The Violence Project: Mass Shootings Are Preventable

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The data don’t support blaming mass shootings on serious mental health problems alone. (Image: The Violence Project website.)

She was a counselor in a middle school of about 700 students. One morning a seventh-grader walked into her office. She had spoken to him for the first time the day before because she’d noticed his anxious behavior, but he didn’t say much.

This morning was different. He pulled out a semi-automatic pistol and extra magazines full of ammunition. He said he wanted to kill his classmates and be killed while doing it.

“I came to you because I think you’re the only one who can talk me out of it.”

She felt dizzy, like she was going to faint, but she held up. For 75 minutes he pointed the gun at her, then at himself, then put it down in his lap. They held hands. They hugged. They wept. When it was over, she told him how proud she was of him because “doing what is right is hard.”

The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic, by Jillian Peterson and James Densley (Abrams Press, 2021).

That is just one remarkable story from a 2021 book told in a sensitive, discreet, and compassionate manner to reveal one tool — building relationships — available to all of us who share this cup of suffering that is mass shooting in America.

The Violence Project is both the title of the book by psychologist Jillian Peterson and sociologist James Densley and the name of the nonprofit research organization they founded to help prevent gun violence. The book has gained special relevance in the aftermath of the May 24 killing by a lone gunman of 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Texas — the deadliest school shooting in the United States in a decade and one that seems to have jolted Americans awake on the issue of gun violence.

Part of the authors’ work was to investigate 172 mass shooters in America from 1966 to 2020 who had killed four or more people in a public space. That meant talking to hundreds of people: law enforcement, educators, shooting survivors, families of victims, families of shooters, and five men who perpetrated mass shootings and were captured alive, an exceedingly rare occurrence.

More remarkable still is that in a book full of research, information, and opinions bound to affect any informed reader — whatever their feelings about guns — the authors’ approach is non-adversarial, unintrusive, and even humble. It’s perhaps no surprise that these experts would stress that this is an opportunity to communicate, not fight, and that we are better served focusing on where we should go instead of what we’re reacting against.

But their message is clear: Mass shootings are preventable by numerous routes through individual, institutional, and societal effort. We’re just doing it wrong.

“Mass shootings are not some invasive species that infiltrated our lives from elsewhere,” they write. “They have been part of the American landscape since at least 1903, when on August 14, a war veteran deliberately fired into a crowd of people in Winfield, Kansas, killing nine and wounding 25 before turning a revolver on himself.”

“During the 1970s, mass shootings claimed an average of eight lives per year. In the 1980s, the average rose to 15. In the 1990s, it reached 21. […] Today, the average is 51 deaths per year,” after a time when the number of overall homicides was declining.

One of the reasons we’re getting it wrong is that mass shootings are almost always acts of ritual suicide.

“A mass shooting is a matter of restoration,” say the authors. Although the shooters want to hurt others, they often see themselves as victims making their own pain matter.

In other words, we’re trying to prevent the wrong thing.

This is one reason why hardening potential targets does not deter shooters, they write. Millions of dollars have been spent improving security in public schools alone without effect; 24% of school shootings had an armed officer on site — often the first person to be shot. A good guy with a gun is not a deterrent when the assailant wants to die. It doesn’t help that schools are usually targeted by former students and workplaces by former employees. They are insiders who have been trained by years of lockdown drills in exactly how the facility is protected and will respond.

Mass shooters do not have one profile, but they usually have four things in common: they are overwhelmingly white males with childhood trauma, an identifiable crisis point, someone to blame, and opportunity — meaning access to weapons. The old trope that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” is just wrong. Four decades of research show that easy access to firearms causes violent crime.

At the same time, trauma does not explain or excuse mass shooting. Only a tiny fraction of trauma survivors ever pull a trigger.

