Gun Violence. What can be done?

Santa Fe High School, Texas: 10 dead, 13 Injured (5/18/18). Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida: 17 dead, 14 wounded (2/14/18). Texas First Baptist Church massacre, 26 dead, 20 injured (11/5/17). Las Vegas Strip massacre, 58 dead, 546 injured (10/1/17)  San Bernadino, California: 14 dead, 21 wounded. Colorado Springs, Colorado: 3 dead; 9 injured. Newton, Massachusetts: 28 dead (20 elementary students and 6 educators, in addition to the shooter’s mother and the shooter), 2 wounded. Tucson, Arizona: 6 dead, 13 wounded. I could go on… and on… and on. Since 1982, there have been over 100 mass shootings in the United States, according to a database compiled by Mother Jones Magazine.*  

Mass shootings, defined by the FBI as an active shooter incident in which four or more people are murdered by a gun, are occurring more frequently in the United States than ever before. When a research team from Harvard University analyzed nearly 40 years of data on mass shootings – defined as shootings that occurred in public and in which four or more people were killed – they found that these events had more than tripled in frequency starting in late 2011. From 1982 to 2011, mass shootings occurred an average of every 200 days. Since the latter days of 2011, however, mass shootings have occurred every 64 days, on average.

The pattern of both the shooting and reaction has become almost predictable. Word of an active shooter spreads quickly over airwaves and conventional and social media. Soon, television and computer and mobile phone screens are filled with scenes of people cowering, running for their lives, ambulances speeding away (or worse, standing still), police in flak jackets surrounding the scene, reporters and cameras taking footage of reporters and cameras talking to people in the “safety zone.” Then there’s a short period of outrage, extensive media analysis, a flurry of social media activity, a rush on gun purchases, calls for “thoughts and prayers,” pontification by political leaders, and little, if any, change in gun safety policies.

With every incident, fear and anxiety mounts. Above all, we feel helpless because we don’t know what to do.

 A week ago, my sister told me she had cancelled a volunteer engagement at a local school in a low-income neighborhood, because she “didn’t feel safe.” I was astonished. “Every day, kids get up and go to that school,” I told her. “Every day, parents wake up and send their kids to that school. And you’re afraid to go for an afternoon?”

“But what can I do?” she said.

Hours later, an old college friend took umbrage at my suggestion that sharing posts on Facebook wasn’t enough to effect real change. “Normally, I would write my senators and representatives. But they’ve all voted for gun control legislation,” he wrote. “So what can I do?”

You may feel similarly frustrated by the ever-increasing problem of gun violence. Yet we can do something – each and every one of us. The problem of gun violence cannot be solved by ignoring it and hoping it will go away. It is a complex problem, and like any other complex problem, it requires multi-pronged solutions.

So to my sister, my friend, and to you, dear reader, I offer 10 things you can do today to help stem the tide of gun violence.

1. Learn

Knowledge is the first step to making the choices, policies, and cultural changes that we need to reduce gun violence. A well-informed position is the only responsible position from which to argue. If you do no more than read the headlines that flash across your Facebook or Twitter feeds, you are not arguing from a position of knowledge – even if you are a lifelong gun safety instructor.

We need to make informed choices, develop effective policies, and change the culture of violence that allows gun violence to continue. Familiarize yourself not only with the drama of the active shooter scenario, but the broader picture of day-to-day gun violence that we seem to have somehow accepted as a society. One of the best, most balanced summaries of recent research can be found in the American Psychological Association’s Resolution on Firearm Violence and Prevention.


Need to Know

Before you shoot off that next Facebook post, tweet, or Instagram message, take the time to learn the facts, statistics, and issues surrounding gun violence. Here’s a start:

