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Mass Shooting: Shifting Blame and Shifting Focus

Discussing the role of guns in mass violence and needed actions.

Linda M. Woolf
Source: Linda M. Woolf

Over a year ago, I wrote, "Mass Shootings: What Role Do Guns Play?" Since that time, there have been seemingly endless massacres at the hands of individuals wielding weapons of war in our shops, on our streets, and in our places of worship. Indeed, news sources report that there have been more mass shootings in 2019 than there have been days.

As with every other mass shooting, today we hear rhetoric aimed at framing how the public thinks about these horrendous events. Among the common causes of mass violence cited in the news today are:

  • The role of mental health—mass shooters are sick.
  • The role of hate and nationalism—mass shooters have been influenced by extremist voices.
  • The role of disenfranchised youth—mass shooters are lonely individuals who have been bullied.
  • The role of violent video games—mass shooters have spent too much time exposed to violent imagery.
  • The role of a culture of violence—mass shooters are driven by a host of violent influences in our culture.

These are all important concerns, and each represents areas where the science of psychology can provide education, research, and advocacy to facilitate change. However, these elements only represent part of the challenge we face as a nation.

Although important, the focus on any of the above as a single cause deflects from serious discussions of the common denominator—guns. If we frame the issue is one of mental health or exposure to violence or extremism, we delay actions related to addressing the primary tool of these assaults—guns.

There is absolutely no doubt that since Columbine, there have been mass shootings where the mental health of the perpetrator was a primary issue. Health care is a human right, and access to mental health care is equally as important as physical health. The lack of mental health services for youth, for veterans, and for all represents a serious private and public health concern within the U.S.

Today, with the shooting in El Paso, it is evident that violent rhetoric and extremism played a key role in the atrocity. We cannot ignore these very real concerns, and our political officials, including the President, need to be aware that repeated dehumanization of the other and describing immigrants and refugees as an infestation, as violent gangs, or as rapists, only fuels enmity and the potential for violence. Those influenced by such rhetoric come to view their violent actions as moral and necessary.

However, the U.S. is not unique in having members of their population who face struggles with mental health issues. Other nations have violent media, and their youth play violent video games. Certainly, hate, nationalism, and extremism are not unique to the U.S. And there are lonely youth who are disenfranchised and may be the victims of bullying everywhere. Yet, the U.S. stands apart from other nations in the daily occurrence of mass shootings.

The key element in all mass shooting is that the individual was a “shooter”—they had easy access to assault weaponry and large-capacity magazines.

Now I can hear some individuals responding with the common refrain: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And yes, that is true. However, I would add: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Guns just make it easier. Assault weapons make the deaths of dozens almost instantaneous.

Headlines over the past week have read: Tragedy in El Paso and The Gilroy Tragedy. For families, friends, and communities, the loss of loved ones is tragic. The shattering of lives, of safety, and of community is tragic. Yet, the word “tragedy” is inadequate and minimizes the horror.

Tragedies are natural disasters or horrible accidents in which individuals die, and communities suffer. Certainly, in response to such tragedies, efforts can be taken to perhaps protect individuals from such events in the future. Yet, tragedies are simply part of life and human existence.

However, when an individual picks up an assault weapon and indiscriminately kills people, young and old, going about their daily lives, it is not simply a tragedy—it is a massacre, an atrocity, an act of mass violence, or domestic terrorism. The word “tragedy” becomes a euphemism, which minimizes the horror of the actions taken by another human being.

Words matter as these terms frame our responses to events.

  • Tragedy translates into thoughts and prayers.
  • Repeated massacres, atrocities, mass violence, or domestic terrorism demand a call for action.

As I wrote in 2018: “It is time for our political officials to put aside lobbied interests and focus on the evidence—mass shootings occur, and guns make these atrocities all too easy and frequent. Our politicians should not be rolling back gun restrictions but instead, look towards gun ownership reforms now.”

Today I would add that such reforms should include a ban on assault weapons, ban on large-capacity magazines, universal background checks, stiffer licensing laws, red flag laws, and lifting of all Federal restrictions on gun violence research. The time for community and legislative action is long past overdue.

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