Just 14% of mass shooters played violent video games, and what they played had little bearing on their decisions to kill. The same is true for the movies they watched and the books they read. The violent content they consumed fed a fire already burning. More startling, while most shooters had some history of treatment for mental health, in 70% of mass shootings that illness played no role, meaning the data do not support blaming mass shootings exclusively on serious mental illness.

One thing that does play a recurring role is a desire for recognition or fame, like previous mass shooters gained.

“We look to others for social cues that validate our own actions,” write the authors, and this extends to violent impulses. When people are isolated and uncertain how to act, this “social proof” — fame by mass violence — guides them. One massacre inspires another like a contagion.

One solution is relationships. At school, that means students need access to at least one trusted adult and to feel safe reporting others or themselves. The response must be therapeutic, not punitive. The same goes for the workplace.

Potential shooters frequently reveal or “leak” their plans to others, even if it’s just a vague threat. In one school shooting, 34 people had advance knowledge of the plan, but not one of them reported it in advance.

As hard as it may be to accept, the authors argue that leaks are a request for help.

A retired FBI agent who was involved in investigating nearly every school shooting in the last 20 years told the authors that shooters are not stopped by security, they are stopped by someone saying something. This applies to workplace and other shootings as well, but only when there is a process in place for getting help, or asking for it.

One workplace security specialist said the emphasis on identifying threats is misguided. “You don’t help troubled people just to prevent a mass shooting. You help troubled people because they need help.”

The authors: Jillian Peterson and James Densley (Image: The Violence Project website).

Only 31 states and the District of Columbia require school counselors. The recommended counselor to student ratio is 250:1; nationally, the actual rate is 444:1. Years of defunding have led to chronic shortages of school psychologists. The recommended ratio there is 500:1. To meet that goal public schools would need to hire 50,000 psychologists, today.

“America has either viewed possible solutions in isolation or created false dichotomies that are pitted against each other, from gun safety measures to mental health treatment,” the authors say. “Even when solutions have merit, they are wrongly dismissed for being imperfect… [But] layering imperfect solutions, holistically, is the only way to prevent mass violence.”

All the data, stories, and opinions in the book are an argument for action, and the authors provide a list of actions needed from Congress as well as changes we can make in our own lives. They talk about de-escalation, about how to listen, what to say, who to call, and why all that matters and why it can work. They are relentless in reminding us that a potential shooter is a person in need, not a monster. Too many leaders have escaped their responsibilities for public safety by branding these people as pure evil or insane by definition, meaning there’s nothing we can do to stop them.

“That’s why our societal response has been to wage war on monsters. […] The monsters aren’t going away. All the running, hiding, and fighting has failed. It has failed because the monsters are not them. They are us.”

All the research, methodology, and resources of the Violence Project are available for free on the organization’s website: https://www.theviolenceproject.org

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Ted Olinger is an award-winning writer. Updated from his column, “Another Last Word,” Key Peninsula News, September 2019.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderfully well written story, that makes me wonder right from the gripping opening anecdote, where can we really make a difference? Isn’t junior there who walked into the counselor’s office with his gun, something of an exception to the rule?

    The Seattle Times article on the book mentions a 16 bed “crisis stabilization facility” that’s coming, and a 988 hotline. But aside from the stark inadequacy (16 beds, 7.5 million people), do we expect people with mental health issues to go for help? Do even a significant minority, seek professional help?

    I realize this seems extravagantly unrealistic, but maybe we ought to be thinking about why 22% of Washington residents “experience a mental illness”, and what about our society needs to be made more healthy. The graph of reasons shows a couple of lines that look like they could be headed towards asymptotic growth – “hate”, “personal relationships” for example. And we haven’t got to the cohort yet that was raised in pandemic isolation. This is going to get worse before it gets better, and it isn’t going to be solved by hotlines.

  2. The most effective solution would be to administer psychological tests to gun owners and would-be owners. But nobody wants to do that because they know they would fail the test and have their guns confiscated. That’s your NRA: protecting the crazies.

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