This past week we remembered the 5th anniversary of the tragic school shooting incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. On Dec. 12, 2012 Adam Lanza killed his mother and then went to the elementary school where he killed 20 students and 6 teachers and staff members. Every anniversary of a tragic event like Sandy Hook brings back memories of the unthinkable. Hundreds of families and friends relive the grief and sense of loss from that horrible day.
I began studying school crime and violence more than 20 years ago, before the shooting incident at Columbine H.S. in Littleton, Colorado in 1999. The 15 fatalities at Columbine made it the worst school shooting, until Sandy Hook. Each year an average of about 15-25 students are killed in school shootings. This number is just 1-2 percent of the total of 1,500 school-aged children and youth who are victims of homicide each year in the U.S. School shootings draw our attention because of the multiple deaths in places where we expect our children to be safe. Violence happens on our streets. It is not supposed to happen in our schools.
My review of research on the causes of school shootings revealed several factors associated with and shared by the perpetrators of these tragic events. After Columbine many federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Education, the FBI, the American Psychological Association, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, examined school shootings. They found that it is not possible to “profile” potential school shooters or to predict who is most likely to engage in school violence. But there are several factors that were identified by those agencies examining school shootings.
The characteristics of those who have engaged in school shootings included:
-Anger that is extreme and uncontrolled
-Bullying (both as victim and perpetrator)
-Domestic violence (exposure to, and witnessed)
-Depression and mood swings/mental health issues
-Lack of empathy
-History of discipline problems
-Low parental involvement & monitoring
-Rejection by peers, social isolation
-TV/entertainment preferences for violence
The American people are conflicted about the proliferation of guns and death by firearms—including suicides, gang violence, and accidental deaths as well as homicides. Proponents of the Second Amendment maintain their right to bear arms but seem to overlook the entire amendment:
“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Most American people favor more restrictions on gun ownership. Hundreds are killed by shooters who were anything but “well-regulated” and used firearms designed for military, not personal use. Automatic weapons have no reasonable uses for self-protection, sporting, or target shooting. Our lawmakers are under political pressure to avoid restrictions on gun ownership. Writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik noted that the U.S. House of Representatives observed the fifth anniversary of Sandy Hook by passing the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act that would make “concealed carry” laws uniform across the nation.
Many lawmakers believe that more guns in the hands of “good people” will make us safer. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary, but gun control legislation is seldom based on research evidence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports on the number of deaths by guns but is not allowed to investigate the causes and effects of gun violence. This makes no sense to criminologists, who spend their lifetime studying the causes and effects of crime in order to contribute to effective laws and policies to reduce crime and promote public safety.
The first response to news of another tragic shooting incident is to offer our “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families. Expressing sympathy for their loss is an appropriate initial response. Theologians throughout history agree that assuring one of “thoughts and prayers” does convey a meaningful sentiment (see Stephanie Paulsell, “Faith Matters,” Christian Century, Nov. 22, 2017, p. 35).
Expressing “thoughts and prayers” has become so common and routine that it now has its own entry in Wikipedia. Many are critical for its repeated use in cases of tragic shootings because it is often the only response to gun violence. They are empty words when expressed in place of real constructive action to take steps to remedy the problem and reduce the inevitability of more gun deaths.
Americans can do more in response to gun violence than offer “thoughts and prayers.” We have not hesitated to reduce auto accident fatalities through safer cars and highways. We apply medical and pharmaceutical science to fight illness and disease. If we approached death by firearms as a public health problem, as criminologists and the medical profession have been recommending for decades, we could do more than offer “thoughts and prayers.”
We know the factors related to school shootings and other gun deaths. Restorative justice aims at reducing crime and violence by attending to victims, communities, and offenders. A long-term plan to reduce gun violence includes better mental health programs, limited availability of guns to those for self-defense and sporting use, a willingness to limit military-type weapons to those in a “well-regulated militia,” and a commitment to join together as Americans as if our lives depended on it. They do.