Violence in America: Gun control is an important step — but we also must address root causes

Of course this moment calls for gun reform. It also demands we dig deeper into the roots of American despair

Published June 5, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Local residents place flowers near the Sandy Hook Elementary School December 15, 2012 in Sandy Hook, Connecticut for the 28 children and faculty shot and killed one day earlier on December 14, 2012. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Local residents place flowers near the Sandy Hook Elementary School December 15, 2012 in Sandy Hook, Connecticut for the 28 children and faculty shot and killed one day earlier on December 14, 2012. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Amid the horrifying but ever-increasing scale of mass shootings in America, the most recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, was especially heartbreaking. Nineteen beautiful children never returned home to their loved ones. Many more will suffer severe PTSD for a long time to come. Despite these exhausting, seemingly incessant mass killings, as usual there has been much grandstanding from many political leaders and pundits — including a powerful address to the nation by President Biden — but it is likely that little or nothing will done. It's a shameful, rotting, entrenched pattern. 

Why can't we allow these all too frequent tragedies to become the wakeup call we use to invoke real change — one where we not only address gun control, but even more importantly, dig deep and tend to the root causes of violence. Maybe we are growing too numb, or too many of us feel resignation about our leaders' in ability to shift the trajectory, but we can't sit quietly and allow this to continue to spiral further out of control. This is a moment that is calling us all to step up in ways we have not yet, but must.

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It's not just mass shootings that are terrorizing our nation. Daily violence in America is widespread. One person is shot dead every 51 minutes across the U.S. Youth homicide rates are more than seven times that of other Western nations, and as of 2020, gun violence is the leading cause of death for children. These are just some of the harrowing examples. The horrors millions of children face, living in what are essentially our own war zones in too many communities across America — which can even lead to PTSD at levels similar to returning combat veterans — should alone be enough to motivate fundamental change. 

It's not just mass shootings that are terrorizing America: Someone is shot dead every 51 minutes. Our youth homicide rate is seven times higher than other Western nations. Gun violence is the leading cause of death among children.

While there are many approaches we can take to turn this tide, the complex, multifaceted, root-cause measures that would actually help treat the underlying causes of violence aren't even on the table in our mainstream discourse, much less given serious consideration among policymakers. We typically only hear the stock pitches from the mainstream political camps:  Gun control on one side (yes, please!) and not much of anything from the other, or sometimes a vague, less than half-hearted mention of mental health support and/or placing armed guards, um, I guess, everywhere?

To be clear, we must maximize any momentum we have in this moment and implement gun control measures now. In particular, semiautomatic weapons should be banned, background checks implemented and "red flag" laws enacted, along with other crucial gun control laws. But as we try to address the overall scourge of violence, gun control alone will never be enough. Until we begin to more deeply explore and ultimately tend to the underlying causes of why so many people desperately turn to violence in the first place, we will likely see these kinds of horrors continue to grow unabated. 

We need to delve deeper and do some collective soul-searching. One of the most important questions we should examine is what engenders so much desperation in people, and causes them to lash out through violence in these ways.

What we know for sure about the vast majority of mass shootings, as well as the daily incidents of less spectacular violence that don't regularly grab the national headlines, is that there was often some tragic experience or, more often, repetitive tragic experiences, in the lives of the perpetrators that brought them to a place of acting out in such horrifying ways. We don't always know what the exact triggers are with each specific mass shooter, but we know many of the potential culprits. Experiencing an intense life trauma that has gone unaddressed, or multiple traumas, is almost always a dominating factor. These sources of trauma emerge from homes, communities, workplaces and even schools.

It is imperative that people feel as safe and secure as possible throughout their lives, feel they are part of families or communities of support and nurturance that allow all to better flourish and that make violent tendencies less likely to develop. After all, regular exposure to violence creates widespread trauma and even PTSD in these populations, and can lead people to continue to act out violently for ensuing generations. Addressing all this is no small task, but we must move robustly towards its fruition nevertheless.

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We need to invest in solutions that help ease human despair, which is often born from physical and emotional abuse, as well as entrenched family and community violence. We must better support those who are falling through the cracks when they are young, rescuing them from violent circumstances. We must also find better ways to support adults who show signs of emotional or mental distress, and even work to address widespread loneliness and isolation. Deep investments in the alleviation of poverty and inequality are also crucial. These and many other challenging factors can be breeding grounds for despair, and too often for violence. There are many indicators that demand our engagement, but we aren't systematically monitoring or responding at anywhere near the scale that is needed. 

There are many effective, leading-edge violence prevention and intervention efforts happening across the nation. They are, however, enormously under-resourced. With better public policy support, we can bring this work up to scale. These efforts could help build much more emotional and psychological resilience throughout society — and for the individuals most at risk. 

What does this look like?

At the interpersonal and intra-personal level, we need robust resources to address mental health, domestic violence, trauma, PTSD, workplace violence and suicide, and to offer supports for life skills, parenting skills and related areas.

At the community level, we must employ comprehensive strategies and programs working to address the challenges of community violence and to heal collective trauma. Effective efforts include wrap-around family support services, hands-on street outreach and intervention, mental health services, competent child care supports, out-of-school programs and improved police/community relations, among others.

Our schools are also an important vehicle of support. We can focus more on teaching and practicing conflict resolution and social and emotional learning, which are proven to build emotional resilience and reduce violence. These can include restorative justice processes, mindfulness and other proven skills and modalities to transform violence, bullying, and other challenges facing youth. School systems are too often hyper-focused on GPAs and test scores, rather than on whole-person-focused education that includes life skills which can be the building blocks for a more resilient life.

We must humanize our criminal justice system, moving away from overly punitive policies toward those that can help transform entrenched patterns of violence.

And finally, we must refocus and humanize our criminal justice systems. We need to dismantle the monetary incentives built into the current prison-industrial complex and eliminate the cradle-to-prison pipeline. We must move away from overly punitive policies toward healing-oriented criminal and juvenile justice approaches that address underlying causes and help transform entrenched patterns of violence. Restorative justice, diversion or alternative incarceration programs, trauma-informed court systems and leading-edge prisoner rehabilitation and re-entry programs offer some of the most promising solutions. 

If we do not systemically address the roots of violence in America, we will continue to suffer the consequences in ever more frightening ways. Properly tending to the challenges we face will set us up for a much more secure and flourishing future, with far fewer of the horrors we so helplessly witness far too often.

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By Matthew Albracht

Matthew Albracht is the former executive director and a current board member of The Peace Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization promoting the BluePrint for Peace, which advocates for effective healing-focused approaches that positively impact individual and societal challenges related to violence. Follow on social: @MatthewAlbracht

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Commentary Criminal Justice Education Guns Mass Shootings Mental Health Prison Violence