Politicians often seem to act as experts about everything once they are elected.
After the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting, the overwhelming consensus of Governor Greg Abbott and others was that this was a “mental health” problem.
Before I address this claim, the following must be noted.
The month prior to Gov. Abbott saying the Uvalde school shooting was a mental health problem, he diverted $211 million in funds from the state’s Health and Human Services Department (which oversees mental health services) to fund his border security program.
Texas is already the worst in the nation at mental health resources. So, the governor’s talk doesn’t match his walk.
Now to why Gov. Abbott is wrong to blame mental health.
There used to be a saying in the earlier days of weather forecasting that a weather forecaster could be wrong 90% of the time and still have a job. Sadly, that is still true for some politicians.
Of course, one would never ask these folks, “Are you familiar with the research from Jillian Peterson at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and James Densley at Metro State University in Denver?”
Their three-year collaboration has given us a look at the profile of a mass shooter. Their research pulls together the mass shootings in the United States dating back to 1966 forward. This is what they discovered:
First, there is a discernible pathway.
In other words, persons in our communities who are more likely to become mass shooters can be identified. Peterson and Densley have identified the first component as childhood trauma.
It is important to note that not everyone who experiences childhood trauma becomes a mass shooter. If that were the case, there is so much childhood trauma in America today that few of the nation’s citizens would be left alive.
Second, unrecognized, unidentified childhood trauma is overlaid with feeling that take one in the directions of hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing and, perhaps, rejection by peers.
Again, in the early teen years, some of these feelings are a part of the soggy swamp of adolescence in America for everyone.
However, children who have been unsafe and insecure at home can be more vulnerable to such feelings as they move into the turbulent years of adolescence.
What does seem to me a common thread in such a child’s life is the idea that they are unwanted, unprotected and unloved. When they venture out, they are met with (often severe) bullying and rejection by peers.
Self-hatred can turn outward to hate for others. There also becomes a quest for fame and notoriety.
What Peterson and Densley noticed is that it is not unusual for there to have been suicide attempts. However, at some point, it becomes suicide by violence.
In the prison system, it was called “suicide by cop.” The person acted in such a way so as to provoke law enforcement to kill him/her/them.
As best I can tell, school shooters return to the school with which they are familiar. Their rage is focused on the personification of the school as an agent of harm.
All of this research from Peterson and Densley points out that solving mass shootings does not have one neat solution, and it is incorrect to say every shooter is mentally ill.
What is true is our society has created a culture that allows some children to be traumatized, grow up without the resources every child needs as well as face ridicule and humiliation from their peers.
Then, at some point, it becomes too much, and they seek to deal with their trauma in a variety of ways.
The above cited research leads me to several conclusions.
First, not every traumatic childhood produces a mass shooter – often because childhood trauma is not the last word for the child.
Someone connects, someone cares, someone sees and someone intervenes. It could be extended family, a faith group, a vigilant teacher or an after-school program.
I have worked with a number of teens and young adults who have experienced traumatic childhoods. I have worked with older adults who had traumatic childhoods. In fact, more than a few veterans I have worked with cite childhood trauma as the reason they fled to the military service, so we treated the childhood trauma.
What is most helpful to children of childhood trauma is a larger community that is willing to be vigilant in identifying struggling children and adolescents and being relentless in getting them the resources they need.
It would be wonderful if a simple answer was further locking down schools, arming teachers or looking at mental health issues that might lead to mass shootings. But frankly, our culture has become dangerous for children, teens, young adults and the rest of us.
In Texas, that is because we don’t value children, demonstrated by our refusal to do the basic work of keeping children safe and secure.
We devalue children in making public schools a “grudging necessity” while stripping away funding and resources to help each child be as successful as possible.
We continue to operate a dysfunctional foster care system, a chronically underfunded mental health program, a dysfunctional Child Protective Services system and a dysfunctional credentialing system for behavioral health providers.
In addition, we have shrunk Medicaid, leaving many working poor without adequate health care, and allowing working families to struggle financially while filling up the pockets of the wealthy.
Enlarge that kind of thinking, governing and culturing around the United States – a nation that leads the world in gun ownership – and you have a nation that also leads the world in mass shootings.