It’s becoming all too familiar for us these days.
In the days after a mass shooting, we have a kind of code for how we talk about it. We say things such as “praying for everyone in Dayton” or “thoughts and prayers for those in El Paso.” We take to Facebook or Twitter to argue about gun control. We wonder how this continues to happen, how we can live in a country that we believe to be the greatest in the world, and yet it seems like every other week there is a senseless mass shooting. We try to figure out why it happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.
Is there some common link between these shooters?
We try to explain why it happened: “He was an evil man,” “he was a loner,” or “he had mental health problems.” And then we move on.
Most of the mass shootings that happen in our country seem to be forgotten within a couple weeks and are replaced by a new shooting that occurs. For every Columbine, Sandy Hook or Parkland, there are hundreds of other shootings that occur that don’t enter in the lore of our infamous history of domestic terrorism.
How do we as a country move forward and begin to reduce and eliminate these shootings?
We as citizens have to begin to understand the way that we each individually respond to a shooting, while seemingly insignificant, actually can have a huge impact toward future shootings.
In 2015, a team of professors at Arizona State University researched what factors contribute to the seemingly contagious amount of mass shootings. The research found that mass shootings seem to spread in the way that disease outbreaks occur, and that some of this is due to the notoriety gained by a shooter.
Think about it for a moment. If a person is angry and feels overlooked by society, in what other way can they capture the attention of a nation as quickly as a mass shooting?
The subsequent media frenzy is alluring to people who feel like they have been outcasts. In just moments, you can do something that will ensure that your name is searched on the internet millions of times and your face is seen all across the world. This creates a copycat effect, as other people seek to gain the same level of fame and attention.
So, as citizens we can each individually work to curb that by changing the way that we respond to mass shootings. Instead of examining the shooters and giving them the attention that they crave, let’s continue to talk about the issues at hand while remembering and honoring the victims. Rather than walking away and knowing the names of the perpetrators, let’s know the names of those who were innocent bystanders.
Additionally, let’s realize that there isn’t one particular “type” of person who commits a mass shooting. In his press conference after the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton, President Donald Trump stated that “mental illness and hatred pull the trigger. Not the gun.” While some mass shooters are suffering from mental illness, many are not.
Even as mass shootings become more and more commonplace, we still seem to struggle to accept that the perpetrators of these crimes aren’t as common as the crimes themselves. We want to believe that there is a special kind of evil out there that most people are exempt from, and that these people are mentally ill. The effect of this is that it can demonize those who are struggling with depression or anxiety, potentially deterring them from seeking out the help that they need in an effort to not be stereotyped or judged. The truth of the matter is that there isn’t one profile of a mass shooter, and so blaming their actions on mental illness fails to grasp the complexity of the situation.
Finally, let’s keep encouraging people to address mental health issues. In only a couple of generations, we have moved from a society that doesn’t talk about depression or anxiety to one that is more and more open to mental health. Let’s continue to support those who recognize that they can benefit from seeking counseling or talking with a psychiatrist.
When we talk about mass shooters, let’s not say that it was only due to their mental illness that they pulled the trigger, because there are millions of people in our country who experience mental illness and do not commit mass shootings. We have stigmatized those with mental health issues long enough; let’s be intentional in our language to support them.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to firstname.lastname@example.org.