I’m still dealing with lingering effects of COVID right now. Mostly fatigue and pain, with more frequent headaches as a bonus. So shortly after dinner last Monday, I dozed off for a bit, and when I woke up I began scrolling through Facebook and was shocked to see a post telling me that a friend had marked himself safe during “The Shooting at Michigan State University.” With my eyes still kind of bleary, I suddenly found myself alert and Googling for news about what was happening at Michigan State.
I was overtaken by feelings of relief for my friend.
And then anger.
So much anger.
I’ve Written about Mass Shooting Before
I wrote my first piece about gun violence in June of 2021. About the anniversary of the Pulse massacre here in Orlando. It took almost a year for me to write the next, when the Uvalde, Texas shooting happened. The third, Club Q, only half that time–just six months. And this time, only three months.
I’ve only responded to some of the mass shootings that are widely reported. As I’m sitting here writing this, the Gun Violence Archive has reported 82 mass shootings since the beginning of 2023. Six of them took place on January 1, with a total of five people killed and thirty four injured before the end of the first day of January. Ten percent of the mass shootings that have taken place in 2023 have happened in Florida. Fifty two days into 2023 and there have been over six thousand gun deaths in the US, or an average of 116 a day.
I’m rattling off numbers here because that’s the only thing I can concentrate on. “Shocked” doesn’t adequately convey the way I’m feeling about this. It’s not sadness either. I feel like an about-to-boil-over pot. I’ve been writing about gun violence for decades at this point–all the way back to grad school, when the Columbine Massacre happened. And not only do I feel like nothing has changed, in fact, I think it’s gotten worse.
With More than One Shooting Per Day, it’s Hard to Say Something that hasn’t been Said Already
What else can I say about this? This 2021 political cartoon from David Cohen sums it up pretty well, reminding us that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Just like so many politicians have been doing with their ‘thoughts and prayers” and other platitudes after each and every episode of mass violence. Even earlier than that, back in 2015, the Daily News proclaimed “God isn’t fixing this.”
What is a Mass Shooting?
In having this conversation, I do think it’s only fair to remind ourselves that “mass shooting” is a vague description without an actual, standard definition. The Congressional Research Service and the Gun Violence Archive all use the same definition: A shooting where four or more people are killed, not including the shooter. The FBI doesn’t define “mass shooting.” They do define “mass killing” or “mass murder” with almost the same definition: an incident where four or more people are killed, not including the perpetrator.
If I’m being honest though, I don’t really care much about the specific definition. I am so enraged at this point that I am finding it difficult to come up with words beyond “what the fuck, people? What the fuck?”
The Five Stages of Grief… but not the Sixth
I think I’ve gone through all five of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief as far as gun violence goes. You know: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Possibly even just this week.
But not the sixth. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s co-author David Kessler has talked about the sixth stage of grief: meaning. And if we’re supposed to find meaning in the epidemic of gun violence that’s plaguing us, there is only one thing that I can imagine that meaning must be.
Change. We have to figure out that we care about each other to bridge our differences and come together to make change.
Clinging to Hope in the Face of…
That same night of the shooting at Michigan State, a seventeen year old was shot here in Orlando. Three days after the Michigan State shooting, just about 30 miles from here, a three year old boy was at home. He found an unsecured, loaded handgun and shot and killed himself. Two sisters, ages eight and sixteen, were in the house at the time. Even the chief of police was clearly heartbroken when talking to the media about this story. Who wouldn’t be?
I thought the story couldn’t get more horrifying but it did. It did. Because buried in one of the articles about this three year old I learned about Fla. Stat. § 784.05 which says in part:
“When any minor child is accidentally shot by another family member, no arrest shall be made pursuant to this subsection prior to seven days after the date of the shooting.“
Learning this made everything that much more horrifying. It means, among other things, that people have left loaded, unsecured guns accessible to children often enough that the state legislature has enshrined into law this seven day waiting period before arrests are made following a gun-related injury or death of a minor. But the waiting period for buying a gun in Florida is only three days. I had to wait longer than that to adopt a cat from an animal shelter.
In Florida, the Waiting Time to Buy a Gun is Shorter than the Waiting Time to Arrest Someone who Shot a Family Member
They’ll give you seven days after a child under the age of sixteen is involved in gun violence before they’ll arrest you, but you only have to wait seventy two hours between deciding to buy a gun and having it in your hands. And while I do often express my frustration with Florida, perhaps that three day waiting period is one of the few things this state does right. Florida is one of only nine states that have a waiting period before a gun purchase! (There are a lot of other factors in ranking states on their gun safety regulations like trigger lock requirements, background checks, rules about concealed carry, and more. )
New Orleans, Memphis, L.A. …
But my frustration doesn’t stop there. One dead, four injured at a parade in New Orleans. In Memphis, two shootings, believed to be related, killed one and injured ten. In Los Angeles, a Catholic Bishop was murdered. Two shootings in close proximity in a suburb of Orlando.
