It’s not hopeless: An expert on what we can do to reduce school shootings – Grid News

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It’s not hopeless: An expert on what we can do to reduce school shootings

Many Americans watched as details emerged of another mass shooting at an elementary school, this time at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, and asked: When will they stop?

Gun reform advocates say the problem is guns — and it’s time for Congress to pass gun control measures. But eliminating this kind of violence requires more than a single-minded approach, according to Ron Avi Astor, professor of social welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a longtime expert on school violence. Astor spoke with Grid about what research has found curbs school violence and what it might require to prevent future tragedies.

If America wants fewer school shootings, we will need to challenge how we view a diverse set of issues including guns, terrorism and mental health, Astor told Grid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Grid: I feel like we are constantly witnessing mass shootings, and mass shootings at schools, and nothing seems to change to prevent them. Why? What could we do?

Ron Avi Astor: There have been shootings in the United States for a long time. There’s been school shootings for decades as well — not all of them were covered by the media. They were framed as gang killings, or as being in the inner city.

What’s happening now is that the media is covering it in a very, very intense way. Everyone in the world — not just the U.S. — knows this is happening just a few minutes after it happens, so there’s a worldwide consciousness now that never existed before. And that’s where we should be — we should be in a place where we’re aware. But with a lot of forms of violence in America, we’ve had a pretty violent past. The world was not more peaceful 50 years ago or 100 years ago. That’s just a myth. It’s not true.

The second big piece of this that’s obvious is that firearms have progressed to the degree where you can kill a whole lot of people, very fast. And they’re mass-produced, and in the U.S. almost anyone who wants one can have one. You have access and availability. In the past if someone wanted to do this, it would be difficult. You’d have a knife, or club, or other weapons that aren’t as lethal. So that’s the second big piece.

There’s a third piece that the media isn’t really talking about: We’ve framed it as deranged individuals [shooting people]; people with mental health problems, people with hate. But we haven’t really looked at this as a form of suicide or homicide in the way that we should. The reason why it’s important is because the individuals who are trying to do this want exactly what you and I are doing now: They want to shake the world, and they want to have their names live forever.


How we cover shooters and how we talk about the victims is a big piece. The research shows us we should be talking about the victims, and not even say the shooter’s name or who they are. Because that actually encourages [shooters] to keep doing it.

The last piece is ideology. If you look at other countries, mass atrocities do happen — namely for political reasons. They happen all over in South America, in parts of the Middle East, where people feel justified for political, social, economic or other reasons to kill innocent people.

Here in the U.S., we don’t talk about this last component very strongly. The fact is that we have a lot of people in this country with ideologies that they believe are true. It could be QAnon, or Aryan Nation stuff — it could be a lot of different things. And I think we haven’t really as a country confronted that last piece as much as we could.

Taking away guns alone wouldn’t do it all. It would make a big difference, but we have to do a very deep moment of self-reflection. All of these issues require deep discussion and reflection about our country and who we want to be. Does being free mean that you are free to take a gun and shoot up an elementary school? Are there prices that we’re just not willing to pay for kids?

Clearly, Sandy Hook did not do it. Parkland did not do it. But at a certain point I’d hope our country would say, “We believe in free speech, but if you’re spreading lies that will cause violence, we’re not going to do that. If you’re buying a gun but just want to shoot whoever you want, whenever you want, we’re not going to do that.”


G: Active shooter drills have become increasingly popular in schools since the Sandy Hook shooting. Do they help keep kids safe?

RA: There’s two really big groups advocating for these policies. One is coming from a law enforcement and security background — they argue for these shooter drills, and they’re very influential. But there are also parents of Parkland kids who have advocated strongly saying we need more of this.

The research is showing that for shooter drills, the long-term effects are not positive for kids. It makes them feel scared, like they’re in prisons. It has negative effects on mental health. For Black kids and kids of color who have maybe had negative experiences with law enforcement, they’re even worse.

When it comes to data, making schools comfortable and welcoming helps. The way I usually talk about it is, if you want to buy a house in a neighborhood and someone says, “Oh that neighborhood has at least 1,000 police officers and a tank and they monitor everything you do,” I don’t necessarily feel more comfortable there.

People want to live where there are gardens and neighbors waving “hi.” When it comes to schools, it’s not that different. You want lots of interconnections with the community. People looking out for kids or positive community groups — you tend to see a safer feeling and lower numbers of violence.

In our studies where we’ve been able to make schools more welcoming, we’ve seen pretty dramatic reductions in violence. Positive, caring, loving and supportive settings overall reduce victimization.

Mass shootings are a little bit different — you have one person who gets access to an AK-47, and they can come into another community. And that’s a problem.

G: We hear over and over that family or law enforcement had considered if a shooter was a threat before that person went on to commit a mass shooting. Why don’t we have better systems for flagging and investigating potential shooters?

RA: Because we’re framing it as one issue. Do they have a right to have a gun? Yes — then move on. Is this person getting any mental health help? Yes — then move on. We should be able to look at all these factors in combination with each other and intervene earlier.

We have very good threat assessment models from people like [University of Virginia Professor] Dewey Cornell. But law enforcement isn’t trained to intervene. When these multiple risk factors are there, we need to be able to act more aggressively — at least when it comes to taking guns. Or we could really educate the public so at least they’ll know that [reporting a potential shooter] is not just getting a friend in trouble. They could be saving a lot of people’s lives.


And the other side is right — there’s a lot of people who have guns who don’t shoot everyone else around. There’s people with mental illness who would never do this. There’s people who are suicidal who are wonderful and would never do this.

G: What does the media get wrong when it comes to covering mass shootings?

RA: I think the media is the biggest driver of the copycat shooters, to be honest with you.

On the one hand, you’re informing us. But I think we should look at how suicide reporting guidelines might be a model when reporting about perpetrators. For a while, I’ve seen CNN and some others focus entirely on the victims and not the perpetrator. But there’s a real instinct to put a lot of energy and time into “figuring out” who the perpetrator is.

I think the media feels they’re reporting it — but they’re actually playing a big, active role over time in terms of encouraging more shootings. Thinking of this as a suicide or a terrorism act might be helpful. I still think you could do a good job covering a story and be looking at the victims, and the suffering.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Maggie Severns
    Maggie Severns

    Domestic Policy Reporter

    Maggie Severns is a policy reporter for Grid covering complex policy stories and major headlines.