  • The United States is the world leader in per capita gun ownership. There are nearly 90 guns for every 100 people in the United States (obviously, since many people own more than one gun, that’s not the same as saying 90 out of 100 people own a gun). That’s a total of 207 million guns in the United States.
  • A new record in gun sales is expected to be set in 2015
  • Crime rates in the United States are similar to those in European countries. However, the United States has far higher rates of lethal crime, which some researchers suggest is linked to easy access to firearms. The gun murder rate in the United States is twenty times the average of other developed countries.
  • While mass shootings are the most dramatic examples of gun violence, they represent only 1% of gun-related deaths in the United States.
  • Suicide accounts for 62% of all firearms-related deaths. Every day, 45 people will use a gun to commit suicide – by far the most common form of firearms-related death. In 2013, 21,175 gun deaths — more than two-thirds of the 33,636 total gun deaths – were suicides.
  • Domestic violence or intimate-partner violence are key contributors to the epidemic of gun violence. This week, nine women will be murdered by their husbands or boyfriends, 75 percent of them with a gun.
  • Guns will be used to kill Black and Hispanic youth at a rate two to five times as high as their white peers.
  • Of the approximately 30 people murdered using guns every day, nearly 15 are black men.
  • On any day, seven children and youth ages 19 and under will die from a gunshot wound
  • Those who survive a shooting are often disabled for life, facing physical, mental, and emotional limitations; many people require the help of a fulltime caregiver just to perform basic functions of life like dressing oneself, eating, or going to the bathroom. Survivors may experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health conditions; they may lose their jobs, relationships, homes, cars, and more.
  • The financial and social costs of gun violence are astronomical. The most recent and complete figures come from a project at Mother Jones magazine, where journalists worked with economist Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation to estimate both direct and indirect costs of gun violence. The total: $229 billion. Direct costs include emergency response, medical costs, and incarceration for offenders, while indirect costs include things like loss of work, caregiving, and the cost to social programs. For example, a fully-employed, successful adult who experiences a spinal injury as a result of gun violence may end up unable to work and dependent on social programs and family caregivers for survival – also limiting the income of the family caregiver.



2. Support gun violence research

There’s one caveat to the “learn” step: We really don’t know much about what works in curbing gun violence, partly thanks to a 20-year-old ban on federal research into the causes of gun violence. The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996 as an addendum to an appropriations bill, prohibits federal funding for gun violence research.

In the wake of recent mass shootings, more and more people have called for an end to the gag order on federal research – even the author of the amendment himself, former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark). Yet Congress has refused to lift the research ban, under pressure from the National Rifle Association (NRA) to prevent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) from funding gun violence research. On December 2, 2015, hours before Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik went on a killing rampage at a holiday party in San Bernadino, California – and less than a week after Robert Lewis Dear opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs – the U.S. Senate voted against overturning the Dickey Amendment.

The result of the Dickey Amendment is a hodge-podge of research funded by a handful of private foundations and research institutions, confusing definitions, and the lack of a national database tracking gun-related crimes. Still, the little research that is available points to some distinct trends. For instance, more gun ownership seems to be linked with more lethal crimes. That finding is somewhat intuitive: A moment of anger with a gun close by is much more likely to become deadly than if no weapons are at hand. Conversely, states with the strictest gun control laws – those that require stringent background checks, for example – seem to have lower rates of gun violence. Whether that’s a result of the laws or of other phenomenon, such as cultural resistance to guns, is a matter for investigation.

Above all, we must recognize that gun violence, like other crimes, doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it happens in the context of poverty, culture, policies, hunger, mental and physical illness, and more. We need to know what has worked in other countries and determine whether those policies would be equally effective in the United States. We need to understand the cultural underpinnings of gun violence – ranging from the uniquely American insistence on the constitutional the right to own a gun to the poverty, education levels, alcohol and drug use, and other factors that can contribute to gun violence. We need to recognize that shooters and victims alike have been of all racial backgrounds, genders, ages, religions, and ideologies. Unraveling the questions about gun violence will require solid data, sophisticated research methods, and significant funding. The costs of not doing that research? Unfathomable.

3. Contact your members of Congress

Call, text, email, and Tweet your congressional representatives and senators. Did they vote to support common-sense gun legislation, including background checks? Thank them. How did they vote on the Dickey amendment?

Need help contacting your representatives and senators? Here’s a complete guide, complete with contact information and links to each Congress member’s website:

To learn more about how your elected officials have voted on gun-related legislation – and what financial support they are receiving from the gun lobby, check out this interactive map from The Guardian.

4. Contact your state and local elected officials.

While most of the debate about gun policies is taking place at the federal level, gun laws vary greatly from state to state – and even by county or municipality. For instance, in rural Catron County, New Mexico – population density .75 person per square mile – an ordinance requires residents to have the “means to defend” themselves and their property.