Nine children between ages five and seventeen were shot at a gas station in Georgia.
That’s only a very small sample of gun violence incidents in the last week. It’s the tabs I’ve remembered to open and leave open on my computer while I sorted out what I had to say about gun violence this time. I can write piece after piece about queer experience and queer life and each of them can be different. The politics there are an ever-changing target. There are a thousand more stories to tell about queer history, and there’s always someone trying to come after queer people. And that’s not even counting the positive stories.
But gun violence? It’s the same story, again and again. A shooting happens. Politicians issue their “thoughts and prayers.” Some people cry out for gun reform. Some other people push back against it, and blame absent fathers, bad parenting, working mothers, liberalism, and even mental health. But without suggesting aggressive allocation of money to correct these issues. Anything but discussing the availability of guns.
I’m not an Expert… But the Experts are at an Impasse
There are a lot of things I’m not. I’m not an economist. I’m not a statistician or a lawyer. My areas of expertise do not include political science.
I can’t really write an article that adequately explores the economic factors involved in our gun violence problem in the US. I can’t explain to you all of the political elements or the Constitutional arguments about the Second Amendment. What I can tell you is that poverty increases stress, which leads to more mental health challenges, and that is also a factor in gun violence. It doesn’t surprise me at all how accurate The Onion was five years ago when they published the article “No Way to Prevent This Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
I think my favorite line in the article is:
“At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as ‘helpless.’”
The number of times this article has appeared on my feed in the past few years is itself upsetting. I recognize that feeling of helplessness.
Anti-Mass-Shooting Activism Starts in the Home…
Back in 2018, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School here in Florida, my oldest kid, who has always been someone trying to make change in the world, wrote to Marco Rubio. This wasn’t the first time they had written to a politician. They wrote their first letter to a politician (Barack Obama) at age 4, and conducted a multi-year campaign to make our town include Hanukkah decorations in their holiday light display. This time was a little different. This time, my frightened kid wasn’t looking for anything that might be recognized as immediate and tangible change. My kid was asking for help. My kid wanted Marco Rubio to make sure that they, and every other kid, could go to school and be safe. We didn’t even get a letter back.
…And Sometimes it Feels Like it Ends in the Home
But we aren’t exactly helpless. Yes, we’re victims of inaction and of powerful people with money. Of powerful organizations with money. We’re held hostage by powerful lobbying organizations like the NRA, who, even as they’re “failing” with declining membership and lawsuits against them pending, spend millions every year to influence gun policies. The NRA is so powerful that they’ve been able to effectively shut down gun violence research through the Dickey amendment, which prohibits the CDC from using its funding to advocate for or promote gun control. In the 2022 election season, the gun rights lobby spent about eight times as much as the gun control lobby, with the gun manufacturers adding in several million more dollars.
In the 116th Congress (which served from 2019-2021,) NRA backed candidates received donations ranging from $2500 to over thirteen million dollars. Perhaps someone whose knowledge of political science or economics or history or Constitutional Law has better ideas than I do about how to solve this because clearly what we’re doing already isn’t enough.
Being bound by the agenda of the gun lobby isn’t a new problem either. In 1981, an assassination attempt was made on the life of President Ronald Reagan. Along with President Reagan three other people were injured: two law enforcement officers and Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady, who was shot in the head, permanently paralyzed and never able to return to his job. In fact, when he died in 2014 of complications from the shooting, his death was still ruled a homicide.
The Brady Campaign
After the shooting, Jim Brady and his wife Sarah Brady became vocal advocates for gun reform, joining with an organization called Handgun Control, Inc, to form what is now known as Brady: United against Gun Violence. 1981 also saw the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who had become an important partner in the US’s efforts to broker peace treaties in the Middle East. There were also multiple attempts on the life of Queen Elizabeth II and an attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II.
It still took six years, after that assassination attempt on the president’s life until February 1987, to introduce a gun reform bill. Which was defeated in 1988. While Ronald Reagan was still in office! A new gun reform bill was introduced in 1991 during the administration of George H.W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president and that bill was also defeated. It took twelve years and three different administrations to pass gun reform legislation after the attempt to assassinate president Reagan.
