to prevent mass shootings from ever happening.

You need to shift your mindset. Mass shootings aren’t common. These are them. These are Contact us—boys and men we know. Our children. Our students. Our teachers. Our community. It may seem that mass shootings are harder to stop. It is actually quite the contrary.

Half of all mass shooters—and nearly 80% of school mass shooters—communicate intent to do harm ahead of time. They threaten family members and friends via social media. This is a crucial opportunity for intervention, but many people don’t know what to do with that information or where and how to report it. Communities can respond quickly to potential shooters by training themselves to speak up when they see something or hear it.

Mass shootings are intended to end the life of someone who is at breaking point. No one thinks they’ll get away with a mass shooting; mass shootings end one of three ways: with the shooter taking their own life, law enforcement taking it for them, or the perpetrator spending the rest of their life in prison.

These deterrent measures, such as severe punishment or armied security at the entrance, do not work to stop mass shootings. If someone is prepared to kill them, a suicidal gunman may be attracted to the location. Instead of giving people in desperate situations an excuse to end their lives, it is important to give them reasons to live.

Like CPR, suicide prevention and crisis intervention are skills anyone can learn—you don’t have to be a doctor or psychologist. We’ve trained thousands of people in verbal and nonverbal de-escalation techniques like active listening and focusing on feelings (not facts) in recent years: police officers, teachers, journalists, college professors, and office workers. It saves lives.

A crisis overwhelms a person’s usual coping mechanisms—a person in crisis is like a balloon ready to pop. Let a little air out. We don’t have to completely deflate the balloon, or figure out then and there how and why it got so full, or make sure it can never get inflated again. This is not long-term mental healthcare treatment. The goal of crisis intervention is to recognize when someone is experiencing a crisis, and then intervene to support them.

The problems in the lives of mass shooters feel so massive and overwhelming, but sometimes it’s the smallest thing that can get someone through a moment. Aaron Stark, a popular TEDx Talk speaker, describes how a blueberry and peach pie diverted him from violence. A simple act of kindness and a pie made from blueberries saved him. He was just days away to committing a school shooting. Likewise, if people can’t get their hands on the easiest tools to harm themselves or others, there will be fewer tragedies. School shooters tend to get their weapons from their homes, so parents can protect their children’s lives by locking their guns.

To stop mass shootings, all of us need to become more vigilant, compassionate and, in certain cases, restrained. Many mass shooters are often inspired by the actions of past mass shooters. This can be countered by only sharing, liking and sharing media that is solutions-focused. It also names the true protagonists: victims, survivors, communities, first responders. Instead of focusing on scenes of chaos and violence, let’s talk about stories of courage, strength, resilience and other positive aspects of life.

Mass shootings are not an inevitable fact of American life; they’re preventable. America has been unable to see the solutions to mass shootings as a whole or create false dichotomies, in which gun safety measures and mental healthcare treatment are compared. Even though solutions may have merits, many people mistakenly dismiss them as imperfect. One reality is that solutions aren’t useless because of imperfections. The truth is that there are many solutions to this problem. As with Swiss cheese, there are holes—but if you layer the slices, one on top of the other, the holes start to get covered up. As we saw in the COVID-19 epidemic.

It is possible to stop mass violence by layering incompatible solutions holistically.

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