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For the COVID-19 pandemic we wear masks. For the pandemic of gun violence, what do we do?

  • April 16, 2021

eight people were killed in a shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. On March 16, shootings at three Atlanta-area spas left eight people dead, and on March 22, a shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, killed 10.many people were anxious about a return to public life. As out of control as COVID-19 felt, many people understood if they wore masks and maintained distance, they could play a role in their own safety. But many people feel helpless to protect themselves from the threat of a mass shooter. Every public space feels vulnerable – schools, concerts, grocery stores, places of worship.

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Though perpetrators are responsible for the violence they inflict, experts said research provides a number of actions society, institutions and individuals can take to help prevent mass shootings, which remain rare. That knowledge, Peterson said, can act as an antidote to helplessness. 

Data shows gun violence is disproportionately a male problem. 

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“We’ve interviewed perpetrators of mass shootings who are in prison. We’ve interviewed their moms and their sisters and their elementary school teachers to try to really understand deeply that pathway,” Peterson said.

Researchers found early childhood trauma among mass shooters. Perpetrators often lack access to mental health care and peer support. They develop poor coping skills and build to a crisis point. Many are suicidal.

Mass shooters often develop a grievance with the world and find someone else to blame. They spend time on the internet engaging with others who validate those grievances. They acquire access to a chosen site to engage in mass violence, and they acquire the guns to do it.

“You can think about how you cut this off at any one of those points along the pathway,” Peterson said.

Experts said there are societal, institutional and individual actions people can take that would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings.

• At a societal level, that may include better access to mental health care and background checks.

• Institutionally, it may require more suicide prevention training in workplaces and schools.

•Individually, it may mean empowering people to spot someone in crisis.

Esther Baumann, left, hugs Fabrizio Giorgetta at a memorial outside a King Soopers grocery store where multiple people were killed during a shooting on March 23, 2021.

“We always look for motive. If it was a terrorist attack we say, ‘Oh, that’s it, now we know why they did it.’ If it’s mental illness, we say the same. But behind every terrorism case, behind every mental health case, there were lots of opportunities for intervention that were missed,” said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and co-founder of the Violence Project.

Individuals can spot signs, and they shouldn’t ignore them

Peterson said 80% of perpetrators show signs of crisis behavior. After mass shootings, people lament the warning signs that were missed, or the ones that were seen but never led to intervention. 

Tyler Bayless, who lived with the man accused in the Atlanta shootings for six months in 2019 and 2020 at Maverick Recovery Center in Roswell, Georgia, said the suspect visited massage parlors and engaged in sexual acts, then expressed guilt because of his Christian faith.

“When I saw the headlines, my mind went straight to him,” Bayless said. “I always thought he’d do something, but I thought he would harm himself, not something like this.”

The person charged with killing 17 people in Parkland, Florida, was a troubled teenager who had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for “disciplinary reasons” and posted disturbing material on social media before the shooting spree in 2018. One student said the shooter had been abusive to his girlfriend.

“People are noticing that something’s off,” Peterson said. “It’s easier to say in retrospect, of course.”

Managing our anxieties around the unknown

In 2019, a Gallup poll found nearly half of Americans feared being the victim of a mass shooting and women consistently expressed greater worry than men.

“The cases scare people because it feels as though it can happen to anyone at any time in any place. Even to you,” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University.

Fox underscored that mass shootings remain rare, but the public’s anxieties can be influenced by media coverage.

“When you see video of people running and the sound of gunfire, what does that do for us? We know what gunfire sounds like. We know what people running looks like,” he said. “Those images frighten the viewer and play into the mindsets of people who would love to see their community look like that as long as they’re the ones holding the gun. Those videos are thrilling to some people and terrifying to others.” 

Gun violence killed more than 40,000 people in 2020. Experts said a commitment to stem that epidemic appears less certain. 

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“America wasn’t well before the pandemic, and if we only focus on the pandemic, that still doesn’t mean we fixed all the problems that were there before it. That’s the piece perhaps we lost sight of – that ‘normal’ didn’t always mean good,” Densley said. “When we go back to normal, if we’ve not changed anything, we’ll go back to that baseline, and that’s not necessarily going to be a happy place.”

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