Mass Shooting: A Social Worker’s Perspective
I am a social worker, and a big time advocate for mental health reform. I know that we do a piss-poor job acknowledging the importance of mental health in the US. Access to mental health services is abysmal, whether or not you’re in crisis. I could rant for pages and pages about how the deinstitutionalization process was fucked up (not the policy.) And there are a lot of things that aren’t going to get better without serious changes to the US healthcare system and major cultural shifts in how we deal with mental health. It’s a topic we address regularly on 2 Rules of Writing.
Our general cultural attitude about Anger management is a problem, as are some of the dominant features (aggressiveness, dominance and competitiveness) that traditionally define masculinity. When masculinity becomes toxic masculinity it worsens the problem. Firearms ownership also increased during COVID, which was a time of great stress for everyone, too.
Mental Health isn’t the Root of the Problem… But, yes, it’s a Problem
When a person is shot and killed because he tried to buy a drink for someone else’s girlfriend we have a problem. The lived experience of what Margaret Atwood said, which is sometimes sort of misquoted as “men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Or a person shoots someone because he’s asked to leave a bar after being seen punching windows and yelling. And when someone brandishes a loaded handgun with a round in the chamber in McDonald’s drive thru over a free cookie even after she’s given the free cookie, we’ve got a lot more to address than mental health and anger management.
And when a second Virginia six year old child brings a loaded gun to school this year, or a six year old shoots her grandmother in the back while the grandmother is driving we’ve got a bigger problem to address than just mental health or toxic masculinity or anger management.
The common factor here isn’t mental health. It isn’t toxic masculinity. Sometimes those factors are part of the picture, of course. Age plays a role, too. In 2019, people under age twenty one made up only 4% of the population but they committed 17% of homicides and comprised 26% of people who were arrested for weapons offenses that year.. There are so very many other factors that are part of the picture.
Access to Weapons
The real common factor is access. The US is the number one nation in per capita gun ownership. And that’s more than double the per capita gun ownership rate as the second nation on the list. Yemen. Yemen has been engaged in a political crisis for more than ten years. They have the highest rate globally, of people in need of humanitarian aid. Groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have an active presence in Yemen. It’s a place where the day to day, active danger is much greater than what we typically face here in the US.
Since the George W. Bush administration allowed the federal assault weapons ban to expire in 2004, gun deaths have increased by 45%. In 2019, gun violence cost us over four billion dollars in medical care, lost wages, lost work time and the economic cost of lives lost. We can even measure the cost of PTSD. We’ll never really be able to calculate the true cost of lives lost or the cost that trauma of that nature has on families and communities. That impact is immeasurable.
How to Make People Care?
Unify the Message
But what do we do about it? There are people who study what makes people care. They say “join the community.” There are so many organizations on the local and national level trying to achieve gun reform: Brady United, Every Town for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action and Sandy Hook Promise all come to mind right away when I think about organizations promoting gun reform. And I know that Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly are also major gun reform advocates.
(Mark Kelly is currently serving as a senator from Arizona, so various things relating to his service in the Senate and his campaigns come up ahead of his gun advocacy when searching just his name. When I searched for “Mark Kelly Gun Control four news articles appeared at the top of the search. The fifth was a page from the NRA entitled “Defend Freedom. Defeat Mark Kelly,” which I refuse to direct traffic to.)
The NRA is everywhere. Everyone seems to know the NRA and what they stand for, even though there are many other pro-gun organizations in the US–the NRA seems to have name recognition that the gun reform organizations don’t. Whether that is the cause of or the result of their large membership is unclear to me. Perhaps we need a large gun reform organization with the scope, recognition and reach of the NRA before we’re able to make change.
Some kind of unified movement or universally recognizable symbol like the one used to mark fallout shelters in older buildings could help with the second principle of making people care: Communicate in Images.
Keep Telling Stories, Yes… But What Makes a Story Effective?
Is it not enough that we have more political cartoons than I can count about school shootings and art like the sculpture The Last Lockdown which was created by artist Manuel Oliver, who lost his son Joaquin Oliver in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018? Are the images of elementary schoolers being led away from a shooting that killed one person and injured five more (one adult, one teenager, two six year olds and one five year old) at the Los Angeles JCC not enough for us? Do we need to show people the bloody corpses, ripped apart by bullets to convince people that change needs to happen? I’m sure that if you wanted to find the crime scene photos, you could. I’m not going to go looking–what I’ve read from trauma surgeons while doing my research is enough.
