Amid the horrifying but ever-increasing scale of mass shootings in America, the latest school shooting in Uvalde, Texas was particularly heartbreaking. Nineteen beautiful children never returned home to their loved ones. Many more will suffer from severe PTSD for a long time to come. Despite these grueling and seemingly incessant mass killings, as usual many political leaders and pundits have displayed a great deal of demagogy – including a powerful address to the nation from President Biden – but it is likely that little or nothing will happen. will be done. It is a shameful, rotten and entrenched model.
Why can’t we allow these all-too-frequent tragedies to become the wake-up call we use to summon real change – a signal where we’re not just tackling gun control, but more importantly , let’s dig deep and tend to the root causes of violence. Maybe we’re becoming too numb, or too many of us feel resigned to our leaders’ ability to change course, but we can’t sit quietly and let this continue to spin out of control. It is a moment that calls on all of us to take action that we have not yet taken, but must.
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It’s not just mass shootings that terrorize our nation. Everyday violence in America is widespread. A person is shot every 51 minutes in the United States. The youth homicide rate is more than seven times that of other Western countries, and in 2020 gun violence is the leading cause of death among children. These are just a few of the heartbreaking examples. The horrors faced by millions of children, living in what are essentially our own war zones in too many communities across America – which can even lead to PTSD at levels similar to returning veterans – should on their own be enough to motivate fundamental change.
It’s not just mass shootings that terrorize America: someone is shot every 51 minutes. Our youth homicide rate is seven times higher than that of other Western countries. Gun violence is the leading cause of death among children.
While there are many approaches we can take to reverse this trend, the complex, multi-faceted, root-cause measures that would actually help address the underlying causes of violence are not even on the table in our dominant discourse, let alone taken seriously by policy makers. We usually only hear the basic arguments of the main political camps: gun control on one side (yes, please!) and not much on the other, or sometimes a vague mention , less than shy, mental health support and/or placing armed guards, uh, I guess, everywhere?
To be clear, we need to maximize any momentum we have right now and implement gun control measures now. In particular, semi-automatic weapons should be banned, background checks put in place and “red flag” laws enacted, along with other crucial gun control laws. But as we try to combat the general scourge of violence, gun control alone will never be enough. Until we start to dig deeper and eventually address the underlying causes of why so many people turn desperately to violence in the first place, we’re likely to see these kinds of horrors continue to unfold. continuously develop.
We need to go deeper and do a collective introspection. One of the most important questions we should be looking at is what drives people to so much despair and to lash out with violence in this way.
What we know for certain about the vast majority of mass shootings, as well as the less spectacular daily incidents of violence that do not regularly make national headlines, is that there has often been a tragic experience or , more often, repetitive tragic experiences, in the lives of the perpetrators that caused them to act in such horrible ways. We don’t always know what the exact triggers are for each specific mass shooter, but we do know many of the potential culprits. Experiencing intense life trauma that has not been addressed, or multiple traumas, is almost always a dominant factor. These sources of trauma emerge from homes, communities, workplaces and even schools.
It is imperative that people feel as safe as possible throughout their lives, feel that they are part of supportive and nurturing families or communities that allow everyone to thrive and that make violent tendencies less likely to develop. After all, regular exposure to violence creates widespread trauma and even PTSD in these populations, and can cause people to continue acting violently for generations to come. Addressing all of this is no small task, but we must nevertheless move vigorously towards its realization.
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We must invest in solutions that help alleviate human despair, which is often born of physical and emotional abuse, as well as entrenched family and community violence. We need to better support those who fall through the cracks when young, rescuing them from violent circumstances. We also need to find better ways to support adults who are showing signs of emotional or mental distress, and even work to address widespread loneliness and isolation. Significant investments in reducing poverty and inequality are also crucial. These and many other difficult factors can be breeding grounds for despair and, too often, violence. There are many indicators that require our engagement, but we do not systematically monitor or respond at the scale required.
There are many effective and cutting edge violence prevention and response efforts across the country. However, they are severely under-resourced. With better public policy support, we can expand this work. These efforts could help build much more emotional and psychological resilience in society – and for those most at risk.
What does it look like?
At the interpersonal and intrapersonal level, we need strong resources to address mental health, domestic violence, trauma, PTSD, workplace violence and suicide, and to offer supports for life skills, parenting skills and related fields.
At the community level, we must employ comprehensive strategies and programs to address the challenges of community violence and heal collective trauma. Effective efforts include, but are not limited to, comprehensive family support services, hands-on street outreach and intervention, mental health services, skilled childcare, after-school programs, and improving relationships between the police and the community.
Our schools are also an important vehicle of support. We can focus more on teaching and practicing conflict resolution and social and emotional learning, which have been shown to build emotional resilience and reduce violence. These can include restorative justice processes, mindfulness and other skills and modalities proven to transform violence, bullying and other challenges faced by young people. School systems are too often hyper-focused on GPAs and test scores, rather than whole person-centered education that includes life skills that can be the building blocks of a more resilient life.
We need to humanize our criminal justice system, moving away from policies that are too punitive and towards those that can help transform entrenched patterns of violence.
And finally, we need to refocus and humanize our criminal justice systems. We must dismantle the monetary incentives built into the current prison industrial complex and eliminate the cradle-to-prison pipeline. We need to move away from overly punitive policies towards healing-oriented criminal and juvenile justice approaches that address the underlying causes and help transform entrenched patterns of violence. Restorative justice, diversion or alternative incarceration programs, trauma-informed justice systems, and state-of-the-art inmate rehabilitation and reintegration programs offer some of the most promising solutions.
If we don’t systematically address the roots of violence in America, we will continue to suffer the consequences in even more chilling ways. Dealing properly with the challenges we face will prepare us for a much safer and more prosperous future, with far fewer of the horrors we so helplessly witness all too often.
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