Gun Law Scorecard keeps track of gun laws in each state, giving each state a grade on their current laws. Check it out, then contact your local and state elected officials to ask for smart laws.

5. Vote

Yes, your vote does count. Enough said.

6. Support effective work

Advocacy and research groups across the nation are doing Important and effective work to curb gun violence. Support their work with a donation, volunteer your time and skills, or just contact them to ask how you can get involved. Here are a few organizations that have said “We can do something” – and are doing it:

  • Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence. Founded after Jim Brady, then press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, was shot and seriously wounded during an assassination attempt on the president, the Brady Campaign is arguably the country’s oldest gun violence prevention organization. The mission of the Brady organization is “to create a safer America for all of us that will lead to a dramatic reduction in gun deaths and injuries.”
  • Everytown for Gun Safety. This advocacy group is “a movement of Americans working together to end gun violence and build safer communities.” Groups in the Everytown movement include Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and courageous survivors of gun violence who are coming together to speak up about the issue.
  • Sandy Hook Promise: This advocacy organization was founded by family members of those killed in Newton, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. The mission of Sandy Hook Promise is to “build a national movement of parents, schools and community organizations engaged and empowered to deliver gun violence prevention programs and mobilize for the passage of sensible state and national policy.”
  • The Gun Violence Archive. This site is an important resource for data about gun violence. It is especially important in the absence of a comprehensive, federally funded surveillance program.

7. Use your skills

You may be a student, web designer, engineer, physician, nurse’s aide, teacher, police officer, physics professor, janitor, short order cook, musician, or something else. Whatever you do for a living, whatever your training is, you have skills. You have expertise.

You can use your skills and expertise to help create solutions to gun violence. Yes, you can. Design a website. Write a short story, poem, or essay. Create art, music, or dance. Design a gun with advanced safety features. Develop a conflict resolution curriculum. Write a play for a high-school drama class. The list of possibilities is endless.

8. Teach – and practice – conflict resolution

Poor conflict resolution skills plus widespread availability of guns is a recipe for tragedy. Conflict is part of life, but many people never have the chance to learn how to resolve conflict respectfully and constructively.

Four core skills are essential to conflict resolution:

  1. The ability to stay relaxed in stressful situations
  2. The ability to recognize, name, and manage emotions
  3. The ability to communicate non-verbally, both reading the signals that you are receiving from another person and those you are sending. Non-verbal communication may include tone of voice, eye contact, posture, touch, and gestures.
  4. The ability to use humor and play – laughing with the other person, not at them – when conflict arises.

If you are skilled at conflict resolution, why not use that skill to help others learn? If you’re not so skillful, it’s time to learn. A great place to start is the Conflict Resolution Network, which offers free resources and advanced training for professionals.

9. Share your (well-informed) views

Write a letter to the editor. Write a blog post. Give a speech to your local Rotary Club. Distribute information at a health fair – or county fair, for that matter. No rants here. Only write and share after you’ve informed yourself carefully about gun violence. Share what you know with your family, friends, and community.


10. Practice gun safety

Responsible gun owners recognize the power of their weapons, and they take the steps to prevent their unseemly use.

  • Take a firearms safety course. Take a course if you own a gun, want to own a gun, or don’t have any interest in owning a gun. You’ll be amazed at what you learn, and not only about gun handling.
  • If you have children in the home, do not allow them access to guns. Keep guns out of sight, unloaded, and locked. Lock up ammunition separately from guns, and do not give children or teens the keys. The American Academy of Pediatricians, after reviewing available evidence on gun safety, children, and teens, concluded that even with safe firearms storage practices, “the safest home for a child or adolescent is one without firearms.” 
  • If a child will be playing at a friend’s house, ask if there is an unlocked gun on the premises. If the answer is yes – and the gun is not locked, maybe the playdate needs to happen somewhere else.


*This number is based on a definition of mass shootings as seemingly indiscriminate shootings in public places during which four or more people are killed. For an excellent explanation of why this count gives us the most information about mass shootings, see this New York Times editorial by Mother Jones contributer Mark Follman.

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