In 2019, after the murder of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, a reporter, Laurie Roberts, wrote: “You know the drill”. First will come thoughts and prayers; then questions and calls for action. Then:
“As night follows day, the horrified reply will be that it’s simply too soon to politicize this tragedy. And once again we will find that the appropriate time for America to at long last confront these horrifying massacres … is never.”
Notwithstanding any thoughts and prayers which might have occurred during the next three years, nothing substantial happened to prevent another tragic, mass killing. So, about 3 years, and about 500 miles from El Paso, 21 people have so far died as a result of an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, at the hands of a shooter in possession of two semi-automatic rifles.
Unfortunately, mass shootings (defined as 4 or more victims killed or injured) occur almost daily in the United States. Mass murders (defined as 4 or more people murdered) occur, on average, every few weeks. This year, since the 1st of January, the United States has had 213 mass shootings and 10 mass murders. The Gun Violence Archive updates these statistics every day.
Discussion of putting an end to this sad carnage often devolves into fruitless debates over the impact of mental illness versus the availability of guns. Do these incidents stem from mental illness or gun availability? Perhaps a reasonable question, but very easy to answer: both mental illness and gun availability have significance, probably along with other factors.
Certainly, anyone who murders defenseless, innocent children suffers from severe mental illness, acute or chronic. Moreover, killers such as the El Paso shooter (2019) and the Buffalo shooter (2022), have taken others’ lives without remorse or shame. That seems psychopathic.
Also certainly, a truism exists: If someone does not have a gun, they cannot shoot anyone. If the Dayton (2019) shooter did not have a .223-caliber high-capacity rifle with 100-round drum magazines – that enabled him to fire 41 shots in less than 30 seconds – he could not have shot anyone. If the Las Vegas (2017) shooter did not have access to a military-style weapon, along with a bump stock to effectively turn his weapon into a machine gun, he could not have shot and killed so many people.
For prevention of future gun-violence tragedies, evidence-based insights can assist us. The Violence Project, for example, has examined mass shootings since the 1960s. They have documented how shooters have typically experienced a noticeable crisis prior to their shooting. Many experienced feelings of suicidality before or during their attacks on others. The majority of shooters experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence. Shooters found validation, inspiration, and sometimes radicalization in the actions of other mass killers. And shooters had the means to carry out their plans; they could access the guns necessary for killing a lot of people in a short period of time.
If we commit to collaborative, data-informed approaches, we can use available research information to develop strategies to prevent future mass shootings. The Dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health suggests that we can take a public health approach – that “reframes the issue as a preventable disease that can be cured with the help of community members.” Similar to stopping any disease, stopping gun violence requires interrupting transmission, containing the risk, and changing community norms.
After a mass murder in 1996, the United Kingdom took a radical approach, banning access to some types of guns and strictly limiting access to other types. Since then, only one mass murder has occurred.
So far, no evidence has emerged that more guns will reduce school shootings and other mass murders. In the recent Uvalde situation, the killer warded off two, armed police officers who arrived before he barricaded himself in the school building. In the Parkland (2018) school shooting, where 17 people died, the school security officer onsite retreated outside to a place of safety, rather than pursue the killer. In the Buffalo mass shooting two weeks ago, an armed security guard could not stop the shooter, and died in the attempt to do so.
Nothing suggests that Texas Governor Abbott’s 2015 tweeted exhortation – to make Texas the number one state in gun purchases – has any likelihood of reducing the number of innocent children killed by mass shooters. In fact, based on the evidence on how killers obtain their guns, his advice will probably increase the number of children murdered.
For those of us working in the nonprofit sector and in community-based organizations, these violent events compel us to address our missions all the more strongly. Few of us can step in and prevent a specific violent act, a specific act of hate, or any other bad thing that an individual decides to inflict on others. Nonetheless, we can address root causes and underlying conditions which precipitate and/or enable such events.
Success will require that many of us work in concert, and that we take action, with thoughts and prayers only serving as the first step.