Invoke Emotion with Intention
The science-of-caring people tell us we need to “invoke emotion with intention” and “create meaningful calls to action. I write a lot about trauma. I’ve written about gun violence before. I’ve written about antisemitism, about what it’s like to become disabled, about homophobia and queer life, and about being a rape survivor. When I write about trauma, I worry a lot about whether what I’m writing is trauma porn.
I understand the dilemma involved in making sure that the emotions invoked in a story give rise to action. If your story is too sad? It turns people off. If people feel obligated to do something rather than energized or empowered to do something? They’ll avoid it. If you go too far in challenging someone’s values or identity? You’ll lose them. It’s easy to go overboard when you’re talking about trauma and instead of pulling people in, you push them away. But that’s where the “meaningful action” part comes in, isn’t it?
Meaningful Forward Steps
We keep asking people to call or email the people representing them in both state and federal government. There are even pre-filled postcards and emails that can be used. We ask for small steps like using trigger locks or securing guns away from children. Things which are only required in fourteen out of fifty states. Incremental change like seatbelt laws and the addition of airbags was a major factor in improving automobile safety. Things we can’t imagine not having now.
Incremental change can make a difference in gun reform, too. Expanding safe storage laws, better background checks and prohibitions on gun ownership by people involved in domestic violence, more training for people who want to own guns, those are only a few examples of the small changes that can be made to improve the safety of everyone. And in spite of the objections of some politicians and parents who like to claim that “wokeness” is the problem, including social-emotional learning, teaching problem solving, empathy and self control in our schools can help reduce violence. I wish I knew what was a meaningful action we could ask people to take. We need more than hashtag activism to make real change.
Tell Better Stories
Maybe the solution is to tell better stories. Not the “good guy with a gun stops bad guy with a gun” stories because really, they’re largely a myth. But to tell the stories about how broad community action worked to reduce gun violence in Oakland, California. Efforts to reduce violence there involve a partnership between social service agencies, community members and law enforcement and in six years, have reduced gun deaths by almost half.
Omaha, Nebraska has created a similar partnership and seen similar results. Omaha has also emphasized de-escalation tactics in law enforcement along with including civilian mental health practitioners who are embedded in police units and respond to calls with police.
Use the Evidence: What Works? What Doesn’t?
We have more than two decades of evidence about the benefits of including mental health practitioners in the response to potential violence. We can look at one of the oldest programs, in Eugene, Oregon to see how it works. In 2019, twenty years after their program, known as CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) where medics and crisis workers are paired together to respond to emergencies, out of nearly 18,000 calls, police back up was requested on only 311.
And empathy matters, too. Were it not for a teacher and a hug, the 2021 Rigby Middle School shooting in Idaho might have been much worse than it was. Empathy builds communication, which can lead to stronger relationships. Stronger relationships improve self-esteem and reduce loneliness. In turn, those things build resilience. In the last few years resilience has become a major buzzword, but it’s not, as many people would have us believe, simply a case of “just harden up and deal with it.” Resilience is your inner strength, your coping strategies and also your support networks. All of those things are vital in maintaining mental health but also in empowering you to reach out when you’re in need of support. And in having people who reach out to you, too.
An Example of Someone who is Telling Better Stories: A Pediatric ICU Physician on the Mass Shooting Pattern
The care researchers say “tell better stories.” For decades we’ve been hearing stories. We’ve heard stories of students who survived school shootings. Survivors of the Pulse Shooting share their stories on radio and in print. There’s no shortage of places to hear from survivors. Parents and teachers speak up, too. And in spite of the NRA telling them to “stay in their lane,” as if doctors and medical professionals should have no voice in gun reform, medical professionals are telling their stories, too.
My friend Dr Michael Northrup calls himself “the doctor you never want to meet.” Outside of work, he’s wonderful-he’s kind, smart, a lot of fun, a great dad. I’ve known him for two decades–since he was a med student.
But he’s right. He’s the doctor you never, ever want to meet. Because he’s a pediatric ICU physician .Last year he shared a little bit about what it’s like for him as a pediatric ICU physician in a mid-sized pediatric trauma center.
He sums things up pretty brilliantly, I think:
“Pediatric hearts are strong, but bullets are stronger.”
What will it take for us to believe that every heart matters more than bullets?
Postscript: Another Mass Shooting in my Neighborhood
As I was finishing this article, news was breaking about a shooting in Orlando which killed a nine year old child and a journalist, and injured the child’s mother and a second journalist. Earlier that day another homicide had occurred at the same site. So much of what makes change possible is telling the stories. What happens when even the people who tell those stories for us aren’t safe?
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