Something has changed.
Discussions regarding gun violence in schools have altered their direction. What has become a routine surge of prayers, calls to ban firearms, discoveries of motivations, suggestions for countermeasures, and useless political gesturing is now a nationwide recognition and a mourning of heroes. American mass violence, the unique and hyper-prevalent phenomenon, is not only the progenitor of completely pointless loss of life, but also the expectation that the most vulnerable members of our society must be the strongest.
The new American heroism has become when our children sacrifice their lives to save those of their fellow students. In just the past few months Riley Howell sacrificed his life to save others in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Kendrick Castillo did the same in Denver, Colorado, within weeks of one another. We should be proud of their ability to act so selflessly, but we should be damned ashamed that we expect them to in the first place.
Our kids train in “Run, Hide, Fight” alongside their fire and earthquake drills. If you can get away, do so. If you can’t, make yourself undetectable. If you can’t do either, or you’re close enough to the aggressor, take them out yourself. Similar active shooter training is given in our workplaces, and now the next generation grows up with this mantra, ready to act in the seemingly more and more likely event that they will be present in a mass shooting. That’s pretty heavy stuff — rather than grow up with the sense that our country is doing everything it can to look after them, to keep their fellow students and their families healthy and happy, we’re content to tell them that they’re responsible for their own safety… and that’s it.
Like fire and earthquake drills, we’re preparing students to deal with mass shootings in the same way psychologically and emotionally: these are forces of nature that can’t be stopped, so all we can do is teach you what to do when they’re happening.
Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, our country has been unsuccessfully debating solutions. Arming teachers may give what are now our first-line defenders a tool for fighting back and reducing casualties, however, barring the absurdity of expecting our under-paid teachers to also be first-responders, the presence of weapons may do little to actually prevent acts of mass violence (especially since those acts are planned to double as suicides for most perpetrators). Bulletproof backpacks and metal detectors may also reduce casualties, but similarly do little to prevent the conditions that lead up to a mass shooting. Tighter gun control — or outlawing firearms altogether — may limit the availability of weapons, but so far we haven’t gotten past the Second Amendment.
So many solutions seem like placebos meant to weaken the effects of our country’s disease without actually curing it. Physical measures and deterrence will not prevent school shootings when the perpetrators’ goal is to be visible and public. What are we to do to avoid the new American heroism, then?
Leading research suggests that the best way to prevent mass shootings is awareness and empathizing with the active shooter. That might sound outlandish, but according to reports by the FBI and psychologists, a mass shooter in the making is a person in crisis surrounded by multiple elements that contribute to the crippling of their emotional and psychological well-being. If we can understand how they feel and what they’re going through before making such a horrendous decision, we can prevent them from doing so.
Professor of psychology Peter Langman suggests in his paper “A Bio-Psycho-Social Model of School Shooters” that students planning mass murder or who are overcome with violent thoughts need attention and intervention rather than rejection and discipline. The FBI in “A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States” comes to a similar conclusion, and from both we find many indications that mental health is, in fact, the issue.
Mental health is not to be confused with mental illness, as many shooters did not suffer from a clinically defined illness but instead experienced a group of stressors — physical, psychological, or social pressure — that pushed them to the edge. Family life, bullying, school performance, self-image, depression, thoughts of suicide, and other elements contributed to the degradation of a future shooter’s mental health and resulted in observable changes in behavior.
Before committing a shooting, most shooters showed observable changes in their behavior. According to the FBI study, 92% of the school shooters studied had concerning behaviors that were noticed by fellow classmates. Contrary to popular belief, most school shooters might feel isolated but are not; they are surrounded by teachers, students, and family that typically notice a change when it happens. Most commonly these social connections confront only the shooter regarding their behavior or do nothing at all. Often, no one else is involved because we shrug off what we notice or don’t want to make a big deal of things. When behaviors require punitive measures, like suspension or expulsion, this often leaves the person in crisis isolated and unsupervised, only worsening their emotional and psychological condition.
The type of heroism we should lean on is less basic but more complicated than self-sacrifice. Dr. Langman and the FBI suggest erecting a system of support and raising awareness in schools and the surrounding community.
Rather than taking punitive approaches to concerning behaviors, kids in crisis should be given more attention and even the slightest indication of trouble should be treated seriously. This means adults, professionals, and especially parents must respond with attention and presence rather than shrugged shoulders, discipline, or defensive posturing.
The best kind of heroism we should expect from our children is the ability to seek help when it’s needed and to call attention to the changes in their friends’ and classmates’ behavior. Maybe the value we need to instill is that therapy and counseling is a heroic process. We should aim to eliminate any stigma surrounding the seeking of help so that it becomes just as common as going to school or having a job — a tool for improving ourselves and meeting our goals.
This is the new American heroism we should all get behind.
Jeremiah French spends most of his time dissecting and consuming human-built worlds in multimedia, from written fiction to simulated spaces. When he isn’t doing that, he’s making his own in podcast and print. Occasionally he remembers that he’s a musician, so he’ll do that too. Check out his musings on interactive entertainment at drunkenmarmoset.com, and his primary action-fantasy podcast Gafgarn: The Eternally Unfurnished anywhere podcasts are available.