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School Shootings: The Symptom or the Disease?

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.

What are the root causes of gun violence in the US?

What are the root causes of gun violence in the US?

What Is the Cause of Gun Violence?

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of Columbine Massacre. This means that every single student who is in school today has never known a world where school shootings were not the norm. How is that affecting the students?

How will it affect them as adults? We can argue about arming teachers, placing retired military personnel in the hallways, having more or fewer guns, and banning video games and rock music, but it seems that all we do is argue. Empty words with no attempt at a solution may make us feel like we’re addressing the problem, but we’ve done enough of that. The time to act was twenty years ago.

Before the Columbine massacre, there were a few school shootings. After Columbine, there were many. The violence couldn’t be contained within the schools, however, and it seems as if it bled out into the rest of society. The violence flowed into our movie theaters, churches, concert halls, and nightclubs.

What on earth is going on with our young men and boys? What drives them to commit, not murder, but mass murder? Easy access to powerful guns is an obvious problem with an obvious solution, but despite overwhelming public support in favor of common sense gun-control, politicians continue to buckle to the lobbyists. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Even if we did ban all guns and prevent criminals from getting guns, we’d be merely putting a band-aid on the problem. Don’t get me wrong—band-aids are useful—but it's better to treat the disease rather than its symptom.

Unfortunately, we can’t seem to agree on the actual causes of the disease. Is it violent video games? Japan has a much bigger gaming culture, but mass shootings there are non-existent. Research has also shown that video games can decrease violent tendencies and help those suffering from PTSD. So, what is it? Is it violent music and movies?

A Culture of Violence

The truth is that our culture is saturated in violence. From the time we’re born until we die, we’re bombarded by death and destruction. Most of the violence we’re exposed to is either read about in books, seen on television, heard about in musical lyrics, or watched on movies. We like our heroes tough, unemotional, and no-nonsense. We want them to get the job done by any means necessary, skirt the law if they must, and kill the bad guy in the end. If a few buildings get blown up along the way, well, all’s the better.

We have a violence problem in America, but we also have a problem with poverty and alienation. Young men who despair for their own future decide to go out in a so-called blaze of glory. They commit suicide by cop or via mass slaughter. Some teenage boys and young men see how cool Vin Diesel looks and conclude that his methods are an option. And while it would be nice if we glorified problem-solving skills and non-violent solutions over destructive barbarism, the problem is more complex than that. We’ve all seen violent movies, the overwhelming majority of people don’t commit mass murder.

A Narrow Definition of Violence

A big part of the problem is our narrow view of violence. Obviously, inflicting physical pain on another individual would fall under that umbrella, but what about ignorance and poverty? Most (not all) instances of domestic abuse occur to people under the poverty line. Stress is a major reason behind that. Young men witness violence inflicted on them or their families and some (not most) grow up with violent tendencies of their own in what’s called an ‘inter-generational chain of violence.’

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This is no secret among those who seek to do harm. ISIS targets young men through social media, and it’s not grown men with stable jobs who join, it’s the young and disenfranchised. Interviews with prisoners in the UK and the US have found similar results; those who joined the IRA in the UK or the white supremacists in the US joined when they were young and lost.

Terrorist organizations know this and specifically target young men and boys who are vulnerable. Programs that help at-risk youth are important, but we need more. As a society we need to remember that we are our brother’s keeper, we should all look out for those who are undergoing difficult times. School shooters, mass murderers, terrorists, and serial killers all have one thing in common—they’re human beings. If we save them while they’re young, because they’re human and deserve to be saved, then we can prevent future victims. Nicholas Cruz gave out a plethora of obvious warning signs. He even went so far as to identify himself as a ‘‘future school shooter.” The police had been called to his house on many occasions, fellow students knew that he needed help. His rampage surprised nobody. Common sense gun control is an obvious solution that most people want, but we need more. We need more counseling in place for troubled youth. We need to get them while they can still turn their life around.

National School Walkout

Today the National School Walkout is planned. All across the country, at 10:00 am, students and teachers will walk out of school for seventeen minutes to honor the lives of the seventeen people killed last month at Stoneman Douglas High School. I, for one, applaud their actions. Columbine happened my senior year of high school. Before Columbine, we were just kids enjoying the spring weather. We couldn’t wait to graduate and enjoy a future that lay before us. After Columbine, though I didn’t attend that school (and indeed, lived over 1,000 miles away from the carnage), everything changed. We were no longer carefree kids who were worried about failing Algebra II. We were kids who were worried about getting shot.

Rather than look out the window and daydream about springtime and lazing about in the sun, we looked at the windows as a place an active-shooter could burst through. We talked about installing metal detectors (now a fact of life) with dread; with those in place, the school would feel even more like a prison to those of us who would rather be anywhere else. What should have been one of the happiest springs of our lives had morphed into an atmosphere of dread. Rumors sprang up about which student would be most likely to snap, the principal interrogated students he thought may have some knowledge of potential threats. School had changed.

Thankfully, there was no shooting at my high school that year. We were lucky. But that atmosphere that had changed for us then has become the norm today. Alongside fire drills, tornado drills, or gas drills, students also do active shooter drills. To them, a world without violence is unknown. All of them have grown up in a world where they could become a casualty of mass violence; be it at school, at the movies, church, or any other public space. This is not fair to them. When I was a child I never imagined that I would be shot, today’s kids plan for it. How is that effecting their psyche? We have no idea how this will shape them as adults because there’s no way to study it, this hasn’t happened before in the history of our country.

One thing for sure though, it will have an effect. Actions in our youth shape us as adults. Putting our children in a place where they fear they may get shot is bound to have a profound effect on them as adults. The odds are high that before the year is out there will be another school shooting, though the odds are low that it will be the school that your children attend. But it will be somebody’s school, it will be somebody’s child huddled under a desk in fear. So far, I’ve focused on the majority of students who attend schools with the mere threat of violence. We know already that students who are survivors of school shootings struggle with PTSD, depression, and other issues. This is unacceptable. Our children deserve to learn in a safe environment. As a country we have failed to demand that. Today, students are taking a stand for it. I could not be more proud of them.


Immediately after Columbine the country was in shock, nobody could believe that such a thing would ever happen. Today we have become numb to it. We sit back and mourn tragedy, after tragedy, after tragedy, but as a culture we do nothing to stop it. We pay lip service to the massacres, stating that we will think about the victims and pray for their families. Still we continue to allow these random acts of mass violence to happen. One of the more devastating ones, Sandy Hook, took the lives of young children and those who watched over them, yet we’ve done nothing to prevent it from happening again. And it has happened again. Many times.

I applaud the children participating in the walkout today, and I’m heartened by the students cum activists in Florida, even while I’m dreadfully sorry that it took yet another massacre to prompt it. Children deserve to go to school without the fear of dying. Parents deserve to send their children off to learn without the haunting question of whether or not they’ll ever see them again. I applaud their efforts while despairing that it’s not enough. We have a gun problem in America, but it’s made worse by our culture. The culture that cheers violence with wild abandon, even as it watches the vulnerable fall through the cracks.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2018 Anna Watson

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