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The new normal? Addressing gun violence in America

don't shoot I want to grow up

Mass shootings have a significant impact on our individual and collective psyche, especially when they happen at schools. Despite the fact that children die every day from gun violence, school shootings upset us in ways that are difficult to comprehend. In our minds, schools serve as safe havens for children. When that image is shattered, the unpredictability and randomness of such heinous acts leave us wondering if anywhere is safe anymore. Thus, the shock and horror expressed following these events is not surprising.

Unfortunately, our individual and communal response to such events is often knee-jerk. We react out of fear rather than thoughtful consideration of why such events occur and how our responses may prevent or accelerate re-occurrence. Without such understanding, we cannot develop effective solutions.

The May issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry includes a set of commentaries that seek to help us better understand responses to gun violence, challenge some of the typical policy responses to such events, and offer constructive strategies for preventing gun violence.

In the first commentary, Kristin A. Goss (2015) highlights an exception to the old adage that when it comes to guns, legislators are incapable of action: at the federal and state levels, laws have been enacted that were designed to regulate access to guns by people with mental illness and to support programs to reduce gun violence within that population. Heath J. Hodges and Mario J. Scalora (2015) further challenge the presumption that mental illness is causally tied to gun violence. Building on existing research, Hodges and Scalora offer scientifically grounded and practical policy- and practice-oriented strategies for preventing firearm violence. They offer government solutions (e.g., basing prohibitions on dangerousness instead of mental illness and extending regulation of firearm acquisition to private transactions and Internet sales) and clinical interventions, such as employing threat assessment strategies.

Dewey Cornell (2015) expounds upon the threat assessment strategy and provides a strong argument for the use of such an approach in schools. Cornell describes how the strategy of behavioral threat assessments – a process of evaluating individuals who threaten to harm others to determine whether their behavior demonstrates a serious intent to carry out a violent act – promotes the consideration of the context and meaning of the student’s behavior. Indeed, it re-focuses the conversation on creating supportive environments for children and youth.

Carol W. Runyan, Talia Brown, and Ashley Brooks-Russell (2015) also draw attention to the need for more proactive and preventive approaches to gun violence. They discuss how the debate on gun violence resulting from mass shootings in schools frequently omits the role of firearms in suicide, despite the fact that mass shootings usually involve suicidal behaviors. After discussing the myths and biases that play into the inadequate attention afforded to suicide as a preventable public health issue, Runyan and colleagues propose a framework for the prevention of firearm suicides and call for greater recognition of behavioral health as part of health care.

In the final commentary, David Hargrove and Roland Perdue (2015) argue that to address gun violence, we must address the fear and distrust that permeates society. Their commentary suggests that we need to invest in approaches that are preventive and that seek to build community, instead of policies and practices that further exclude and isolate individuals from communities.

The editors and authors hope that this set of commentaries will provide a strong basis for having a well-reasoned conversation about our civic and moral obligation to ensure “a new normal” whereby neighbors look out for one another, institutions promote relationships and belonging, and resources are available to individuals during times of distress and isolation. Indeed, once we begin to address the fear that is guiding the development of misinformed policy and weakening connections among individuals and communities, we begin to chip away at the culture of violence in our society.

McLeigh, J. (2015). The new normal? Addressing gun violence in America. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85 (3), 201-202 DOI: 10.1037/ort0000072


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