Thoughts and prayers. Remove guns. Guns are the problem. Arm the schools. Moments of silence. The often consistent and vibrant words following a mass-shooting casualty that spackles the newspaper, TV, social media, and conversations we have with others. Although assertive, these words illustrate the dichotomous disagreement we have around gun laws. And the continuous yet hallow narrative will not bring about change.
We are one of the only countries that have this problem. We have had more mass shootings than days of the year—no school shootings in Japan, none in England. And while thoughts and prayers may comfort the bereaved parents burying their children, historically, it has not brought about change. I want to explore the challenges our country faces contributing to mass shootings. The first paragraph will be dedicated to guns, but in my opinion, while a considerable part of the problem, it is not the sole contributor. Thoughts and prayers, and moments of silence are the reactive medication to our current epidemic. It can provide relief and comfort to the tremendous pain that the bereaved caregivers and family now must live with. Yet, we need to find preventative care that eradicates the disease of mass gun violence.
Here are the facts: Nearly 90% of Americans believe in universal background checks regardless of political preference. In 2019, there were approximately 250,000 gun-related deaths across the globe. The United States takes second place, with gun deaths at over 37,000. The United States also has the second-highest gun-related suicide globally, with numerous other countries doing over 7 per 100 thousand people. There have been over 200 mass shootings in the US this year. This is the 27th school shooting in 2022. Since 2018, there have been 119 school shootings. In 2020, for the first time in over 20 years, firearm-related incidents became the leading cause of death for children and adolescents ages 1-19. This is not a global problem. There are numerous other countries that do not have a gun problem. For example, the UK saw only 33 deaths from guns in 2019. Countries like Norway, South Korea, China, Japan, Indonesia, and Iceland have violent gun deaths below .07 per 100,000 people. Many of these countries also employ strict gun laws and responsible firearm guidelines.
There seems to be a somewhat simple solution to a complex problem – craft safer and more responsible gun laws that limit or prevent the rapid death that assault rifles produce. Canada, Scotland, Australia, and Germany are just a few countries that have faced mass shootings and swiftly implemented harsher gun laws. Homicide and suicide rates plummeted immediately. And while one side of the aisle will continue to persuade the other that guns are not the problem, here are a few examples of how guns are part of the problem. But what else is contributing to the violence we continue to see, read and hear across our cities, states, and country? While mandating background checks or screening for mental health diagnoses is a step in the right direction, is that the entire preventative pill for this illness? Or do we need a complex, systemic, multi-tier approach with a combination of changes in culture, laws, and thinking?
After the arguments around gun laws dissipates, the following point politicians typically blame for these horrendous tragedies is mental health. But what do they mean when they say mental health is the problem? My concern is that an arbitrary diagnosis is selected by distant practitioners who are paid by the media or by folks not in the mental health field as the primary scapegoat for a shooting. And what does that tell us? Too bad? That kid was destined to kill? To me, that seems like a dead-end road. Instead, we need to explore the root of the mental health crisis. Why is it essential to expand access? Why is it important to normalize therapy?
We know about the recent Uvalde school shooter that he was a “loner,” bitterly bullied, and may have felt isolated or alone. How do we fix something like this? There needs to be a large-scale push for access to mental health care. A systematic restructuring of how we think about and obtain mental health has been long overdue. This includes affordable access, especially for oppressed or stigmatized populations. Normalizing care for people or cultures who typically would not ask for help without backlash from family, friends, or their community. Accessing mental health should reward the client and counselor mutually. Dr. Ken Hardy and Dr. Tracy Laszloffy wrote a book titled “Teens who Hurt, “ highlighting some of the variables contributing to these atrocities. As mental health professionals and as a society, we have a responsibility to attend to hurting people. Because hurt people hurt other people. And maybe by becoming attuned to the wounds any of these school shooters have suffered, we can prevent the children who will never see another birthday. Or the parents who will never tuck their children in at night again. See, this order of change is systemic and prevention-oriented. Attacking this complex epidemic from a reactive and preventative standpoint may produce the change that has been needed for years.
Relying on politicians or leaders to make a change may only produce more of the same. Anyone who reads this as a parent, child, teenager, grandparent, friend, aunt, cousin, or teacher shares the same value. As humans, we do not want our children to die. That is indefensible and irrefutable. As a society, we may not be able to change the gun laws. We may not be able to manufacture wide-scale mental health change that provides more affordable access. Yet, I believe we can still make a difference. As humans, we can check in with one another. More than the “hi, how are you doing, good, how about you, good” conversations. The more meaningful conversations that let someone know they are not alone or that if they are, you are there for them. As a society, we can change the narrative around mental health care. We can reduce stigma, stereotypes, and biases about anyone receiving support. And that starts with adults. Children and teenagers aren’t born with pre-conceived notions about receiving health, be it mental or physical. This change in thinking may grant us an opportunity to change our culture. And while gun laws need to be shifted, that is something I fear if we continue to wait, we will continue to be disappointed.