On February 14th, 2018, seventeen people were killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen students and adults. Students, at the beginning of their lives – going to a place that should be a safe haven for their minds AND bodies. Adults who have dedicated their lives to these students – to help them learn, grow, and contribute meaningfully to their own communities one day. Seventeen of them, gone. All mass shootings are tragic regardless of who, where, or how many. They all waste innocent lives. This one has inspired me to say something.
I am an educator. I work at a high school on an open campus (students walk outside between buildings, not in hallways within buildings). Today, two days after this travesty, we had a drill. This was not a planned drill and the staff didn’t know what was happening. Students and staffed gossiped nervously about what was going on as we walked toward the football field, many of us looking around us for clues. Several colleagues made statements such as, “this is scary” given the events of the days earlier. I was scared too. I still am. Our students felt similarly. After we were cleared to return to our respective spaces, an announcement indicated that an alarm was set off after one of the water pipes had a leak. Our assistant principal thanked all students and staff for remaining calm and shared that counselors were available in the front office for any students who may need to debrief given the tension and fear already in many of us from the event in Florida. A memo was sent to worried parents.
People – this is is unacceptable. There is no reason families, adults, or students should feel fear in a place where the purpose is to learn. I have seen suggestions that police officers be stationed on school campuses. A student’s ‘full time job’ is to get an education – how would you feel going to your full time job and needing to walk by a group of officers everyday, several times a day? Additionally, would we station officers in other public spaces to prevent mass shootings? How would we predict which cities, schools, and spaces require officers? For both scenarios, where would the funding come from? Couldn’t this very funding go to creating policy and action for stricter gun access?
I have also seen posts on social media indicating that some schools will consider allowing their staff to be armed in the case of an emergency. Would you feel safe if your son or daughters teacher was carrying a gun? I certainly wouldn’t if it was my colleague and I happen to know and trust my colleagues more than the average parent will know their childrens’ educators. If some of you say yes, I do not want to minimize your opinion but we need to consider who we are arming and the potential risks, such as the possibility of students accessing these on-campus guns. Additionally, will the average person or teacher be trained to react in an emergency situation? Police officers and the military go through extensive training to be effective in high-risk scenarios and there are still mistakes. Are we willing to put our teachers in this position and, in general, to expect the same degree of responsibility from a civilian? I am not saying that a brave individual cannot step up and lives, but this is not a tactic that we should be relying on to keep people safe. What statistics exist suggesting that an individual with a consealed weapon has been able to prevent a mass shooting or decrease a death toll?
Next, as a school psychologist, I work with students who are diagnosed with or are being evaluated for Autism Spectrum Disorders, Learning Disabilities, ADHD, Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Depression, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, you name it. As a trained mental health professional, there is no screening to say someone is likely to commit a crime or not. We often use both formal (normed and standardized tests and rating scales) and informal (interviews, observations, clinical judgement) sources of data to inform our decisions to conclude that a person has this or that going on. But social and emotional functioning is not a hard science, it is an area with a lot of gray. When we do identify a threat to self or others, it is our legal duty to report and act. Please don’t ever think that school-based staff or mental health professionals already do not take these issues seriously. Additionally, while I encourage our government to make mental health a priority, lets be careful not to conflate mental health with the availability and usage of guns. According to a research article published by the NCBI, the percentage of crimes committed by mentally ill people account for less than 3-5% of all crimes, and accounts for even less of the percentage of crimes involving guns. This means that we do not have evidence that those with mental illness are more likely to commit a crime, especially with a gun, than any other person. Moreover, a second article, states that “evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that suicide, not homicide, is the most significant public health concern in terms of guns and mental illness,” meaning that those with mental illness are much more likely to hurt themselves than someone else. So while this argument about mental illness and guns has some validity (in terms of it being considered as part of a process for gun access), we need to be more mindful about how we are continuing to stigmatize mental illness more than it already is. We need to support each other instead of pointing fingers, blaming, or making excuses.
I often hear gun supporters saying “Well if someone wants a gun they’ll find a way to get it.” You’re right. As the old adage goes, where there’s a will there’s a way. I have also heard people say, “the increase in mass shootings seems related with the decreased parental discipline of current generations.” I would like to address these statements and any other similar statements with the following: 1) correlation or a relationship does not imply causation, ie. x and y might be related but it does not mean x causes y 2) there is no retroactive way to change the home life and discipline that a person experienced growing up, instead we can focus on the present day problem – use and access of guns – and make sure we consider these different areas (mental health, moral character, personal history, history of infractions) when establishing regulations for access 3) it should not be the job of individuals, schools, or mental health agencies to protect the general population from gun violence when protection of the masses is the responsibility of the government and 4) it should not be the job of individuals, schools, or mental health agencies to supervise or regulate gun access when it is the responsibility of the government – just the same as how regulating food and drugs is the responsibility of the government. Again, it is the governments job to protect its’ people. It is the governments job to protect its’ people from forces outside of our country as much as it is to protect from forces inside of our country. It is the governments’ job to protect our rights, but it is also their job to protect our livelihood. Will we (mental health professionals and anyone else) help? OF COURSE. But this is a top-down decision – create the legislation to restrict access, establish a screening and background check process and we will be there for you to do the grunt work.
So this is the question I am asking you all today: At what point is our right to bear arms killing more people than it is protecting them? Is it not possible for a citizens right to bear arms to coexist with gun laws restricting access to guns?
Comment your thoughts.