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Preventing School Shootings at Their Source

gunmen in silhouette with large superimposed school crossing sign that reads school shooting

School shootings across the nation have become epidemic. In Santa Rosa, California, where I live, there have been so many gun and knife incidents on school campuses that students no longer feel safe at school. Some parents are buying bullet-proof backpacks for their children. In January 2024, a Santa Rosa, California, high school student made his own gun with a 3D printer. This has to stop. I propose that we need more than security and legislation. These incidents are a symptom of a larger social problem. In this article, I’m going to outline some root causes and ways we can address these issues in order to prevent even the idea of committing gun violence.

Trauma to Mental Instability

Barefoot boy in t-shirt and shorts holding ears with head down on floor in corner.

Preventing the guns from reaching the shooter, protecting the campus from the immediate threat, and having active shooter drills is way too little coming way too late. We need to address the traumas, mental illnesses, and cultural atmosphere that lead to teens and adults wanting to shoot people.

Many of the perpetrators of mass shootings have been neglected, bullied, or otherwise traumatized as children. These traumas have been proven to cause mental instability, such as PTSD, dissociative disorders and other mental illness diagnoses. We need to reach these kids before they spin out of control. Something as simple as a positive role model, who makes them feel loved, safe, and valued, could have made the difference for many of these shooters. Without that type of support, children turn to gangs or feel they need to protect themselves, because no one else in their life will. Children who have been neglected and abused by adults have a hard time trusting any adult. They either withdraw or fight. Some of them will grow up and return to their schools, where they were bullied, once their trauma has caused a full-blown mental illness. 

Teachers Can’t Shoulder the Burden Alone

African-American high school teacher teaching students in classroom

When children, for whatever reason aren’t getting the support that they need at home, someone needs to notice, care, and help. And while most teachers are willing to help, we can’t hold them solely responsible.

This is a community problem, not a school problem. If you’re wondering why I’m letting teachers off the hook so easily, here is why:

  1. Teachers are hired to teach, not counsel, and some don’t want that burden. 
  2. If you have a classroom of 30 kids, how do you notice when one has been unusually quiet and withdrawn for days? 
  3. Sometimes kids just need a hug. But this is a problem for teachers in a society with so many rules in place to protect children from the wrong touch from pedophiles. Teachers aren’t allowed to show affection in that way. 
  4. Teachers are on a schedule and there to teach all of the children. Stopping class to counsel one child takes away from the other 29 or so. It can also make many of the students seek attention more, taking even more of class time, and putting the teacher in an inappropriate role for which he or she did not train. 
  5. Safety. The teacher is charged with protecting her children from harm while in his or her care. If a student is acting out, that student is removed to protect the others. They’re sent to the principal, who was not present for the incident and is not well-acquainted with the child. 

Cultural Influence

Helmeted sci-fi gunman. The Mandolorian from Star Wars franchise.

Guns have been part of child’s play for as long as there have been guns. Children played “cowboys and Indians” (that’s a politically incorrect but accurate reference and a topic for a different essay), they played with little green army guys, they played shooter pinball games, then shooter video games. Their heroes wore guns and shot people. Children still have heroes who kill bad guys. They see us laughing at movies where the heroes are neatly mowing down the “bad” guys to save their comrade or complete the mission. With so much violence in our entertainment, is it any wonder that gun violence is on the rise? Do we ever stop to think that the “bad” guys have families and believe they are doing right by their families and their countries. What of the guards and policemen who are just doing their job?

With so many wars raging across the globe, how can we still stomach all of that violence, even when it’s fiction? Do we talk about the wars with our children? We don’t want to scare them, but do we want them desensitized? In addition, our police forces have become militarized in recent decades. They used to be peace officers and were a safe refuge, if you needed help. Now we fear them, even if we’re innocent, especially if we’re a minority. They have been taught military tactics and taught to shoot more readily in certain situations. In England the police don’t even carry guns. When I was a kid, policemen were there to help. They were safe. If you got lost, you could go to them for help. I suppose you still can, and many are a credit to their profession, but the lack of oversight and the “good ol’ boys’ club” mentality, in which they are more concerned with protecting their own than keeping their loose cannons in check, has made us fear their presence instead of welcome it.

There’s a saying in the media: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Violence is on the front page. Shooting games and action movies sell. We’ve made gun violence normal. We’ve made guns a symbol of strength. We can, instead, applaud human kindness as a superpower we all possess. To uphold as strong, those who arm themselves with kindness. People like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

We also need more fictional heroes who resolve conflicts without guns. Dr. Who, a TV show that began in Great Britain decades ago and is still popular there and in the U.S., features time-traveling humanoid alien, who often has a human companion. Dr. Who only arms himself with a “sonic screwdriver,” compassion, and diplomacy. His most frequent injunction is, “Run!” He retreats when necessary until he can come back to save the day.  He (or she—the Doctor regularly regenerates into a new body) often exclaims in child-like wonder at us humans, with our potential and overall goodness.

How We Can Help Prevent Gun Violence

There are many ways we can be part of the solution. Obviously, if you own a gun, make sure it’s secure. While you’re thinking about what secure looks like, remember how you, or maybe your friends managed to their hands on things their parents thought were hidden or securely stowed. Beyond that, here are some practical ways you can help end gun violence:

  1. Organizations have sprung up to help support early detection, foster peer leadership, and prevent bullying. Many such programs exist, such as Sonoma County-based Community Matters, that could use funding to increase their reach.
  2. Children don’t have a network of extended family with so many of us moving away from our families of origin. We can be that positive role model, by taking an interest in the neighbor kid, your grandkids, or nieces, or nephews, or by volunteering to be a positive role model through an organization like Big Brothers and Big Sisters. 
  3. We can write letters to the editor and write to our congressmen about preventing the causes of gun violence in schools, not just keeping the guns off the campus. It needs to get more attention, rather than be relegated to the seventh paragraph in the third article about the latest school shooting. 
  4. Locally, Sonoma County is experiencing a severe staffing crisis, especially within its mental health and social services departments. If you are thinking about a career in that field, you could ease that burden, so that our residents can get better access to the care they need, before they pick up a gun or traumatize their children to the point that they will.

Let’s Work Together to Keep Our Children Safe at School

I think we can agree that gun violence in schools needs to stop. I hope I have impressed upon you the need for creating a safer world, so that kids don’t become shooters. If you cannot spend your money or time on this critical social issue, I hope you will add your voice. If you help raise awareness, then those with more resources may join or financially support grass roots efforts to prevent and heal those childhood emotional wounds. You can also choose fictional heroes who don’t use guns. When choosing a feel-good movie for family night, instead of a movie in which the “heroes” make jokes as they kill several guards to get to the jewel or free the hostage. As MLK, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”